Sisters and Brothers, divine scripture calls to us saying: "Whoever exalt themselves shall be humbled, and whoever humble themselves shall be exalted (Lk 14:11; 18:14)." In saying this, therefore, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride, which the prophet indicates has been shunned, saying: "O God, my heart is not exalted; my eyes are not lifted up and I have not walked in the ways of the great nor gone after marvels beyond me (Ps 13:1)." And why? "If I had not a humble spirit, but were exalted instead, then you would treat me like a weaned child on its mother's lap (Ps 131:2)."
If the twentieth century has lost anything that needs to be rediscovered, if the western world has denied anything that needs to be owned, if individuals have rejected anything that needs to be professed again, if the preservation of the globe in the twenty-first century requires anything of the past at all, it may well be the commitment of the Rule of Benedict to humility.
The Roman Empire in which Benedict of Nursia wrote his alternative rule of life was a civilization in a decline not unlike our own. The economy was deteriorating, the helpless were being destroyed by the warlike, the rich lived on the backs of the poor, the powerful few made decisions that profited them but plunged the powerless many into continual chaos, the Empire expended more and more of its resources on militarism designed to maintain a system that, strained from within and threatened from without, was already long dead.
It is an environment like that into which Benedict of Nursia flung a Rule for privileged Roman citizens calling for humility, a proper sense of self in a universe of wonders. When we make ourselves God, no one in the world is safe in our presence. Humility, in other words, is the basis for right relationships in life.
Later centuries distorted the notion and confused the concept of humility with lack of self-esteem and substituted the warped and useless practice of humiliations for the idea of humility. Eventually the thought of humility was rejected out of hand and we have been left as a civilization to stew in the consequences of our arrogance.
Benedict's magna carta of humility directs us to begin the spiritual life by knowing our place in the universe, our connectedness, our dependence on God for the little greatness we have. Anything else, he says, is to find ourselves in the position of "a weaned child on its mother's lap," cut off from nourishment, puny, helpless--however grandiose our images of ourselves--and left without the resources necessary to grow in the spirit of God. No infant child is independent of its mother, weaned or not. No spiritual maturity can be achieved independent of a sense of God's role in our development.
Accordingly, if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw "angels descending and ascending (Gn 28:12)." Without doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts God will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.
Jacob's ladder is a recurring image of spiritual progress in classic spiritual literature, as clear in meaning to its time as the concept of the spiritual journey, for instance, would be to a later age. It connected heaven and earth. It was the process by which the soul saw and touched and climbed and clung to the presence of God in life, whose angels "descended and ascended" in an attempt to bring God down and raise us up. That ladder, that precariously balanced pathway to the invisible God, Benedict said, is the integration of body and soul. One without the other, it seems, will not do. Dualism is a hoax.
Just as false, though, is the idea that "getting ahead" and "being on top" are marks of real human achievement. Benedict 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 than 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. And this is the basis for social revolution in the modern world.