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A Medieval Monk’s 12 Steps to Deeper Humility

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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.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. Yes, it often takes years, even decades, of patient and persistent action, for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.

5. Disclosure of the heart: As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

Making this journey requires a lot of humility, as we recognize our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities.  We must often uncover unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. And in that place of our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy, or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a very humbling, but necessary journey, as we continue to come down from the mountain of pride.

6. Contentedness with what is: Contentedness is a form of acceptance and is a very great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:

External contentedness is rooted in the capacity to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that we don’t prefer for a reason and a season. Acceptance does not connote approval of everything. Indeed there are many things in the world that we ought not approve of. But acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully according to our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. And even in those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them quickly or even at all right now. Jesus told a parable about the wheat and tares and cautioned us not to act precipitously to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. In pride, we demand that our agenda, our menu be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with gratefully accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”

7. Lucid self-awareness: In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

But as we continue down the mountain of pride, fearing the Lord, submitting our will to His in docility and obedience, being more honest about what is in the deep recesses of our heart, our disordered drives and unrealistic agendas, we become increasingly prepared to embrace true humility.

Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.

With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves more the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). This is because, as we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be, and our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do, and how we interact with God and others. But we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.

8. Submission to the common rule: The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

But as our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others and understand that we must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches that the world does not revolve around me and what I want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than my own. Humility helps me to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws exist most often to protect the common good. Humility also makes me more willing to submit my personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

9. Silence: Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say, or that what he has to say is more important. But as humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

10. Emotional sobriety: Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened. For fear begets anger.

And, as we saw yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered.

But as we now grow deeper in humility we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.
Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, rumor, and so forth. We are less stirred up by the machinations of advertisers and less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the cable news marketers. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us.

The humble person trusts God more and is thus not easily unsettled by all these mental machinations. And it is thoughts that generate feelings.

Thus as our thought life becomes more measured, and our conclusions more humble and careful, our emotions are less volatile and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.

This is a very great gift to seek and cultivate by God’s grace.

11. Restraint in speech: As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, we see that serenity reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are content to stay in the conversation or to just sow seeds and leave the harvest for later or even for others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking and we are more able and content to speak the truth in love, with clarity, and also with charity.

12. Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside: We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word “hypocritas” refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role that is not really who they are.

The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. But as humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because, by the gift of humility, we open ourselves to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete.  Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. And as we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.

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