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A Medieval Monk’s 12 Steps to Deeper Humility



Msgr. Charles Pope - published on 02/28/15

Timeless insights into the human heart

In yesterday’s post, we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider in today’s post. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in bold, but the commentary on each step is shown in plain text and represents my own poor reflections. Take what you like and leave the rest. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing his book Steps of Humility and Pride.

1. Fear of God: To fear the Lord is to hold God in awe. It is to be filled with wonder and awe at all God has done, and at who He is.

Cringing, servile fear is not recommended here. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride.

It is a look to God, and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies, that begins to break our pride. 

Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).  To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord, seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside and upward from myself to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

2. Abnegation of self-will: In the garden, Jesus said to his father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). And this is what abnegation of the will means. It means to be willing to surrender my will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to subsume mine.

Pride demands to do what it pleases and to determine whether it is right or wrong. But in this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

But on the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to God, and to submit to His vision for us.

3. Obedience: And now, having attained a more humble disposition of heart, we are more able and willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying God’s holy will, to being willing to surrender our stubborn wills to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to  execute that will, to obey and put into action the will of God. And thus the descent of the mountain of pride begins, toward the freedom of children of God, little by little.

4. Patient endurance: Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride and striving to hear and understand God’s will and to obey Him, one can surely expect obstacles, both internally and externally.

Our flesh, that is, our sinful nature, does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. Our flesh resists prayer, resists being submitted to anything other than its own wishes and desires. And thus, internally, we suffer resistance from our sinful nature.

But little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.

Externally, too, we often encounter resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps old friends seek to seduce us back to former ways. Perhaps, too, the structures of our pride remain standing, structures such as willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intentions: to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

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