Crescent Hill Baptist Church

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Crescent Hill Baptist Church Louisville, Kentucky Pentecost 20 September 28, 2008 W. Gregory Pope

SERIES: The New Monasticism CLIMBING BENEDICT’S LADDER OF HUMILITY
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32 We continue on our search to learn from monastic spirituality and the Rule of St. Benedict, thinking of the church as an abbey and monastery and ourselves as monks and nuns in the world. Today the subject is humility. The longest chapter in St. Benedict’s Rule is on humility. Of all the words that he uses to describe the proper posture for a life that becomes the gospel, humility is the one word, the one trait that he comes back to again and again. Benedict bases his writings on the words of Jesus who said,“Whoever exalt themselves shall be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves shall be exalted.” The root of humility is the Latin word humus, which means “soil” or “earth.” To be humble is to be down-to-earth. It is an acknowledgment of our connectedness to the earth. The temptation for Adam and Eve was to give up being of the humus - humble and human - and to become gods, the ultimate act of pride. This lack of humility and humanity was their downfall. Their story is played out in the life of every one of us, as people who struggle to be down-to-earth and avoid the temptation to act as if we were the divine center of the universe. If you examine human interactions that go wrong, whether in bitter arguments or wars, there is usually somewhere a lack of humility and an excess of arrogance. Humility is about our struggle to be fully human. [1] Jesus is the model. In our text for today, Paul calls us to have the mind that was in Christ, who being in the form of God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, becoming obedient even to the point of death. And because of his humility and obedience, God exalted him. Humility is synonymous with Christlikeness. Jesus calls us to learn of him for he is gentle and humble of heart. The more we desire to become like Christ, the more we grow in humility. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility Benedict talks about humility using the image of a ladder. Drawn from the image of Jacob who had a dream of a ladder upon which angels descended and ascended, Benedict talks about ascending the ladder of humility Benedict teaches us that “getting ahead” and “being on top” are not the marks of real human achievement. He says that in the spiritual life up is down and down is up: ‘We descend by exaltation and we ascend by humility.” The goals and values of the spiritual life, in other words, are just plain different from the goals and values we’ve been taught by the world around us. Winning, owning, having, consuming, and controlling are not the high posts of the spiritual life. [2] There are 12 steps on Benedict’s ladder of humility. Written in the sixth century, you could call it

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history’s first 12-step method of spiritual growth. I have incorporated the twelve, narrowing them down to seven. I do not have time to do them all justice, but perhaps there will be enough here to help you see what authentic humility looks like. It is important to realize that as we climb the ladder, the steps on the ladder do not cause progress, but measure it. Humility is an interior quality. [3] The foot of the ladder is the beginning of the spiritual journey. And that’s where we start. 1. REVERENCE The first step is reverence: to keep “the reverence of God always before our eyes” (Ps 36:2). It’s about living with a profound sense of awe and our whole being possessed by a deep reverence. Benedict says the humble fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them. They praise the Lord working in them, and say with the psalmist: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name alone give the glory” (Ps 115:1) [4] The first rung of the spiritual life is to recognize that God is God and we are not. 2. SURRENDERING OF OUR WILL TO GOD’S WILL The second step is about surrendering our will to God’s will. The reverence toward God that marks the first step helps break our addiction to self-will and opens us up to an authentic receptivity of God. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister says, “If God is my center and my end, then I must accept the will of God, knowing that in it lies the fullness of life for me.” [5] Benedict says of this second step: we love not our own will nor take pleasure in the satisfaction of our desires; rather we shall imitate by our actions that saying of Christ’s: “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me” (John 6:38). In monastic language this is called the step of obedience. And it requires us to ask: “Who is my master?” with the realization that we cannot serve two masters. This step is about renunciation of self-will. The dominance of self-expression in our contemporary culture makes this step sound strange. Pride is so rampant in our culture through our desire to control; to control my day, my future, the other people in my life, to make sure that the world is put together the way I want it. This step of humility is to pray with Jesus: “Lord, not my will but thine be done.” It requires an acceptance that the will of God is always to our benefit. Our deepest spiritual experience is to feel utterly dependent on God and to want to submit ourselves to the divine will. The mystics talk about a point at which to soul becomes absorbed in God and seems no longer to have an autonomous existence. It is the goal of contemplation: a union of ourselves with God. Obedience on the ladder of humility is the ability to submit ourselves to the wisdom of another. It involves a humility that acknowledges our incapacity to see the whole picture. In a monastery this obedience to Christ is reflected in a monk’s obedience to the abbot. And the abbot’s task is not to impose his own will or to dominate others but to be a spokesperson for Christ. [6] That is why they are chosen carefully.

