Chapter seven of The Rule of Saint Benedict is completely dedicated to humility and how a monk should be humble. According to Saint Benedict, there are twelve degrees of humility. The degrees of humility are of varying levels of easiness, practicality, and to be honest, creepiness. While I admit this is an ethnocentric worldview, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the way Saint Benedict phrases things as well as with his desire for his monks to have blind, unquestioning obedience no matter what they are told.
My feelings of uneasiness are emphasized when I think about abuse in the Catholic Church. I can easily see how a superior in a monastery could take advantage of this particular text and use it for nefarious purposes. That being said, not all of the text in this chapter is problematic. Some of it is quite mundane and other parts consist of wise advice.
Saint Benedict doesn’t jump into the degrees right away. Instead, there is a long introductory paragraph instructing monks how to worship humbly and the importance of doing so. It can be summed up with this quote:
‘”Every one[sic] that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he who humbleth himself shall be exalted.”‘ (pg. 25)
Basically, don’t pray or act for the sake of glory. Neither should you pray to show off your self proclaimed holiness. You aren’t being holy when you do so. You are being self-righteous. If you do pray just to show off, beware. Bad things will come your way. In contrast, if you are humble with your prayers and good deeds, God knows and you will be praised.
After the preface, Saint Benedict explains the first degree of humility. Compared to the other degrees, this one is pretty lengthy. In my translation, there are four paragraphs discussing it. (This is a lot of text for a book that is only eighty-six pages long and has seventy-three chapters.) In the first paragraph, Saint Benedict tells his monkish reader to “always [keep] the fear of God before his eyes” (pg. 26). In doing so, Heaven will be “prepared for them” (pg. 26). Saint Benedict is aware that constant fear often leads to hate. To get around this unfortunate consequence, the text threatens “that those who despise God will be consumed in hell for their sins” (pg. 26).
The second paragraph consists of more fear-mongering. We are reminded that God is always watching over everything we do. So how exactly does God watch every single human being on Earth at every second of the day? Surely He has better things to do. Saint Benedict explains that instead of God personally watching over us, our actions (good and bad) “are every hour reported to Him by His angels” (pg. 26). This is a good answer to (almost) every Catholic child’s ponderings over the practical logistics of God’s surveillance of humanity. Because God or His angels are keeping an eye on you, it is best to “be on…guard against evil thoughts” (pg. 26). God’s surveillance reminds a monk to be humble so he can be “unspotted before Him” (pg. 26).
The Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Six Angels (watching you) | Source: Photo taken by Viktor Athelstan at The Louvre Museum
Even with God always watching, in the third paragraph the reader is told that “[w]e are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture” (pg. 27). However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will. Instead, ‘”[t]here are ways which to men seem right, but the ends…lead to the depths of hell”‘ (pg. 27). What Saint Benedict is saying is that while you may think what you are doing is good and holy, in reality, you very well be sinning. To avoid sin (and thus be humble) it’s important that you do what God wants. This is especially the case when it comes to “desires of the flesh” (pg. 27).
The fourth paragraph goes in-depth about the dangers of “evil desires” (pg. 27). Saint Benedict warns his reader ‘”[g]o not after thy concupiscences“‘ (pg. 27) and repeats that God’s angels are always watching. In short, a monk should always fear God. You can’t be properly humble if you don’t.
The second degree of humility basically says to always do God’s will. A monk should not “delight in gratifying his own desires” (pg. 27). Instead, he needs to be subordinate to what God wants. In doing so, his “reward…will be a crown of glory hereafter” (footnote on pg. 27).
The third degree of humility is once again about subordination. However, instead of subordination to God, a monk should “submit himself to his superior in all obedience” (pg. 28). In doing so, he will be “imitating the LORD” (pg. 28).
