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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Ladder of Life

In his treatise on Humility and Pride, St. Bernard provides insight into what it means to persevere in living life to the full. He is commenting on St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility. In both cases, “the ladder,” an image which Jacob dreamed about and through which the Lord visited him (Gen. 28:12ff), is a metaphor for life. Humility with its constant struggle against pride makes one capable of living in real communion with God and neighbor, the very communion which characterizes our life in heaven: a communion of love. We are otherwise so locked up in gratifying our big fat egos, we are not free to live, free to share the gift of our self with those whom we are meant to love. What else is hell than being imprisoned in one’s own preoccupations while at the same time perpetually agitated and never at peace with one’s self? Both saints help us see that on the ladder of life one can ascend to hear the voice of God or descend into the lifelessness of sin. St. Benedict teaches that ascending the Ladder of Humility begins with fear of the Lord and ends with the discovery of a respectful finesse in all of one's relationships. For him, the heights of living humility involve becoming so at peace with one’s own self that the monk is able to carry himself in all situations with that meekness we find in Christ. Obedience, confession of sin, and perseverance in love through all kinds of trials and humiliations are all the means by which this fullness of life is discovered. For St. Bernard, pride begins with the way that we look at our brothers and sisters, and it ends in a total rejection of God. Paradoxically, to climb this ladder is to fall out of the heights of humility and to choose a living death. His teaching highlights the important struggle that a true interior life and authentic contemplation entail. St. Bernard writes to monks who have begun to enjoy what it means to live with themselves. Such dwelling within, habitare secum, is possible because of the Divine Indwelling. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts means that the deepest reality about ourselves is not the gravity of our own big fat ego but rather dynamic and loving presence of God himself who keeps us in the orbit of his love. One glimpses the enormity of this gift the more one is able to face his own sinfulness and offer it to God. It is in our relationship with God, the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gift of himself He has given through Jesus Christ on the Cross, that we discover our true dignity and find ourselves able to live with ourselves. St. Bernard is keenly aware that the prayerful person tastes a little of this self-knowledge and has begun to rest in the love of the Lord. He is also aware that it is at this moment the contemplative is most vulnerable to spiritual attack. His teaching is a warning: the descent into pride begins when we allow ourselves to be preoccupied with interests that go beyond loving God and being merciful to those entrusted to us. It is possible, even as one begins to really live the Christian life to the full, to become what St. Paul condemns as “a busy body” (1 Timothy 5:13). St. Bernard suggests that this kind of curiosity in the affairs of others is what caused the Fall of the Seraphim and what attaches the Fall of Man to the envy of the devil. Devotion to prayer and being merciful to those God entrusts to us are sure protections from this folly because only through dedicated service to the Lord will we persevere in the life Christ won for us.

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