Twelve Steps to Humility


St. Bernard of Clairvaux

In another article we considered the twelve steps of pride set forth by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In escalating ways, the twelve steps draw us to an increasingly mountainous and enslaving pride.

St. Bernard also enumerates the twelve steps to deeper humility and it is these that we consider today. As with yesterday’s post, the list by St. Bernard is shown in red, while my meager commentary is shown in plain, black text. To read St. Bernard’s reflections, consider purchasing the book, Steps of Humility and Pride.

(1) Fear of God – To fear the Lord is to hold Him in awe. It is to be filled with wonder at all God has done, and at who He is. Cringing, servile fear is not recommended. Rather, the fear rooted in love and deep reverence for God is what begins to bring us down the mountain of pride. It is looking to God and away from ourselves and our egocentric tendencies that begins to break our pride.

Scripture says, The fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). To fear the Lord is to turn to the Lord seeking answers, seeking meaning, realizing that in God is all wisdom and knowledge. To fear the Lord is to hunger and thirst for His truth and righteousness. To fear the Lord is to look outside oneself and upward to God.

Here begins our journey down the mountain of pride, a simple and loving look to God, who alone can set us free from the slavery that pride and sinfulness created for us.

(2) Abnegation of self-will – In the garden, Jesus said to His father, Father, not as I will, but as you will (Lk 22:42). This is what abnegation of the will means: to surrender one’s will to God’s will, to allow His decisions to override one’s own.

Pride demands to do what it pleases, to determine what is right or wrong. In this stage of humility, I am willing to look to God.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” The prideful person says “Why can’t I have it? It’s not so bad. Everybody else is doing it.”

On the journey away from pride, having come to a fear of the Lord, we are now more joyfully ready to listen to Him and to submit to His vision for us.

(3) Obedience – Having attained a humbler disposition of heart, we are now more willing to obey. Obedience moves from hearing God’s word to heeding it, to obeying His holy will, to surrendering our stubborn will to His. We are made ready, by God’s grace, to execute that will, to put it into action.

(4) Patient endurance – Embarking on this journey down the mountain of pride, and striving to hear and understand God’s will and obey, we can surely expect to fact both external and internal obstacles.

Our flesh—that is, our sinful nature—does not simply and wholeheartedly surrender, but rather continues to battle. It resists prayer, resists being subject to anything other than its own wishes and desires. Thus, we suffer internal resistance from our sinful nature.

Little by little, we gain greater self-discipline and authority over our unruly passions. This is truly a struggle, requiring patience and an enduring spirit and will.

We also often encounter external resistance as we try to come down from the mountain of pride. Perhaps friends seek to draw us back into our former ways. Perhaps the structures of our pride remain: willfulness, self-reliance, powerful positions, etc. They continue to draw us away from our intention to come down the mountain of pride and further embrace humble submission to God. Perhaps the world continues to demand that we think and act out of old categories that are not of God, and still hold us bound to some extent.

Patient endurance is often required to see such things borne away. It often takes years—even decades—of patient and persistent action for the sinful world to lose its grip on us.

(5) Disclosure of the heart – As we come down the mountain of pride, perhaps the most humble journey is the one into our wounded hearts. Scripture says, More tortuous than all else is the human heart; beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, alone, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:10).

Recognizing our sinful drives, and misplaced priorities requires a lot of humility. We must often resurrect unpleasant memories and even traumas from the past, ones that we have experienced ourselves or have inflicted on others. In our heart, we are called to repent and show forgiveness and mercy or to accept that we must be forgiven and shown mercy.

We may be asked to remember and to realize that we have not always been 100% right, that we have sometimes acted unjustly and sinfully toward others, that we have at times been insensitive. This is a humbling but necessary part of the journey down the mountain of pride.

(6) Contentedness with what is – Contentedness is a form of acceptance; it is a great gift to seek and to receive. We can distinguish between external and internal contentedness:

External contentedness is rooted in the ability to live serenely in the world as it is and to realize that God allows many things that are not to our liking. Acceptance does not imply approval of everything. There are many things in the world that we ought not to approve of, but acceptance is the willingness to live and work humbly in a world that is neither perfect nor fully in accordance with our preferences. Some things we are called to change, other things to endure. Even with those things we are called to change, we may have to accept that we cannot change them as quickly as we would like. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus cautioned us not to act hastily to remove the tares lest the wheat be harmed as well. It is a mysterious fact that God leaves many things unresolved. Part of our journey in humility is to discern what we are empowered to change and what we must come to accept as beyond our ability to change.

