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Twelve Degrees of Humility


One of the books I have been reading devotionally through the summer of 2009 is Longing for God by Gayle D. Beebe and Richard J. Foster. The book reviews the seven paths of Christian devotion as exemplified by people from the past who have pioneered the work of spiritual formation.

One of the helpful contributions was the following section titled “Twelve Degrees of Humility” by Benedict of Nursia. Best known for The Rule of St. Benedict, Benedict (480-547) developed a monastic order which sought to cultivate new communities of faith in the face of the fall of the Roman Empire. I enjoyed this section on cultivating humility. Even though his thoughts are 15 centuries old, they ring loud and clear to our contemporary Western culture.

1. Cultivate humility by always keeping the fear of God before us and express this attitude in a spirit of obedience. Obedience is crucial if we are to learn to follow God. It forces us to subjugate our ego to divine love and service.
2. Follow the Lord’s will and not our own. The greatest challenge to our life with God is our predisposition to be egocentric, to insist that life be seen and lived only from our perspective. The objective is to break out of our egocentricism and see the world and our life as God sees it.
3. Develop the ability to receive input from others. Specifically, we are to learn obedience by submitting to a superior. One of the leading indicators of humility is to accept the authority of others.
4. Accept the superior’s instruction in learning perseverance. Persevering in life’s circumstances develops constancy of character. It is rare for life to go exactly our way.
5. Full disclosure of one’s life to a spirit-led, trusted friend. To fully disclose ourselves teaches us how to take responsibility for our attitudes and actions in ways that hold us accountable. It is impossible to face this reality if we share only bits and pieces of our story.
6. Learn contentment in all things and consider everyone greater than ourselves. To be content in every circumstance means to accept willingly whatever life presents. Discretion helps us determine when to correct unbearable circumstances and when to be content with things as they are.
7. Put ourselves lower than everyone else. This teaching supports the belief that if we abase ourselves, others will lift us up.
8. Follow the clear lines of seniority. No one advances beyond their rightful place.
9. Speak only when spoken to. This discipline in meant to help us realize that our value lies in the community and not in ourselves. The hope is for our words to be thoughtful and true, resting on reflection and delivered in proper sequence and order.
10. Avoid laughter. This is not a suppression of joy. Laughter expressing a spirit of contentment comes from a deep contentment with God. Laughter that springs from ridicule destroys community.
11. Speak gently, using reasonable words and humane tones. Speech is the single most significant vehicle for communicating our noblest ideals or our most destructive motivations.
12. Always demonstrate a posture of humility, whether before others or before God. As we ascend each degree of humility, our spirit is refined until humility comes as an instinctive and immediate response.

According to Benedict, there are two outcomes of the work of humility. First, humility helps us understand and imitate the spirit of Christ, and second, humility works to express the highest ideals of the community. When done properly, the cultivation of humility will usher us into the presence of God.

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