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Universally Accessible and Innately Personal: The Significance of Relationship in St. Benedict’s Humility

By Elizabeth Elin

In a world fraught with desperation and insecurity, humility appears to be an antiquated virtue, frequently discarded due to its destructive effect on self-esteem. Today, it seems that humility is commendable only when coupled with a strong sense of personal freedom. Michael Casey, a Benedictine monk, writes that, for contemporary Western audiences, “the idea of ‘humility’ evokes the image of a moral tyranny which imparts only fear, guilt, and an abiding sense of failure. It has nothing of encouragement or warmth to offer, only a carping insistence on human sinfulness.”[1] It initially seems that this dour humility is precisely what Benedict envisioned in the Rule of St. Benedict (RB). Ostensibly, Benedict’s chapter on humility appears to promote an unbalanced life. A humility that praises someone “content with the lowest and most menial treatment” (RB 7.49), someone who is “convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value” (RB 7.51), and someone who judges “himself always guilty on account of his sins” (RB 7.64) does not look to be compatible with self-esteem. The life that Benedict illumines seems harshly ascetic and devoid of joy; the humility that he extols seems unattainable and impractical. Yet, for Benedict, humility is not a virtue we acquire, but a relationship with God we deepen throughout life.

The disconnect between Benedict and his audience, though, arises from the incongruity between ancient and modern humility. It is not the Rule, but the anachronistic tendency to interpret it with a purely contemporary eye, that is dangerous. In recognizing that Benedict’s humility is not modern humility, we are fully able to enter his text. It is relationship that defines Benedict’s overarching vision of humility, an insight seen more clearly in reading the Rule of St. Benedict (RB) alongside another similar ancient Rule, the Rule of the Master (RM).

Benedict’s pervasive infusion of Scripture into the Rule serves more than a superficially instructive purpose. In RB 7, Benedict describes a ladder of humility, an image with biblical precedent.[2] This image is also universally accessible; because a ladder cannot stand without being fully rooted in the ground, the ladder of humility signifies the deep grounding of a humble monk. The ladder’s roots extend up through its sides and serve as a link between earth and heaven, denoting “a renewing of the covenant with Abraham,” and serving as a reminder of God’s sweeping love for humanity.[3] The ladder is thereby a tangible reminder of the earthliness of humanity balanced with inherent divinity. As such, it invites each person to not only experience God’s grace, but also to enter the covenants.

Since covenants entail mutuality, as the monk grows in relationship with God, he is grounded by and interacts personally with God. Because the journey towards humility is an invitation to the covenants, then, the monk develops his personal relationship with God as he ascends the ladder. During the journey, he further delves into the timelessly universal covenants just as the Israelites did centuries prior. Indeed, the turn from the promissory Abrahamic Covenant to the reciprocal Sinai Covenant, a turn which allows the monk to forge a more personal relationship with God, is echoed in the first rung of humility, where “Benedict changes the word spectat to expectat and thus emphasizes that God has expectations of us, giving us time and again opportunities to change for the better.”[4]

Though Benedict accentuates the responsibility of each person who climbs the ladder, this is not an insurmountable challenge, but an invitation to grow in faith. Indeed, Benedict particularly spotlights his devotion to the richness of the journey in this first rung of humility. The relationship that the monk cultivates with God blossoms not from the last step of humility, but from the first – it is a result of merely beginning the journey.

That Benedict finds the monk’s relationship with God paramount is evident in how he changes the Master’s phrase, “Exaltation descends and humility ascends,” (RM 10.7) to “we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility” (RB 7.7). The Master’s “exaltation descends” means that the ladder is inherently impersonal, as the monk lacks autonomy to ascend and descend. Here Benedict again emphasizes the turn from promissory to reciprocal covenant, not only by streamlining the structure of the Master’s clauses, but also by changing his phrasing to accentuate the monk’s actions. Undeniably, the monk is unable to cultivate a relationship with God without specifically pursuing it. Benedict ensures that this personal relationship with God is accessible to all by delineating how, exactly, the monk is to ascend the ladder — with the humility he goes on to lay out in the entire the chapter. Indeed, though the ladder itself represents the Abrahamic covenant, the ascent of its rungs signifies the monk’s growth and the resulting development of relationship from universal to personal.

In the next verse, Benedict changes the Master’s active “erigat” (it may lift up, RM 10.8) to the passive “erigatur” (may be lifted up, RB 7.8). In doing so, he also changes the subject of this verb from the ladder to God; God is the ultimate source of all actions. Benedict visualizes an involved God who lifts the ladder, and therefore the monk, towards heaven. Though the monk must choose to embark on the journey, the ladder cannot lift itself to God, as it does in the RM. Benedict thereby underscores our inherent dependency upon God.

