Steve Macchia Blog

Ladder of Humility – Part 3

When Benedict first wrote his seventh chapter on “Humility” in his landmark “Rule of Life” he was inviting and urging his brothers into a distinctly Christian lifestyle. Humility wasn’t to be an optional extra, an add-on to the Rule, or something for their consideration. Instead, what Benedict was expecting was a full-fledged desire to enter into community with an earnest longing to love and serve others as Jesus would have done in their place. By integrating humility into every aspect of their life together, this would ultimately lead them into a transformed life with love as the foundation of all.

We pick up here with the final four of the twelve rungs of the ladder of humility, the ascent toward love.

The ninth degree of humility is silence, the radical restraint of speech or unnecessary noise. By withholding one’s tongue from speaking, and keeping silence until spoken to by another, the monk was to beware of a multitude of words. Silence was a gift offered to one another so that the deeper listening to God could occur in one another’s presence. The welcoming of silence is a sure sign of humility, especially when one isn’t tempted to become the center of attention by the use of words or noise.

The tenth degree of humility is when a monk is not easily moved toward or quick for laughter. An avoidance of foolish amusement or frivolity was a form of respect toward God and all who crossed their path as individuals on pursuit of a deeper knowledge and experience of God. Although not diminishing joy, quick laughter was considered lighthearted jesting and unnecessary for the godly, wise, and humble.

The eleventh degree is like the tenth, with an emphasis on the gravity of speech with the formation of a listening heart. Here Benedict urged his monks to speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and not with loudness of voice. Here the wise man was known by the fewness of his words, not through the plethora of voiced and often unnecessary syllables.

Finally, the twelfth degree of humility is total humility in all that’s said and done. This is the highest step on the ladder of humility, where both integration and transformation occur. Here humility of heart appears also in ones whole exterior to all who see him, whether at work for God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever one may be sitting, walking, or standing. The posture of the truly humble was to have ones head bowed down, eyes fixed on the ground, aware of ones sinfulness, considering oneself already standing before the judgment seat of God, and always saying to oneself in ones heart what the publican said in the Gospel, “Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven.” Exceeding in humility is the final rung, second only to being perfected in heaven.

The goal of the ascent toward humility, therefore, is perfect love. As one ascends toward humility there is movement from fear of God toward perfect love for God. This is what total abandonment to God and contentment in God is to look like, with a life that’s integrated and transformed by love and humility. Such humility takes a lifetime to achieve, and not by human effort but solely under the fresh empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit.

“Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casteth out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.” With humility as its centerpiece, Benedict’s Rule of Life is worth our prayerful consideration, particularly as we craft our own personal rule of life.

Ladder of Humility – Part 2

Benedict’s Ladder of Humility is the centerpiece of his Rule of Life. The band of brothers who followed him into the movement now known by his name, made their commitment out of an earnest desire to pursue God together. Their life was to be one that blended community with contemplation. Each of the chapters of the Rule focused on one such matter. The 7th chapter on humility defined how they were to handle oneself within the context of life together. We will pick up here with the next four rungs of the ladder of ascent toward humility.

The fifth step is self-revelation. In this regard, the monk was not to conceal from his abbot any evil thoughts that entered his heart, or any evils secretly committed by him. instead, he was to confess them humbly and freely. Acknowledging one’s sinfulness and denouncing unrighteousness led one into freedom from disguise and into a posture of mercy. Confession is liberating for the soul and leads to forgiveness and grace.

The sixth step is contentment with the least of everything. Becoming content with all that is of lesser esteem and willing to embrace the least of everything puts one into a posture of total abandonment and detachment. To make the choice of the less significant or important is to decide to follow Christ even to the place of utter sacrifice and release of all things associated with pride of place, possession, or power.

The seventh step is a sharp awareness of one’s own liabilities. In this place, the monk was to believe with the deepest feeling and proclaim with his tongue that he is inferior to all and more worthless than another. In this way, he says with the prophet, “I am a worm not a human being, one scorned and despised by people.” This was considered good for those who sought to follow God’s commandments toward fuller submission and obedience.

The eighth rung is the avoidance of individualist and attention-seeking behavior. Here the monk was to do nothing except what is recommended by the common rule of the monastery and the example of the elders. Pride is exhibited when one makes decisions that point back to oneself, making choices that serve one’s needs, aspirations, and wants that are exclusive of the community.

In these middle four steps of the ladder of humility, one is brought to a place of deep remorse, confession and into a life of contentment with lesser things, a lesser attitude of oneself, and an avoidance of all things that smack of self-service. Each progressive rung gets harder to follow with regularity, thus the significance of the truth that these steps take a lifetime to learn and embody.