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Joan Chittister says, “It is to realize that we are not the last word, the final answer, the clearest insight into anything. We have one word among many to contribute to the mosaic of life, one answer of many answers, one insight out of multiple perspectives. Humility lies in learning to listen to the words, directions, and insights of [others who just may be] a voice of Christ for me now.” [7] This step brings us face to face with our struggle for power. It makes us face an authority outside of ourselves. This is not a military obedience, but rather the obedience required for a family or community to be a place of love. This is a concrete way of setting aside our desires and is actually a profound expression of freedom. [8] 3. PATIENT ENDURANCE The third step up the ladder is patient endurance. It is to embrace suffering knowing what Paul said, that in all things we are more than conquerors, overcomers, because of Christ who so greatly loved us. It is with the mind of Christ that we learn to quietly embraces patience. We train our minds to look beyond present pain to ultimate realities. This step is about holding on when things do not go our way. It is to realize that all things should be dealt with patiently, that overhasty responses are rarely helpful, even in a crisis. Patience is not about grinning and bearing things we hate. Patience is the attempt to live out in a positive frame of mind the difficulties that come from trying to love other people. [9] 4. RADICAL SELF-HONESTY / CONFESSION Step four is the call to radical self-honesty and confession, refusing to conceal who we are, but having someone to whom you can humbly confess sinful thoughts that enter the heart, or any wrongs committed in secret. Joan Chittister writes of this radically honest confession saying: The spiritual heart is a heart that has exposed itself and all its weaknesses and all its pain and all its struggles to one who has the insight, the discernment, the care to call us out of our worst selves to the heights to which we aspire. The struggles we hide, psychologists tell us, are the struggles that consume us. Benedict’s instruction, centuries before an entire body of research arose to confirm it, is that we must cease to wear our masks, stop pretending to be perfect, and accept the graces of growth that can come to us from the wise and gentle hearts of people around us. [10] Confession, being honest about the negative parts of one’s life, can be a very positive experience. It is positive because it lets light into dark places. Far from making us feel guilty, admitting to a wrong we have done releases us from our guilt and enables us to move forward. Another’s acceptance in the face of our confession may ease the way for me to see and accept myself as I am. Mindfulness of our faults can be a source of joy because it reminds us of God’s mercy and how much God loves us. Humility’s distinguishing mark is a deep awareness of our own faults, a lack of complaint about the faults of others, and a constant singing of God’s praise in thankfulness for mercy. [11] Humility is to be constantly aware of our moral fragility. [12] This gets to the heart of humility, which is living in the truth, the truth within oneself, our relationships

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with others and with God. It is not about saying you are worse than you are or denying your gifts and abilities, but about facing the truth of who you are, the truth that we are incomplete without God. Humility is the opposite of artificiality. Humility is the ability to see ourselves as God does. Humility teaches us that our gifts are not of our own making. So we do not boast about them. The gifts we receive are held in trust for the whole human race. They are not for ourselves alone. They are given for sharing. To deny one’s gifts is to deny others the benefit of sharing in their fruits. It is not humility but a waste. What if John Claypool had said, “I really can’t preach,” and decided to sell insurance instead? That would not have been humility, but a tragic denial of the truth of who God created him to be. So far we’ve climbed four steps up the ladder of humility: reverence, surrender, patience, and self-honesty. 5. YIELDING TO OTHERS / CONTENTMENT The fifth step has to do with contentment that expresses itself in a yielding to others. It is to reach that place where we are content with what we’ve been given and content with our place in life. It is the place where we value others more than ourselves and give ourselves in service to others. Benedict writes: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other” (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weakness of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No [Christians] are to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. [13] This resonates with our text for today where Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” The humility expressed at this stage has to do with the lowering of our self-importance. It is reaching a mature place where we do not have to control people and events, especially in the community of faith. God wants us to grow out of the immaturity of self-importance. [14] Humility is not the same as a low self-image. We need to be taught self-acceptance and an appropriate level of self-love. It’s about demolishing defenses and admitting the truth of my condition. Humility brings a sense of solidarity with other human beings. Humility joins us with the rest of the human race. It is pride which causes us to believe we are not like others. Humility’s opposite is a constant preoccupation with self. As we embrace humility, we realize we have nothing to prove, no need for big ambitions or positions. [15] The humble do not need lies or evasions to inflate their important in front of others or to buttress their self-esteem. Humility is to be satisfied with a lower place for the purpose of giving honor to another. It’s about putting the self down and becoming good community and family members. [16] Insofar as our lives are dedicated to pleasing ourselves, then they are doomed to frustration. The real delight in life comes from the acceptance of realities other than one’s own, especially the reality of the other person’s needs. Humility means allowing one’s self to be formed by others, especially those in the faith community. [17]