Internal contentedness is gratitude for what we have and freedom from resentment about what we do not. Pride demands that our agenda be fully followed. In our journey toward humility, we come to be more content with accepting what God offers and saying, “It is enough, O Lord. I am most grateful!”

(7) Lucid self-awareness – In pride, we are often filled with many delusions about ourselves, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should. We are often unaware of just how difficult it can be to live or work with us.

Humility is reverence for the truth about ourselves. It is a lucid self-awareness that appreciates our gifts, but remembering that they are gifts. It is also an awareness of our struggles and our ongoing need for repentance and for the grace of God.

With lucid self-awareness, we increasingly learn to know ourselves the way God knows us (cf 1 Cor 13:12). As we come down from the mountain of pride into deeper humility, God discloses more to us about just who we really are. We become more and more the man or woman God has made us to be; our self-delusions and the unrealistic demands of the world begin to fade. The darkness of these illusions is replaced by the lucidity of self-awareness. We are able to see and understand ourselves in a less egocentric way. We are mindful of what we think and do and of how we interact with God and others, but we do this in a way that we are strongly aware of the presence and grace of God. We come to self-awareness in the context of living in conscious contact with God throughout the day.

(8) Submission to the common rule – The egocentric and prideful person resists being told what to do and is largely insensitive to the needs of others and the common good. The proud man thinks he knows better than the collective wisdom of the community.

As our journey down the mountain of pride into deeper humility continues, we become more aware of the effects we have on others. We must learn to interact and cooperate with others for goals larger than ourselves. Humility teaches us that the world does not revolve around us and what we want; sometimes the needs of others are more important than our own. Humility helps us to accept that although my individual rights are important, laws typically exist to protect the common good. Humility also makes us more willing to submit our personal needs and agenda to the needs of others and the wisdom of the wider community.

(9) Silence – Silence is a respectful admission that other people have wisdom to share and important things to say. The proud person interrupts frequently, thinking either that he already knows what the other person is going to say or that what he has to say is more important. As our humility grows, we become better listeners, appreciating that others may be able to offer us knowledge or wisdom that we currently lack.

(10) Emotional sobriety – Many of our emotional excesses are rooted in pride and egocentricity. When we are proud we are easily offended, easily threatened, for fear begets anger.

As we discussed yesterday, the initial stages of pride are often rooted in inordinate curiosity, mental levity, and giddiness. All of these things cause our emotional life to be excessive and disordered. As we grow deeper in humility, though, we are less egocentric and thus less fearful and less easily offended.

Having our mental life focused on more substantial and less frivolous things adds stability to our thought life. We are less carried off into gossip, intrigue, and rumor. We are less stirred up by the machinations of marketers, less disturbed by the 24/7 “breaking news” cycles of the media. We are more thoughtful and less likely to rush to judgments that often unsettle us. The humble person trusts God and is thus not easily unsettled by these things—and it is thoughts that generate feelings.

As our thought life becomes more measured, our conclusions are drawn more carefully and humbly, our emotions are less volatile, and we attain greater emotional serenity and sobriety.

(11) Restraint in speech – As we become more emotionally stable and less anxious and stirred up, that serenity is reflected in our speech and demeanor. We are less likely to interrupt, to speak in anger, or to be unnecessarily terse or harsh. We don’t need to “win” every debate. Rather, we are satisfied with staying in the conversation, with just sowing seeds to be harvested later, perhaps even by others. Our serenity tends to lower our volume and speed in talking; we are more content to speak the truth in love, with both clarity and charity.

(12) Congruity between one’s inside and one’s outside – We saw in yesterday’s post on pride the problem of hypocrisy. The Greek word hypocritas refers to acting. Hypocrites are actors playing a role rather than being who they are.

The proud and fearful are always posturing, trying to align themselves with what makes for popularity and profit. As humility reaches its goal, integrity, honesty, and sincerity come to full flower.

This is because the gift of humility opens us to be fully formed by God. Having turned our gaze to God and made the journey into our heart, we discover the man or woman God has made us to be. We begin to live out of that experience in an authentic and unpretentious way. In humility we are more focused on God and less nervously self-conscious.

By the gift of lucid self-awareness described above, we are comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to posture, dominate, compare, or compete. Rather, our inner spiritual life and focus on God now inform our whole self.

Humility has now reached its goal: reverence for the truth about our very self. We are sinners who are loved by God. As we make the journey to discover our true self before God, we become ever more grateful and serene. Living out of this inner life with Him, we are enabled to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Thanks be to God for these insightful lists of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Benedict, which have so aided in this reflection! Pray God that we are all able to make the journey down from the mountain of pride and into deeper humility.