Monday, April 10, 2017

The twelve degrees of humility - Psalm 130 (Gradual Psalm No 12)

Psalm 130, the twelfth of the series (and the number is significant, not least because since St Benedict then sets out twelve degrees of humility), is a particularly important psalm from the perspective of Benedictine spirituality, because St Benedict cites it as one of the foundations for his discussion of the virtue of humility.  It is also the second psalm of Tuesday Vespers in the Benedictine Office..

Psalm 130 (131)
Canticum graduum David.
A gradual canticle of David.
1 Dómine, non est exaltátum cor meum: * neque eláti sunt óculi mei.
1 Lord, my heart is not exalted: nor are my eyes lofty
2  Neque ambulávi in magnis: neque in mirabílibus super me.
Neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me.
3  Si non humíliter sentiébam: * sed exaltávi ánimam meam.
2 If I was not humbly minded, but exalted my soul:
4  Sicut ablactátus est super matre sua: * ita retribútio in ánima mea.
As a child that is weaned is towards his mother, so reward in my soul
5  Speret Israël in Dómino: * ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.
3 Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth now and for ever.

Scriptural and historical context

Psalm 130 is one of the shortest in the psalter at three verses.

St Alphonsus Liguori suggests that it is a response by David to accusations of pride from Saul and his followers, saying:
"David complains that Saul and his followers accuse him of being proud, and calls God to witness against this calumny."
Reading the psalm Christologically, we can see it as a portrait of Jesus' perfect humility, in his willingness to take human form and become a baby, totally dependent on his mother, humble himself and become obedient even unto death.  In this group of psalms that we have now reached, his humility is vindicated by his descent into hades to free the holy souls, and coming Resurrection.

Humility and meekness

As noted above, St Benedict uses this psalm in his discussion of the virtue of humility in Chapter 7 of his Rule:
Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11). In saying this it shows us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard when he says, "Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes lifted up; neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonders above me" But how has he acted? "Rather have I been of humble mind than exalting myself; as a weaned child on its mother's breast, so You solace my soul".
Unsurprisingly then, many writers have seen this psalm as above exemplifying monastic life.  Fr Pius Pasch's commentary on the Divine Office for example includes this comment:
"In this singing of this beautiful hymn with its unmistakably mystic character, picture some little convent in which consecrated souls serve our Lord humbly and joyfully. Be thankful for the blessings of religious communities, and beg for more vocations."

Growth in the spiritual life

The psalm provides us with three images of humility.

The first is of a person who practices custody of the eyes, keeping his head bowed and eyes downcast pondering his sins and coming judgment (RB 7).  It is probably not accidental that St Benedict's twelfth degree of humility reflects the opening verse of the twelfth of the Gradual psalms!

The second image is of a person who does not 'walk' in things above him, that is, engage in pride arising from our words and actions.  Instead, the humble person recognises that, as St Benedict urges in his sixth and seventh degrees of humility, we regard ourselves as bad and unworthy workmen, of lower and of less account than all others.

The final image is of a child being weaned from its mother's breast.  Pope Benedict XVI comments on this:
"We have listened to only a few words, about 30 in the original Hebrew, of Psalm 131[130]. Yet they are intense words that convey a topic dear to all religious literature: spiritual childhood. Our thoughts turn spontaneously to St Thérèse of Lisieux, to her "Little Way", her "remaining little" in order to be held in Jesus' arms (cf. Story of a Soul, Manuscript "C", p. 208). Indeed, the clear-cut image of a mother and child in the middle of the Psalm is a sign of God's tender and maternal love, as the Prophet Hosea formerly expressed it: "When Israel was a child I loved him.... I drew [him] with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered [him] like one who raises an infant to his cheeks... I stooped to feed my child" (Hos 11: 1, 4). "

For notes on the individual verses of this psalm, continue on to here.

Or to continue to the next part in this Lenten series, go here.


  1. Hello Kate, I just wanted to give you thanks for all your work, which I am enjoying immensely, and to wish you a very happy and peaceful Easter Sunday...

    Best wishes from Santiago Chile, Norman

  2. Thank you Norman, glad you enjoyed. Hope you and all readers are having a very holy Triduum, and will have a joyous Easter.