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Think about those in this church or other churches have shaped you. Especially the two people whose lives we are remembering yesterday and tomorrow, Ed Thornton and Fay Leach. One of the sages said: “I never met anyone in whom I failed to recognize something superior to myself: if the person was older, I said this one has done more good than I; if younger, I said this one has sinned less; if richer, I said this one has been more charitable; if poorer, I said this one has suffered more; if wiser, I honored their wisdom; and if not wiser, I judged their faults more lightly.” Community is the place where we come to honor the world. [18] To be humble is to welcome wisdom from any direction, to open ourselves to it, to see criticism as an occasion for growth, to see the value of continued evaluation. [19] It is better to ask the way ten times than to take the wrong road once, a Jewish proverb reads. This step of humility tells us to learn from what has been learned before us, to value the truths taught by others, to seek out wisdom and enshrine it in our hearts, to attach ourselves to teachers so that we do not make the mistake of becoming our own blind guides. It takes a great deal of time to learn all the secrets of life by ourselves. Our living communities have a great deal to teach us. [20] Important, and often difficult, is to let go of my ambition and self-esteem, my self-assertiveness and self-sufficiency, my wish to be just a little different from everyone else. If through all this I learn to deal with my own limitations then I shall be able to deal with those of other people. Step five: a yielding to others. 6. RESTRAINT OF SPEECH The sixth step of humility calls for restraint of speech. The Rule says: We control our tongue and remain silent. As it is written: “The wise are known by few words.” A good monk’s sermon on humility would be less than five minutes, I’m sure. So I’m not being a good monk or very humble this morning. But we’ve almost reached the top of the ladder. Michael Casey writes, “Obedience and patience are humility in action, silence is humility in word.” [21] Ecclesiastes says there is a time to speak and time to be silent. Humility is knowing when and erring on the side of silence. Silence is not a virtuous end in itself. It is about the ability of silence to nurture the interior life. Benedict considers chatter that simply fills empty time as a waste. Casey also says that nonstop talking can be a means of insulating oneself from the shock of the real. And that excessive conversation expresses and reinforces a lack of personal discipline in our life. It restricts our capacity to listen. Talking too much often convinces us of the correctness of our own conclusions. [22] Benedict knows that people can waste a huge amount of time and energy complaining, grumbling, and gossiping maliciously. Benedict hates grumbling and forbids it above all other vices. Benedict also warns of laughter, the kind of laughter that pokes fun, a mockery that undermines the honor of a person. None of this has any place in a good family, a good community, or a good workplace. 7. INTEGRATION AND TRANSFORMATION The final step is a total humility in all that is said and done, in body and in heart. Casey calls it integration and transformation, a place where the outer and inner person are one. At the top of the ladder is the goal

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of perfect love that casts out fear, a place where there is delight in virtue and no fear. With such humility, “there will be nothing left to fear - not God’s wrath, not the loss of human respect, not the absence of control, not the achievements of others greater than our own.” [23] It is a call for the humility to say I need to change. CONCLUSION So there it is, the ladder of humility: reverence toward God, the surrendering of our will; obedience; the patient embrace of suffering amid hardships; self-honesty; contentment with what one is given; valuing others more than self; submission to others; speaking gently and with modesty; and the integration of transformation in a life of love - these are the steps that lead to humility according to Benedict. It is about living in the truth of who we are. It’s about the capacity to receive the grace to change. It is to realize that we go up only by going down. As one writer put it: humility is a proper sense of self in a universe of wonders. [24] So let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, with a holy seriousness, remembering that it is God at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s pleasure. ___________________________ 1. Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life, Liturgical Press, 2006, 95 2. Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights For the Ages, Crossroad, 1992, 63 3. Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth, Liguori, 2001, 43 4. St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry, Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998, Prologue, 29, 30 5. Chittister, 66 6. Casey, 100 7. Chittister, 66-67 8. Jamison, 102 9. Jamison, 102-103 10. Chittister, 68 11. Jamison, 107-108 12. Casey, 77 13. St. Benedict, Chapter 72 14. Casey, 63 15. Andy Freeman and Pete Greig, Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing, Regal, 2007, 114 16. Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, HarperOne, 1991, 166-167 17. Casey, 157 18. Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, 95 19. Ibid., 158 20. Ibid., 71 21. Casey, 159 22. Casey, 172-174 23. Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, 74 24. Ibid., 62

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