The twelfth step of humility is that we always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident at the Opus Dei, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else. Whether sitting, walking or standing, our heads must be bowed and our eyes cast down. Judging ourselves always guilty on account of our sins, we should consider that we are already at the fearful judgment, and constantly say in our hearts what the publican in the gospel said with downcast eyes: "I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to the heavens (Lk 18:13)." And with the prophet: "I am bowed down and humbled in every way (Ps 38: 7-9; Ps 119:107)."
This paragraph is, at first reading, a very difficult excursion into the tension between the apparent and the real. Bowing and scraping have long since gone out of style. What is to be made today of a dictum that prescribes bowed heads and downcast eyes in a culture given to straight-shouldered, steady-eyed self-esteem?
What Benedict is telling us is that true humility is simply a measure of the self that is taken without exaggerated perfection or exaggerated guilt. Humility is the ability to know ourselves as God knows us and to know that it is the little we are that is precisely our claim on God. Humility is, then, the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centeredness. The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others.
Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, we will quickly arrive at the "perfect love" of God which "casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18)." Through this love, all that we once performed with dread, we will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. All this God will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in us now cleansed of vices and sins.
The chapter on humility is a strangely wonderful and intriguingly distressing treatise on the process of the spiritual life. It does not say, "Be perfect." It says, "Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God." It does not say, "Be flawless and you will earn God." It says, "If you recognize the presence of God in life, you will soon become more and more perfect." But this perfection is not in the twentieth-century sense of impeccability. This perfection is in the biblical sense of having become matured, ripened, whole.
The entire chapter is such a non-mechanistic, totally human approach to God. If we reach out and meet God here where God is, if we accept God's will in life where our will does not prevail, if we are willing to learn from others, if we can see ourselves and accept ourselves for what we are and grow from that, if we can live simply, if we can respect others and reverence them, if we can be a trusting part of our world without having to strut around it controlling it, changing it, wrenching it to our own image and likeness, then we will have achieved "perfect love that casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18.)" There will be nothing left to fear--not God's wrath, not the loss of human respect, not the absence of control, not the achievements of others greater than our own whose success we have had to smother with rejection or deride with scorn.
Humility, the lost virtue of the twentieth century, is crying to heaven for rediscovery. The development of nations, the preservation of the globe, the achievement of human community may well depend on it.