Whereas Benedict emphasizes the monk’s actions in RB 7.7, in RB 7.8, he highlights God’s actions. The relationship which he envisions between the monk and God, then, is truly reciprocal. For the monk, this relationship catalyzes a deeper love of Christ, which drives his thoughts and actions. The Master fails to view the monk as motivated primarily by love of Christ, writing that monks should be motivated by very love of this good habit and because of delight in virtue.” Benedict, however, was unsatisfied with these tepid motivations and “thus he made a decisive addition by saying ‘out of love for Christ.’”[5] In RB it is obvious that the monk is motivated not just by virtue but by love of Christ. This stems from the deeply personal relationship Benedict lauds, a relationship nonexistent in the RM. Benedict’s attention towards the actions of both the monk and Christ forms a truly reciprocal relationship that illustrates the accessibility of his Rule.

The mutuality of the monk’s relationship with God is particularly prominent in the sixth step of humility. It is one that modern readers find the most repulsive since it calls for the monk to think of himself as utterly insignificant. Yet, in the Latin, this step ends with “tecum” (with you), underscoring the unity between God and humanity. The monk is never alone despite the inherently deep abyss between him and God. The placement of “tecum” at the very end of the phrase further emphasizes the strength of God’s love for humanity and our radical dependence upon God. Because God is omniscient, the Rule dictates that the monk is to “always ponder that God looks down on him from heaven at every hour and that his actions in every place are seen by God’s eye” (RB 7.13). The God Benedict describes here actively pursues a relationship with each individual person. He does not merely watch from heaven, however, but is “present in our innermost being” when he tests our hearts in RB 7.14.[6]

Unquestionably, then, God immerses himself in human lives, nurturing the heart of each person. Such an intimate relationship requires the monk’s humility, which allows him to accept his need for God’s presence in his life. Humility is therefore not the degradation of the self, but the development of a personal relationship with God. Likewise, the more the monk fosters his relationship with God, the more painfully aware he becomes of the chasm between him and God. Humility and relationship with God, then, are intricately linked and inseparable.

The link between humility and relationship with God is not one-dimensional, though, but symbiotic. Because humility is not an acquisition but an experience of God’s grace, the ladder that Benedict envisions is not prescriptive but descriptive. There is no singular image that can completely capture the steps of the individual; each monk’s quest for humility, in other words, will differ from those of his fellow monks. The steps of humility represent the challenges that he will face on the journey, not in the sense of acquisition, but in the sense of individual difficulties. Rather, Benedict’s ladder describes what will happen in time as the monk journeys toward humility. The descriptive character of the ladder is clear in how Benedict changes the Master’s specific depiction of the monk’s actions to a generalized depiction of the ladder rungs. While the Master, for example, writes, “Then the disciple ascends the first step of humility on the heavenly ladder” (RM 10.10), Benedict writes that the first step of humility, then, is…” (RB 7.10). The Master lays out the order by which the monk will climb the rungs because he envisions the ladder as the singular way for the monk to grow in his humility. Since Benedict, however, merely lists the steps, it is the monk’s prerogative to ascend them. The rungs epitomize this journey and are not a harsh prescription of the monk’s actions throughout life.

In firmly laying out the steps that the monk takes to advance his humility, the Master reveals that he does not have the same trust in his monks that Benedict does. Indeed, the Master distrusts the monk to ascend without explicit instruction, while simultaneously assuming the journey is unmarred by difficulties. Whereas RM is ambiguous, the directness of RB mirrors the directness of the reciprocal relationship that the monk forges with Christ. Though Benedict also does not wish for the monk to descend the ladder, he recognizes that in order to nurture his relationship with God, the monk must retain his autonomy to both ascend and descend freely. Lacking this implicit trust, the Master cannot give the monks the same responsibility. This lack of personal relationship with Christ is what prevents the monk from being motivated primarily by love of God atop the ladder of humility.

Defined not by the destruction of self-esteem but by the cultivation of relationship with God, Benedict’s humility is no doubt different from the current conception of humility. This relationship, which pervades his ladder of humility, is both an echo of centuries past and a personal invitation to the covenants. Christian humility, then, is neither obsolete nor dangerous. Rather, it is, perhaps paradoxically, both universally accessible and innately personal, applicable both to Benedict’s monasteries and to the modern world.

Elizabeth Elin is a rising sophomore at Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, PA) majoring in theology. A member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, she lives in Terrace Park, OH.



[1] Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict’s Teaching on Humility (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 2001), 2.

[2] Aquinata Böckmann, From the Tools of Good Works to the Heart of Humility: A Commentary on Chapters 4-7 of Benedict’s Rule, trans. Marianne Burkhard and Andrea Westkamp, ed. Marianne Burkhard (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 141.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 163. (RM 10.41, RB 7.30).

[5] Ibid., 213.

[6] Ibid., 154.


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