Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

On Humility

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


"...the faithful must endure everything, even contradiction, for the Lord's sake..."
Rule of St. Benedict 7.38

When I was a young junior monk, I wasn't too awfully fond of chapter 7 of the holy Rule, the chapter on humility. I felt not a little internal conflict because, after all, I was trying really hard to practice being a monk, and hopefully succeed at finding a home in this place, with these men. But, certain parts of chapter 7 were rather daunting for me to embrace.

I grew up with four brothers, and the five us seemed to be constantly vying for the attention and approval of our parents. For me, the middle son, striving to live up to the physical exploits of two older brothers, both of whom were gifted athletes, was a non-starter for a kid who was more introspective and musically inclined. My older brothers were able competitors, so I felt a little "second-string" as compared to them for much of my adolescence.

So, the thought of embracing a rule of life that prescribes that I "be content with the lowest and most menial treatment," and regard myself "as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task I am given," as the sixth step of humility states; or worse, the seventh step, where I am to "admit and be convinced in my heart that I am inferior to all, and of less value, truly a worm and no man," was for me beyond daunting. It was downright anxiety provoking and brought back self-esteem issues that I assumed I was over when I climbed out of adolescence!

Of course, such self-deprecation is exactly what St. Benedict's chapter on humility is not really about, but it took some years of living the life of a monk to get to a point where I could see that. Humility for Benedict is a word that, far from merely meaning self-effacement or self-deprecation, really describes the condition of a person who, "without effort … out of love for Christ," delights in virtue (RB 7.69), and thus builds communion by cultivating right relationships.

Michael Casey, the Trappist (Cistercian Benedictine) scholar and commentator on the Rule of St. Benedict, writes that humility is a precondition for being receptive to grace, the only way virtue (habitual goodness) can exist in a person, and, at the same time, an indication that a person is open and receptive to the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Humility, love and freedom are intimately related. St. Benedict quotes John's first letter (4:18) when he describes the pinnacle of his Ladder of Humility as where "the perfect love of God casts out fear." Love and fear are mutually exclusive as modes of relationship among persons.

"Right relationship" is rooted in authentic love. When one is finally at a point where love is "perfected," then one is wholly free from the fear that inhibits one's ability to love in the Christ-like way of the cross - that is, to lay down one's will, one's preferences, even immature needs for approval, attention, control, and whatever else we think makes us feel more secure, or more loved, for the sake of genuine, nurturing relationships.

Perfect  love, Benedict notes, is the love of God - God's  way of loving - which will be "perfected" or fully realized in us when we arrive at eternal life in the Kingdom of God. In a sense, one could say God's love becomes our mode of loving when communion with God is perfected.

In other words, when one is at the summit of humility, one realizes perfectly the God-likeness of one's self - one's truth - as fashioned in the image and perfect freedom of Divine Love. The summit of humility is our heavenly exaltation (RB 7.5), our participation in God's perfect love and eternal life - which is anything but humiliating!


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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.