A masterpiece of spiritual direction as influential as the Rule of St. Benedict (480-543) cannot be ignored by anyone seeking a blueprint for discipleship. From its initial promulgation until the present day, the rule has helped believers in all walks of life, together with Benedictines in the monastery and in the world, to find and follow their calling in the Lord.
Outstanding in this regard is Chapter 7 of the rule, which St. Benedict devoted to the 12 steps of humility leading to the perfect love of God. Each step conveys a virtue essential to becoming a true follower of the Master. Without detailing all that this chapter reveals, it is possible to capture in a few words how one advances from the beginning stage of discipleship to the summit of conformity to Christ.
The first step requires that we keep the fear of God always before our eyes, thereby helping us to avoid sin and monitor our decisions and deeds from God’s perspective. Holy fear inspires us to re-evaluate our actions in regard to both prayer and community participation.
According to St. Benedict, we must always be fearful of allowing selfish motives to influence the word of God in our everyday life in family, church and society.
The second step of humility emphasizes that we should love not our own will, nor take pleasure in the satisfaction of our selfish desires; rather we must imitate Christ’s actions and say with the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38). To be avoided at all cost is behavior inspired by selfishness rather than by humble cooperation with divine grace.
The third step requires submission to one’s superiors (a bishop, pastor or spiritual director, to give a few examples) in imitation of the obedience of Jesus to the Father’s will. As we read in Philippians 2:8, “He became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
Such obedience counters the notion of personal autonomy and the egocentric assumption that “I am the captain of my ship and the master of my fate.” All such illusions must be countered by the virtue of obedience essential for discipleship.
Such obedience exercised in favorable as well as unfavorable circumstances forecasts the fourth step — that of our being willing to embrace suffering and endure it for Christ’s sake. This step requires that we deny ourselves for the sake of carrying life’s crosses in the trust that they draw us to deeper intimacy with the Lord.
The fifth step reminds us of the importance of not concealing from our confessions any of our sinful thoughts and wrongdoings. A humble confession, full of integrity, is a deeply scriptural event. Psalm 36 tells us to make known our ways to the Lord and hope in him, and Psalm 31 says that we will experience God’s forgiveness to the degree that we acknowledge our faults and offenses.
The outcome of these first five steps happens on the sixth rung of the ladder of humility that enables disciples of the Lord to be content with the lowest and most menial tasks. The desire to be insignificant and no better than a beast of burden before the Lord cancels all desires to be the boss. Tasks one once found to be annoying or tedious take on an aura of deep meaning when we consider ourselves no more than useless servants.
The seventh step interiorizes this feeling of unworthiness and deepens the awareness of our depending on God for everything. We see every opportunity for being humbled, even for being humiliated, as a blessing that enables us to let go of all self-centeredness and to put on the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
The eighth step reveals a penchant in our heart to reduce ourselves and point instead to Christ. We foster a wise blending of solitude and togetherness, of silence and speaking, of worship and work.
The ninth, 10th and 11th steps of humility urge disciples to control their tongue and temper their tendency to be too talkative. They first listen and only then speak. St. Benedict cautions that an excessive need for words does not always have charitable results. By the same token, he cautions us not to engage in derisive laughter or cynical humor. Rather we are to speak gently with patience and modesty, never murmuring or complaining under our breath.
When all of these steps have been climbed with the help of grace, we can move on to the 12th rung where, in both thought and action, we walk in the truth of who we are and do what God wills in daily life.
To follow this classical master’s 12 steps of humility leads slowly, but surely, to a transformation of heart and a change of life that comprises the essence of discipleship in our own and every age.
Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.