In the past, when I have listened to Venerable Fulton Sheen, he has made me laugh, weep, sit on the edge of my seat, filled my heart with compunction and hope, but on a few occasions he has also made me cringe. One of those occasions is his jab at St Bernards 12 steps of humility, which he seems to hold out to a brief ridicule for its complexity, or technical nature before he starts to expound upon the simplicity and beauty of St Therese’s Little Way.
Fortunately for us, such a characterization is a straw man, in fact, it is a strawman to the extreme. Even though St Bernard did write a work called the 12 steps to humility, what the work actually speaks of is the twelve steps to pride, which St Bernard states at the end of the book that he knows more about pride than humility. He does point out that if one knows how to become proud, then one merely must descend the steps of pride to become humble. A good point, and one that St Bernard makes eloquently with parables and witty vivid imagery (he likes using animal bladders to describe the proud in this work, among other things.)
If there is anything more cringe-worthy than this straw man of Venerable Fulton Sheen (whom I still love) today, it is hearing people talk of humility. In a world where pride in sin is held out as the highest of virtue, talk on humility comes across as less than cheap. If a person gets the wrong idea of what humility is, then he may lose the ability to humble himself before God. Lets look at what St Bernard says.
These are the twelve degrees of pride:
- Unseasonable joy or sorrow.
- Silliness: excessive merriment and laughter.
- Conceit: expressed in too much talking.
- Eccentricity: loving ones singular conduct, often trying to attract attention.
- Self-assertion: believing (and seeking to become) more pious than others.
- Presumption: believing oneself to be capable of doing anything.
- Defense of oneself in wrongdoing.
- Bad Confession: especially lying to avoid punishment.
- Rebellion: flat-out refusal to obey the rules.
- Liberty to sin: a person who sins freely but is still restrained due to the fear of God or other habits of virtue.
- Habitual transgressor: going straight to hell and nothing is slowing you down.
In addition to St Bernard’s teaching on humility, there is also an article on Unam Sanctam’s core website on humility in your state in life. Knowing the 12 steps are very helpful practically, this article explains how the abandonment of understanding our place in society has greatly injured our ability to make the appropriate acts to grow in humility.
One of the interesting things in St Bernard’s work which you can download or listen here on Audiobook for free is that he does not exhort us to not notice pride in others or explain it away. If we enable our neighbors pride by praise or puffing him up we only accelerate his downfall.
Upon reflection, I also realized that the Imitation of Christ says something similar:
“Study also to guard against and to overcome the faults which in others very frequently displease you” chapter 25, Zeal in Amending our Lives
These admonitions are connected with the correction of our own lives. If we find that excessive speech irritates us, let us resolve to not speak excessively; or if someone is boastful of their good works, let us make all the greater effort to hide the good that we do. The violence that it takes to overcome these faults will perhaps give us a greater ability to bear with our neighbor; he suffers these evils because to overcome them is difficult and the world is never short of the pride of life: vulgar displays of conceit, eccentricity, defense of evil-doing, breaking the rules, etc. Yet, if we look in the memory (in humility) we will find in ourselves these things, and even if we have rooted out every evil in us (who would be so presumptuous to make such a statement?) we still have our past sins when ascending from pride to humility.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.