With this blog I will begin posting the conferences given at our oblate retreat October 7-9, 2011. As you who were present know, the retreat was on the last six degrees or steps of humility as found in chapter seven of the Rule of St. Benedict. For those not able to attend the retreat perhaps you can read them on the blog. This blog includes the first conference only, the seventh and eighth degrees of humility.
Pictured above: On Saturday, October 8, 2011, six new oblates began their novitiate year to prepare for final oblation. Pictured from left to right are Donald Kazmaier, from Larned, KS, Pamela Murphy, from Urbandale, IA, Fr. Kenneth, Lou and Elaine Gardner, from Urbandale, IA and Ron Burson from, Anniston, AL
Pictured above: Six oblates made their final oblation during the retreat on October 8, 2011. Pictured from left to right in the front row are: Donald Costello, from Lincoln, NE, Julia Schenk, from Des Moines, IA, Paul and Sandra Tarro, from North Kansas City, MO. Pictured from left to right in the back row are: Robert Vornberg, from St. Charles, MO, Fr. Kenneth, and Earlene Koons, from Kansas City MO.
Conference 1, Retreat: October 2011 - Introduction and the 7th and 8th degrees of Humility
Way back in the fall retreat of 2008, we talked about the first six degrees of humility. Probably most of us have forgotten what we said at that time. So let’s go back and consider just a bit of what we said at that time.
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.
In the little booklet: Benedict’s Way, by Lonni Collins and Fr. Daniel Homan, OSB, they define humility as follows: “It is that habitual quality where by we live in the truth of things: the truth that we are creatures and not the Creator; the truth that our life is a composite of good and evil, light and darkness; the truth that in our littleness we have been given extravagant dignity….Humility is saying a radical ‘yes’ to the human condition.” Actually this a quote they used from Bishop Robert Morneau. Thomas Merton emphasized that “humility is a virtue, not a neurosis.”
We are dust – we know that, but we are also someone. A desert father is credited as saying that in life we need two stones. One says, “I am a worm,” the other says, “For me the universe was made.” We need to remember both and that, we can say, is humility.
St. Benedict, as we know, has his longest chapter in the Rule on humility. For him it seemed to be basic and is needed before we can acquire any other virtues. Someplace I read within the last year, and I cannot remember where this was, but the writer said that in many ways all the virtues depend on humility and that St. Benedict realized that. Just recently I read a quote from St. Thomas of Villanova, which sort of says the same thing. He says, “Humility is the mother of many virtues because from it obedience, fear, reverence, patience, modesty, meekness and peace are born. One who is humble easily obeys everyone, fears to offend anyone, is at peace with everyone, and is kind to all.” So we find St. Benedict writing more about this than any other topic I believe. When you think of it the statement above is probably true. Take Love for instance which St. Paul says is the greatest gift, how can we love others or even God, without humility. If we think we are perfect, if we think we are the center of the universe we will always see others as lower than us. We will always see ourselves as better, as holier, as stronger, as smarter or whatever and so we cannot truly love unless we first have humility.
So let’s begin and take a look at these last six of the degrees of humility as St. Benedict has them in the Rule. We begin with #7. (read from the Rule, p36)
We can notice that these last six degrees of humility tend to be shorter than the first were. But, that is not to say they are unimportant. First of all, look at your chart that you were given. The different ways different writers designate this degree in one word or a brief phrase. During the discussion on each of these degrees I would ask you to keep in mind what you would call each of these degrees, either using one word, as Father Patrick Cummins, tends to do, or in a brief phrase as Michael Casey and St. Bernard tend to do.
Some have called this 7th degree the most mysterious of the 12 degrees. That in simple truth a man or a woman thinks less of himself or herself, the higher or holier he or she gets. In St. Benedict’s mind he tends to see that the holier we get, the more we realize that God has done so much for us and so we feel, if anything littler. Everything we have, we know is from God. Carol Bonomo, in her book Humble Pie, calls this degree “Littleness.” In the Gospels Jesus tells us, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” Think of it, we can look at Jesus on the cross and say to ourselves, this is God. Yet that very part of him said, learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart. His heart, his human nature, realized that it wasn’t entitled to this; it was a gift from God. As God of course he was everything, but Jesus seemed to realize that his human heart was a gift of his Father, so he was humble. Look at St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, chapter 2. (Go to this, and read it)
I always liked Father Patrick’s ability to bring in nature, or very simple things, to make a point even though he was such a brilliant man. He said about this degree, it’s like a tree in the winter time when the tree has no leaves; it is only ugly and has dry branches. If the tree could speak, if it had reason, it would say, now you see me as I really am just brush and dry branches. God gives me all my beauty in the summer; of myself I am only dry and ugly. The same holds for us, Father Patrick would say, of ourselves we so are ugly and dry. Realizing and really believing this in our heart is real humility and is the truth. Of course we also know we are beautiful, but that is the gift of God to each of us. We are God’s beloved.