As you consider your own propensity toward self-absorption and pride, what do these steps say about your willingness to openly confess your sins to another, to choose contentment with lesser things, to willingly own up to your own limitations, and to choose community over self? Pause, pray, and ponder each of these four rungs and wait upon the Lord for inspiration and instruction. Ask God to open the eyes of your heart and illumine the pathway forward. Trust Him to lead you by the hand down the road toward deeper love and humility.

Ladder of Humility – Part 1

Humility isn’t something to aspire after or work toward. It’s discovered over time, unbeknownst to the one becoming all the more humble…and only as one is willing to lovingly submit to God and unswervingly hold fast to a life of obedience. It begins with a desire for God over self. It concludes with a life in union with God, a purified love for others, and a forgetfulness of self. It’s hard to be humble.

St. Benedict (AD 480-547) added a chapter within his Rule of Life as a guide to humility. Although set forth as a blueprint for the life of the monks within his monasteries, its filled with wisdom for today’s Christian. He called these the “Steps to Humility” and the steps are rungs of a ladder. The ascent of Benedict’s ladder is toward humility, whereas others like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) write about the downward descent of humility (in contrast to the upward road of pride). Regardless, the steps toward humility take a lifetime to achieve, and require daily choices to be prayerful, loving, content, and gracious.

The first degree of humility is that one always have the fear of God before one’s eyes, shunning all forgetfulness, and remain mindful of all that God has commanded. In this degree one makes a serious effort to live a good life: careful about thoughts, avoiding self will, not pursuing lusts, and participating fully in the ongoing process toward full conversion and Christlikeness.

The second degree of humility is carrying out the Word of the Lord, not loving one’s own will or seeking to fulfill one’s own desires. In this degree of humility there is a renunciation of self will and desire, and an earnest seeking of God’s will and desire.

The third degree of humility is discovered as one subjects her/himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord. It’s here that one submits to a Superior who is her/himself seeking to live in imitation of Christ. Submission and obedience are tied together, lived out in an atmosphere of love and trust.

The fourth degree of humility is accepting with patience and even-temperment all hard and distasteful things as one is commanded to fulfill, even injuries that are inflicted by self or others. To patiently endure all difficulties of life with equal acceptance is what it means to lean into this degree of humility.

We will pick up next time on the subsequent four of the twelve degrees of humility. In the meantime, ponder the first four and ask the Lord to enlighten your heart in areas where you sense resistance and/or dissonance. Invite the Holy Spirit to purge what’s most needed in your heart so that you are open to consider the invitation of Christ toward greater and more sincere humility of heart. To ponder, pray, and then to pursue humility is indeed the way of the Christ follower…yesterday, today and forever.


Humility is a beautiful quality to find in a person. But it’s rare today.

Consider this definition of humility: “Those who are humble experience no shame. They do not need lies and evasions to inflate their importance in the eyes of their associates, or to buttress their self-esteem. They have overcome the tendency to regard others as competitors or rivals, and so they work with whatever they have, and waste no time envying those who possess different qualities. The humble are equally content both with the gifts and the limitations that come from their nature or their personal history. Humility brings with it a fundamental happiness that is able to cope with external difficulties and sorrows…Humility is that network of attitudes that springs from a radical conversion of heart, and signals a deep, inner conformity with Christ. Growth in humility is powered by the simple desire to become like Christ.” (Living In the Truth, by Michael Casey, pp. 1,2)

St. Benedict, in the center of his Rule of Life, gives guidance to his followers regarding the way toward humility via the rungs of a ladder. Over the next few weeks I want to look at his ladder of humility and see what we can learn from the 12 rungs that lead us upward toward humility. The journey upward on the ladder is counter intuitive to the descent of humility, the way in which Bernard of Clairvaux and others have treated the subject. But, suffice it to say, the road toward humility isn’t an easy one, nor is it self-guided. No, the road toward humility is one that’s willing to be trampled upon by others, for humus, the basis of humility, is nothing more grandiose than dirt.

The triad of humility, silence and obedience is what Benedict proposes, as does our Savior Jesus. Jesus is the supreme example of personhood uncomplicated and unhindered by sin. He is the model of this quality we’ve come to know as humility. He even said of Himself, “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). Consider as well Philippians 2: 5-8 and John 13: 1-17 for further reflection on Jesus the humble One.

Pray today for an openness toward humility in your head, hands, and heart. Spend time listening attentively to the gentle invitation to become like Jesus.