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Oblate Blog: August 25, 2011

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I have been doing some work preparing for the oblate retreat on the weekend of October 7-9, 2011. This retreat will consider the last six degrees of humility in St. Benedict’s Rule, chapter 7. At the October, 2008 retreat we considered the first six degrees of humility, some of the oblates also made contributions to the conferences at that time. Since many of you were not able to be present for the retreat in 2008, and many will not be here for the retreat this October, 2011, I thought I would publish the conferences from the 2008 retreat as part of the oblate blog and then after the retreat this year I will also publish those conferences as part of the oblate blog.

Fr. Kenneth

Chapter 7 of the Rule of St. Benedict: On Humility – Conference 1, October, 2008

As we begin to talk about humility, I suppose the first thing to do is ask ourselves: what is humility? There is an old phrase you sometimes hear: I’m proud of my humility, which I suppose is a contradiction. I think most of us would agree that humility is a beautiful quality to find in a person. It is a characteristic feature of those who have not forgotten their roots. The very word "humility" is related to the word humus which is the Latin for earth or dirt. A humble person then is down to earth; they are not alienated from their own nature. They accept their origins and are content to be what they are.

Those who are humble experience no shame. They do not need lies and evasions to inflate their importance in the eyes of their associates, or to buttress their self esteem. They have overcome the tendency to regard others as competitors or rivals and so they work with whatever they have and waste no time envying those who possess different qualities. The humble are equally content with both the gifts and the limitations that come from their nature or their personal history. Humility brings with it a fundamental happiness that is able to cope with external difficulties and sorrows. The humble are those who Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount: the poor in spirit, the meek, and the oppressed. Jesus himself of course is the model of this quality to which we give the name humility. Growth in humility can be said to be powered by the simple desire to become like Christ.

Humility is perhaps not seen as a desirable virtue by many today. Many would not agree with St. Benedict in making humility the very heart of his presentation of the way to God. Deliberately seeking lowliness does not seem something we should seek after, at least for those of us in modern times.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux clearly affirms that humility is grounded in truth; truth within oneself, in one’s relations with others and with regard to God. This is, in a way, a more positive way of approaching humility, and one which enables us to appreciate its importance. The truth is that we are all creatures, created by God and all given gifts and talents to use. The truth is that our brothers and sisters have also been created by God and have gifts and talents. The truth is that God is the creator and if I am blessed with what seems like more gifts than someone else, then that is a gift from God. We acknowledge the gift but remember it is a gift. St. Bernard wrote: "The pursuit of empty things amounts to a contempt for the truth, and it is this contempt for the truth that causes blindness." Truth filled living is the soul of humility. In the Garden of Eden the first temptation succeeded because it promised that we should become gods. This desire is the essence of pride. We want to deny our earthly origins with their consequences of vulnerability, weakness, labor, social constraint and limitation. The recognition of our earthly nature leads us to affirm that our fundamental relationship with God is one of dependence. To remember this is to be humble.

St. Benedict compares the degrees of humility to a ladder. He says: "Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend."

The first step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it. He must constantly remember everything God has commanded, keeping in mind that all who despise God, will burn in hell for their sins, and all who fear God have everlasting life awaiting them," St. Benedict spends the most time on this first degree. In the outline I gave you Fr. Patrick named this degree recollection and this was what I was taught as a novice. Fr. Michael Casey called it: fear of the Lord, making a serious effort to live a good life and St. Bernard called it a holy fear of God that should help us keep from sin throughout our life.

St. Benedict was attempting to translate the New Testament exhortation to humility into behavior terms. Jesus instructed his disciples to imitate him in being "meek and gentle of heart," but what does this mean in practice? So the monastic teachers, including St. Benedict, began to formulate signs or symptoms that the process of conversion and transformation was under way. The various signs or indicators were considered to mark stages in the journey from fear to love. The ladder is a traditional monastic way of describing stages of development.

St. Benedict builds on another monastic writer who lived about two centuries before him; namely, John Cassian who died about 435. John Cassian composed a book of Institutes for the monastic communities he had founded. Here Cassian says: "The beginning and end of our salvation as well as its safeguard is fear of the Lord. It is through this that those who give themselves to the way of perfection acquire the beginning of conversion, the cleansing of vices, and the safeguarding of virtues." Fear of the Lord is perhaps difficult for us to understand but it is the foundation on which many of the early monastic writers based their thoughts and writings. We begin with fear of the Lord and end with love.

As I said when I was a novice we gave the name of this first degree recollection. In other words to avoid all forgetfulness, to live in the presence of God and to see all things as God sees them. To see things according to their true value and to see all this more and more continuously. Our novice master used the seed to illustrate this first degree of humility. The seed is put into the ground; it is a picture of recollection. It’s a very insignificant thing, it’s very silent and so are we when we are recollected. The little seed has the power or the potential to become a tremendous tree or plant and so each of us also has that power and potential. The seed needs nourishment and moisture and sunshine and so we need the grace of God. The great desire of the seed is toward the sun. We put it under the ground but it wants out in the sun. So must our tendency be to seek the light of God. In order for the seed to accomplish this need it has to die to itself. So also for us, just as the seed has to die in order to change its old nature and in order to go towards the sun, so do we have to die in order to throw off our old nature and so reach God. So to be recollected we need to do what the seed does – hiddeness, silence, death etc. The fear of God is a help in our doing this. It’s trying to be constantly aware of God’s presence. It’s not a fear that keeps us away from God but a fear that helps make us aware of God’s presence.

Recollection always seeks to make aware that all things were made by God. It’s a way of forgetting self and looking at God. A constant searching for the will of God.