Just a word in conclusion, there is a difference between humility and humiliation. Sometimes we can get the idea that if we are humiliated we are holy and some even seek for humiliations. I think we have to be careful about this. For example, to make a mistake on purpose in order to suffer the humiliation can be pride rather than humility. Humiliations are not opposed to humility. It can be an important source of humility or it can be a source of pride. Look at anyone who slips in the snow, for example. Almost immediately we will look around to see if anyone saw us. If no one saw us, we think “Thank God” but in reality other people seeing us could be a source of realizing our humanness and a source of humility - presuming of course that we did not get hurt. In that case we better hope someone saw us. For the most part humiliations will come enough in our lives without our going out to look for them. Thomas A. Kempis in The Imitation of Christ suggests: “If you want to learn an art worth knowing, you must set out to be unknown and to count for nothing.” In our culture we tend to climb the ladder, but not always the ladder of humility. Everyone wants to get ahead of his or her neighbor, to make more money, to become the boss, to have better clothes, a bigger car, etc . . . . We can, in the end, try to do more than we are able and fall to the bottom.
Michael Casey points out that this degree is not the same as a low self-image. He says that it is a deliberate and sustained effort to be rid of the persistent delusion that I am guiltless. My trust must always be in God. My neediness is the counterpart of the divine abundance.
Let’s move on now to the 8th degree. – read from page 37 or the Rule.
Nothing really seems terribly difficult in this degree, but in some ways it is more difficult than the 7th degree. Here, we are told by some at least, that St. Benedict changes from the spiritual degrees and adopts a new line of thought. Here he changes more to the physical degrees, those pertaining more primarily to the body. In other words St Benedict is saying that humility of the heart must express itself visibly in the body until the external expression is really conformed to that humility of heart. Until then it is very imperfect. To be really humble we must be so inside and show it on the outside.
This degree means that we must try to be one of the family, so people can know us by our spirit. It means fitting ourselves into the community, adjusting ourselves to it. It means doing what we are supposed to do, not what we think would be more profitable. For a monk it means doing only what the common rule or example of the superiors dictate to us. We do not try to stand out just to be different or just to be noticed. As a Benedictine, either as a monk or as an oblate, we will become holy by living the Benedictine life – not by trying to follow other religious leaders such as St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius Loyola or others. They are also good of course but we claim to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and cannot or should not forget that in our daily lives.
This degree has caused some problems with some leaders. It seems like St. Benedict is saying the status quo must always prevail. In other words, a monk or a Benedictine oblate is always to do what is endorsed by the common rule, so nothing ever changes. Obviously things do change in the monastery and in the observance of the Rule. But, here Benedict is saying it is most important that we try to follow the custom of the house that is there. If someone comes into our monastery and starts advocating that we drop the Liturgy of the Hours, of course we are going to say to him that he needs to conform to the custom of house and the custom of the Rule or find another place to go. Father Michael Casey, in his book on Humility, says that young people today do not see why they should model their behavior on that of others or be influenced by community precedent. He says that there is no need to try to change such an attitude immediately but that change will come with experience. So this degree of humility can be a challenge for these young people. They can see this degree as simply a place where the need for self-expression will become less.
Father Casey relates the following story: “I once heard an interview with the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. The conductor upon being asked if he were an elitist replied, no, I am a super elitist. He explained further that he would not admit into his orchestra any who did not fulfill two essential conditions. They must have the music within them and they must play in time with others. Monastic life is perhaps the same – we must be in contact with our own unique sources of inspiration, but simultaneously we need to trim the expression of our own gifts so that there is no discord with others. It is harmony that is the ideal of a Benedictine community, not conformity, or uniformity.”
It is so easy for any of us to separate ourselves from any community, including our family, friends or fellow workers.
In closing I would like to quote from St. Bernard of Clairvaux in his treatise On the Steps of Humility and Pride -- go to page 156 of the book “Living in the Truth” by Michael Casey.