Glass Slippers on a Tall Ladder
Blog header is a painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, titled “Cinderella” and displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. To learn more about this painting and view the unedited version of the painting, please click here!
One of the lovely things about a long weekend, is having the chance to curl up with a beloved movie from childhood. Sometimes these movies show their age, but sometimes children’s movies reveal new things to older eyes. One of my favorite childhood movies is Walt Disney’s Cinderella.
Beneath the veneer of talking mice and magical pumpkins in Cinderella, there stands a satisfying moral of humility that matches the kind of humility discussed in The Rule of St. Benedict. Upon closer examination one sees that Cinderella’s marriage comes about only after she follows each of the twelve steps of humility.
St. Benedict describes the virtue of humility through the analogy of a ladder. On this ladder there are twelve rungs representing the twelve steps of humility. Just as with a ladder one cannot skip any rungs for fear of falling. In her Disney movie, Cinderella ascends this ladder in order. According to St. Benedict,
The first step of humility, then is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes and never forgets it. He must constantly remember everything God has commanded, keeping in mind that all who despise God will burn in hell for their sins, and all who fear God have everlasting life waiting for them. (33)
Here St. Benedict is arguing that recognizing God’s commands and following them out of an appropriate fear is the first step to humility. People must recognize that God is infinitely more powerful than they are. Cinderella exhibits this trait at the beginning of the movie when the narrator describes her as being obedient and kind. This then continues throughout the entirety of the movie. The fear of God exhibits itself when Cinderella prays in the garden as tears run down her cheeks. At that point, her fairy godmother then noticeably tells her, “If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here”. Cinderella still has faith, even though she has doubts. In order to have faith in magic or God, she must have a proper fear of it. Given the godmother’s later talk of miracles, it makes sense to believe that Cinderella knows God. Thus, while no overt statement of fearing God is made sufficient evidence exists for believing Cinderella has a fear of God.
Having gotten her feet on the ladder, so to speak, Cinderella continues to climb. The next three rungs are climbed in rapid succession. The second rung is described as, “That a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his own desires”. In other words, one must practice self-denial of pleasure. Cinderella demonstrates this by putting the needs of her step-family and the mice above her own desires for pleasure, including the desire for a pretty dress. By submitting to her stepmother, Lady Tremaine, Cinderella has ascended to the third rung that requires obedience to superiors including evil stepmothers. This then leads Cinderella higher up onto the fourth rung which is that, “in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering and does it without weakening or seeking escape”. If one is obedient in adverse circumstances, one has successfully climbed up the fourth rung. Cinderella is certainly in an adverse circumstance. Her stepmother and stepsisters make unreasonable demands on her and seek to strip her of all honors. Yet, despite all of this, Cinderella still serves them in dutiful obedience out of her own choice not any exterior force.
Cinderella’s next series of ascents come about through her meeting with her fairy godmother. When she meets her fairy godmother she confesses her faults and doubts saying that, “There’s nothing left to believe in”. By making this confession she ascends up the fifth rung which is that a person needs to confess to their abbot. In this case, though the role of abbot is filled by the fairy godmother. The sixth step is that the monk is “content with the lowest and most menial treatment, and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he’s given”. Put another way, a man here regards himself as not deserving any special positions or graces. Cinderella, when talking to the fairy godmother expects nothing. She considers herself content as the lowliest in her family. Her lack of expectations naturally lead her to the seventh rung is where, “a man not only admits with his tongue, but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value”. That is, a man both says and is convicted of his lesser value. Cinderella expresses this when her fairy godmother begins to usher her into the carriage because Cinderella is still wearing rags. Her attire makes her unworthy to enter such a grand carriage, let alone attend the ball. Her verbal expression of this and her refusal to enter until the dress situation is remedied point towards her firm belief in her inferiority. This also points to her fulfillment of the eighth rung of the ladder which is that she does only what is endorsed by common rule and her superiors. Both common rule and the example of her superior, Lady Tremaine, say that Cinderella must wear a sweeping gown to the prince’s ball and so she complies. Thus, she climbs the eighth rung.
At the prince’s ball, Cinderella’s humility becomes further apparent. She controls her tongue, as she has through the entirety of the tale and is not given to ready laughter as her stepsisters are. This allows her to progress up the next two rungs of the ladder. When she does speak to the prince it is “gently and without laughter, seriously and becoming in modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising [her] voice”. That is to say that in every way her speech mimics that of a Benedictine monk. Even when running from the palace, she retains her composure.
Having left the ball, Cinderella only has one more rung of the ladder to climb. She must manifest humility no less in her bearing than in her heart so that it is evident she is aware of her lowly position. She does this when the prince comes to have the family try on the shoe. Cinderella quietly waits in the background as her sisters try on the shoe. Thus she retains humility in posture and in self. She does not believe herself to have any rights or claims on the prince’s affections because she knows she is a lowly member of the household. She only presents herself when called. Her quiet humility stands in sharp contrast to the stepsisters who jostle to try on a shoe that is not theirs.
Having ascended the ladder of humility, Cinderella receives her just reward. St. Benedict describes this as, “Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the perfect love which casts out fear” . In other words, perfect humility leads to perfect love. In Cinderella’s case this is characterized by her perfect love found in Prince Charming. Once she is fully shown to be humble can she live with him forever in holy matrimony. She will exchange her rags for silks because her humility is so complete that fancy dresses could not sway her.
Thus, it turns out that Cinderella is a Benedictine princess. She has climbed the ladder of humility and in the end receives her reward in full. Anyone who wishes to call her tale unrealistic had best take it up with St. Benedict. If anything, Cinderella tells one of the most real stories. That is, it tells the story of someone made closer to Love through humility.