Virgin and kneeling monk | BL Sloane 278, f. 7 | Source: PICRYL.com
The fourth degree of humility wants monks to endure all hardships patiently. While this sentiment might be a good way to tell your monks to stop complaining, my translation’s phrasing gives this part of the text some creepy undertones. The connotations of many of the words are extremely violent. These words and phrases include (but are not limited to!) “injuries,” “afflicted,” “death,” “slaughter,” “tried by fire,” “snare,” “tribulation,” and “adversities” (pg. 28). I was curious if these violent connotations were just a result of my translator’s word choice. I looked at another translation and the connotations are extremely similar. (You can find the link to that PDF under ‘Other Sources’ at the end of this article.) The sentence at the beginning of this section particularly alarmed me:
“…that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in…” (pg. 28).
Telling your monks to suck up their pain may be good if all of their complaints relate to little things (e.g. bad tasting food, uncomfortable beds, tonsure makes their head look weird) but it can get dangerous if it is used to ignore bigger concerns. Like in any other living space, problems will inevitably arise from clashing personalities. Telling a monk who is being severely bullied or even abused to “bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them” as it will “secure…their hope of the divine reward” (pg. 28) isn’t productive. It is the same as sweeping everything under the rug because that is easier to do than deal with the actual problem. And eventually, that problem will boil over into a bigger issue.
The fifth degree of humility is to always confess your sins. A humble monk wouldn’t “hide from one’s Abbot any…evil thoughts” nor would he hide “the sins committed in secret” (pg. 28). Instead, he would “humbly confess them” (pg. 28). Admitting your wrongdoings keeps you from getting too big for your britches. You aren’t perfect and God knows if you’ve done bad things. What’s the point of trying to hide them from Him?
The sixth degree of humility reminds monks “to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything” and to “esteem himself a bad and worthless laborer” (pg. 29). While the latter certainly won’t be great for anyone’s self-esteem, the former can be quite helpful. After all, if you’ve willingly become a monk you shouldn’t expect to be living large. Instead, you should be content to live with little like Christ.
The seventh degree of humility also is not fantastic for anyone’s self-esteem:
“…he should not only call himself with his tongue lower and viler than all, but also believe himself in his inmost heart to be so…” (pg. 29)
Even though hating and thinking badly of yourself isn’t a healthy way to think, this mindset certainly will keep you humble. You can’t be proud if you consider yourself worthless. That being said, this is another degree that can be dangerous if taken to the extreme. Especially when Saint Benedict encourages his monkish readers to think, “‘I am a worm and no man”‘ (pg. 29). I can easily see how a monk may spiral into depression (or melancholy) if he isn’t careful with thoughts like this.
The next few degrees are extremely short.
The eighth degree of humility is just to follow the rules. A monk needs to “do nothing except what is authorized” (pg. 29).
The ninth degree of humility is to only speak until spoken to. A monk should keep “silent until a question [is] asked him” (pg. 29). It’s also a short summary of chapter six which I’ve written more about here.
The tenth degree of humility is don’t laugh. A monk shouldn’t laugh because ‘”The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter”‘ (pg. 29).
A Fool | BL Royal 19 D III, f. 266 | Source: PICRYL.com
The eleventh degree of humility is to speak “gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech” (pg. 29). Basically, a humble monk doesn’t talk a lot and when he does, he gets to the point right away.
The twelfth degree of humility is to not only act humble but to look humble too. A monk “in his very exterior, [should] always show his humility to all who see him” (pg. 30). So how does one do this? Well…
“…that is, in the work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the field, or wherever he may be, whether sitting, walking or standing, with head always bent down, and eyes fixed on the earth, that he ever think of the guilt of his sins…” (pg. 30)
By looking humble as well as acting humble a monk can be a good example to others.
Saint Benedict ends this chapter with a closing paragraph. Here he says that if a monk can achieve all of these degrees of humility and not stray from them he no longer has to “dread…hell” and through “the love of Christ” he will be “cleansed from vice and sin” (pg. 30).
The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.
(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)
Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here. (Accessed on February 14, 2020.)
Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check the translation.