62 The twelfth step of humility is that a monk always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart...65 and constantly say in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with downcast eyes: Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven (Luke 18:13).
67 Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4:18). 68 Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, 69 no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.
I want to skip over the twelfth step of humility and go right to the top of the ladder. All the talk of judgment is off-putting, feeling guilty, beating my breast, saying I am a sinner. I want to say “I’ve worked way too hard to give up my self-esteem, let’s skip to the nice part.” But of course as soon as I say that I have to admit that frankly I’m lazy, I want all the wonderful feelings and benefits without any work. I want what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I want God to do all the work in me and I just stand back and bask.
The earliest monastics knew on a deep level what it meant to rely on God’s grace. They knew they couldn’t earn salvation or humility or grace. But they also knew that they had to take responsibility for how they lived their lives and their faith. God is the cause and the source of our humility, but how do we show that God is working in our lives?
Benedict uses the story of the Publican and the Pharisee as an example of humility. The story of the Publican who cannot raise his eyes to heaven always hits me like a blow to the chest. What must it feel like, to have a great yawning chasm of emptiness in your deepest soul? To know you are so far from God that you can’t even look up, to be so far from holiness that you are afraid that you will be swallowed up in the ocean that is God.
And yet he is the one whose emptiness is filled with God. He had no ego, no complacency, no self-satisfaction to cover up the deep hunger and longing for God. The publican had looked into the abyss and not turned away.
This looking, honest acknowledgment of emptiness will allow him to be filled by God. It is like the story about the man who goes to see the guru. He excitedly tells the spiritual master everything that he is doing to meditate, fast, read Scripture, visit monasteries, and on and on. The guru asks the man if he wants some tea. The man says yes while continuing to talk about all he is doing. The guru pours tea into the cup and keeps pouring even after it overflows. The man finally notices and is alarmed, “what are you doing?” The guru tells him that he is like the cup, as long as he is so full of himself there will be no room for God.
Humility is the emptiness of the cup, the emptiness of the publican. Stripped down, bare and empty. To be humble is to be shed of the warm, comfortable, protective garments of self-control, entitlement, complacency, and knowledge. In humility we come to our absolute nakedness. When we are stripped, open, poor and exposed we can finally open our eyes. Then, for the first time, our eyes are opened and we find that we are back in the garden, walking with God in the cool of the evening.