Probably the most difficult challenge for focused, self-disciplined, achievement-oriented people on their path to God’s kingdom is giving up control of our own ambitions in order to take up our cross and follow Christ. However, our own will often stands in the way of God’s will. Proverbs 16 tells us that sometimes there is a way that seems to us to be right, “but in the end it is the way to death,” and Christ himself taught “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

In his Rule, Benedict states, “The first step of humility…is that we keep the reverence of God always before our eyes” (RSB 7). Michael Casey points out that those who have truly encountered God are filled with a sense of wonder at the mystery and, simultaneously, confounded by a sense of their own insignificance. 

He continues, “This sense of littleness is what opens us up to be filled with the gifts of God, a God who looks with favor on the humility of God’s servants. Humility is not primarily a social virtue, the opposite of arrogance.  It is the necessary consequence that follows an encounter with the loving holiness of God.  After that it doesn’t matter much what status others assign to us.”[1]

Benedict’s chapter on humility is the longest and—Esther DeWaal argues—the most crucial of the chapters in the Rule. [2] And I think her claim makes sense. It is humility that enables us to submit to those in authority, listen with “the ear of the heart,” offer hospitality, take our turn in the kitchen, become a servant leader, restrain our speech, tend the sick and the elderly, pray. 

The derivation of the word humility is from the Latin humus, the ground or earth. In DeWaal’s words, it means “to be earthed, centered, grounded.” Laura Swan describes it as becoming very real, moving toward our true self made in the image and likeness of Christ. [3] It is a state of being that should appeal to all of us. 

  1.  Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2019).
  2. Esther DeWaal, A Life-giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 57.
  3. Laura Swan, Engaging Benedict: What the Rule Can Teach Us Today. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 72.

Published by Stephen Isaacson

Stephen Isaacson is Prior of the Cornerstone Community, a lay Benedictine group within Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. He has served in many other roles in the Cathedral and is currently the Co-coordinator of Outreach Ministries at the Cathedral. Prior to his involvement with Outreach or the Cornerstone Community, Steve was Professor of Special Education at Portland State University, where he also served as Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education. During his career in academia, he authored a number of juried publications and instructional materials.

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