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Holy Days of Humility

In the last of her series exploring her efforts to live out a different Benedictine rule every month, Convivium contributor Breanne Valerie finds the great saint’s directive for attaining true humility centre simply, but never easily, on how we see ourselves in relation to God.

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Holy Days of Humility May 18, 2018  |  By Breanne Valerie
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Humility isn’t something moderns seem to value these days. We like to post on social media all of our achievements, adventures, wise opinions/advice, lofty goals, and shiny new experiences and things. The concept of humility is often reserved for those who have come from lower, aka humble, beginnings in life, who started from less than desirable circumstances. 

Yet when I think about exuding humility myself, or what it looks like in others, I often have been too quick to define it as self-deprecation, diminishing one’s intelligence, minimizing achievements, inability to accept compliments, or some other form of self-injurious penance. Too often I have confused humility with insecurity. And I vouch to say that we as a society do too. 

But just as humility should not be confused with insecurity we should be equally as careful not to take up humility as something to excel at. Attempting to be a humble person can turn into a laundry list of things to tick off (as much of religion is often regarded). One can easily be clouded by their own perfectionism and confidence and in turn end up embodying the opposite of humility: an arrogant confidence.

Humility defined, then, as a state which one moves up from in life, as masked insecurity, or as a characteristic to master, misses the mark. All of these lack the awareness of one’s place in relation to the Creator. All three remain consumed with one thing and one thing only, navel gazing, the very opposite of humility. 

I have been guilty of all of these at one time or another. I am often guilty of revering humility as another quality to obtain and work toward. When I’ve tried to focus so much on trying to produce humility, I end up with a poorly done replica of the real thing. I essentially become a little perfectionist falling short of the true restfulness that humility actually gives. Sound familiar? I don’t think I am alone in this misguided quest. It’s existed for as long as humans have. The Pharisees in the Gospels had it down pat. 

In his Rule, St. Benedict offers a solution to us trying to squeeze out humility like the last drop of toothpaste (which is annoying and most often produces a meagre portion). He surprisingly spends less time giving a definition of humility, and more time providing us with a 12 step “how to” to show us what it looks like to actually embody the characteristic. Sounds like a perfectionist’s dream; 12 steps to check off a list sounds doable, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s not about checking off the list at all.

St. Benedict requests a shift in focus. Instead of all the navel gazing, the peering inward in an attempt to be more humble, or adopting certain phrases or ways of thinking about ourselves that make us seem more humble, Benedict suggests we first look upward. Humility, for Benedict,is rooted in an understanding of our place in relationship to the Creator of the universe. 

It is no surprise that his first step is based on Psalm 36:2, that we “keep the reverence of God before our eyes. And never forget….” If I’m honest, I frequently fail, and pretty miserably, at this. I get distracted, overwhelmed, and frustrated, and then feel guilty for not being kinder, calmer, and more humble. What follows is often me trying in vain to smile more, focus less on myself, breathe deeper breaths, be more magnanimous, talk less about myself, etc. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, they miss the point. It’s akin to telling someone not to focus on the big pink elephant. It’s counterintuitive. They are going to do exactly that

Instead, Benedict narrows in on who humility looks like, and the importance of revering and absorbing into the presence of God. He says, first focus on the divine, always meditate on His commands instead of our own whims and desires, persevere even in pain and suffering, confess your sins always, keep quiet, think of others as greater than yourself… he list goes on. 

In short, he is saying that we should channel all of our energy into revering the beauty and holiness of God, follow The Benedictine Rule, and all else will follow. There is an uncanny resemblance to another commandment made by Jesus in Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” 

Like Jesus, Benedict doesn’t shy away from tall orders. He understands the cost of following the way of Christ and requires that his Order comprehend the gravity of this as well. He also understands that to truly embody humility, one must look up and out first to allow the beauty and splendour of God in all of His humility to guide us and, in turn, make us more humble, often without us even realizing it. 

While pondering Benedict’s Rule for Humility over the past month I have come to realize that without his steps to Humility - focusing first and foremost on God - everything else is done in vain. I can try to live more simply, be more obedient, remove certain things from my life for a time, or follow any other rule he requires. But without a foundation of reverence, fear, and awe of the God of the universe, without an understanding of who I really am in relationship to Him, without the awareness of my shortcomings and misplaced desires, I cannot actually embody the essence of The Benedictine Rule, that essence being a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. 

To enter the Kingdom of God we must first and foremost humble ourselves by recognizing who we are in relationship to Him and look to Him in awe and glory, absorbing every bit of Holiness His Grace allows.


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