The Benedictine Value - and Gift - of Humility

See how God's love shows us the way of lifeRule of Benedict

It is a blessing that you have humbled me so that I can learn your commandments. Ps. 119

When Sr. Rose Joseph Kennebeck first learned she had diabetes, she was horrified. “I had never been sick before,” she says. “Never had a headache in my life. I was used to being strong and healthy. First, I was diagnosed with diabetes and then my eyesight started going. I can’t even read the newspaper anymore. It’s made me so much more dependent on other people.”

Which she views – at least in part - as a gift.

“I’m not saying I’m happy with this illness,” Sr. Rose Joseph, who works in pastoral care at St. Thomas More in Munster, Indiana, continues. “But my ill health gives me the opportunity to accept help from others, which is a form of humility. Community is fostered by the interdependence created by humility. I don’t want to have bad eyesight, but I accept the gift for what it is.”

The gift of a humbling experience rarely feels like a blessing when it occurs, Sr. Mary Core notes. But the deeper intimacy we experience as a result of practicing humility brings stronger connections within our communities, whether religious or lay. It confirms that the artificial barriers between us – whether of professional position, wealth or beauty – are meaningless. It helps us affirm our reverence for one another by virtue of our connection beneath the skin, in God.

“St. Benedict felt so strongly about the need for humility in community that he dedicated more space to it in his rule than to any other element, except for prayer,” Sr. Mary says. “He described twelve steps of humility in chapter seven of the Rule. Basically, the steps define what it is and how to practice it.

“Humility is, first and foremost, taking an honest look at who you are and who others are,” she continues. “It means recognizing your gifts and talents and knowing they are gifts from God. It means to not deny what we have but be grateful for it, and to use it as God intended.”

Sr. Rose Joseph says her current experience illustrates that point.

“I am more limited now in my ministry,” she says. “But the house-bound parishioners that I visit now can minister to me, too. Whatever God gives us is a gift. Good health, bad health. My worsening health has helped me grow closer to my parishioners and my community. And that is a gift.”

Indeed, the key to right relationships – with family members, friends and business associates – is the practice of humility, according to the Rule of St. Benedict.

“Basically, the Rule tells us to love not our own will,” Sr. Mary says. “We must be willing to divest ourselves of whatever it is that keeps us from getting closer to God. Love of our possessions and righteousness, love of our position and desires. In other words, love of our false self. Instead, in his twelve steps, St. Benedict tells us to be conscious of other people’s needs, and to hasten to help one another. He tells us to listen, and to hold our tongues. Healthy community requires an awareness of others that is based on this practice. It requires us to be more aware of other people and less focused on ourselves.”

Sr. Marilyn Hettinger agrees. She says humility is an “attitude, receptivity and openness to be acted upon by God; a willingness to let God transform us and let God work through our weakness.” As coordinator of religious education at St. Thomas More, she sees the need for humility at every meeting she attends.

“The religious formation committee members meet often to plan such events as all-school masses and social justice programs,” she says. “We all come with our own ideas. But we try to keep an open ear and an open heart, to let God work through us. We try not to sit there, getting our rebuttals ready. To truly listen, you can’t be rebutting.

“Humility forms our foundation with God,” Sr. Marilyn continues. “And we serve God through other people. Humility helps us build and maintain strong relationships with each other. It helps us become kinder and gentler.”

The practice of humility is not just a matter of bowing and scraping, Sr. Mary points out. It’s more a matter of accepting your gifts and talents joyfully, while acknowledging all the while that they come from God.

“If you receive a compliment, don’t reject it,” Sr. Mary counsels. “Graciously accept it. Say thank you. And in your heart, thank God for the gift of the talent that you were able to use.

“To practice humility, you need not abase yourself,” she concludes. “Humility is not the same thing as humiliation. But you do need to let go of the false self. You need to put others first. And you need to recognize your own limitations. Sometimes, that means being able to say, I can’t do it right now, because I am too tired or ill or out of sorts. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, which happens when you don’t recognize your limitations. Accept them. Share them. We are human. We all have them. And when we open up to each other, in honesty and sincerity, our bonds deepen. And we grow in our love of God.”