Contentment: the Sixth Step of Humility

by Digitalnun on October 4, 2015

You may be wondering why I have given this post the title I have. What has contentment to do with humility? Isn’t St Benedict’s sixth step (RB 7. 49-50) all about having a very modest, indeed one might even say, negative, opinion of oneself? Not exactly. He does say that a monk should regard himself as a a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum, which, in the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery is probably true (I was no good at looking after poultry, for example, and no one ever trusted me with a sewing machine — for good reason). But it is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole. Benedict takes an idea of Cassian and gives it a subtle twist, asking us to be content with the worst and meanest of everything, omni vilitate vel extremitate contentus sit monachus. That sounds fine, until we have to practise it. One of the constant little asceticisms of the cloister is having no choice. What we do, where and how we live, what we wear, what we eat, even the person next to whom we sit in choir or in the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf!

What I think Benedict is getting at is the necessity of freeing ourselves from dependence on any exterior props or status symbols, doing things our way or calculating our self-worth according to more or less bizarre notions of our own. The things we think confer status outside the monastery are a nonsense inside, but we can still hanker after them. We can become discontented with our lot, comparing it unfavourably with that of others, which is terribly destructive, both of the individual and the community. Work can become a cover for ambition or self-seeking. We can suffer from a need to be thought special or extraordinary. We can effectively opt out of the common life because we are too busy or important (in our own eyes, at any rate). We cease to be monks and nuns and become something else entirely. I am sure you can find equivalents in your own life, whether monastic or not.

Of course, one does sometimes meet superiors who think they will encourage humility in the community by giving people jobs for which they are completely unsuited. If not actually mad or bad, they are undoubtedly dangerous to know but, hopefully, they are few and far between. Most superiors are wise enough to know that encouraging people to attempt things they might never otherwise have the courage to try can be very helpful, but one has to know when to hold back and not burden people with tasks beyond them; and no one can deny that all the mundane tasks of the monastery have to be done by someone, and that someone has to be you and me, for there is no one else. We all have to knuckle down and do jobs we don’t like, often for years on end; and to do a job badly, yet to the best of our ability, takes a special kind of humility — the humility that says with faith, ‘This is best for me.’

I think that in this sixth step we finally reach what most people would understand by the word ‘humility’ — an attitude, a disposition that makes the individual malleable, ready to meet whatever difficulties life throws at him/her with cheerfulness and acceptance. It is no longer a question of obedience alone. What we are now asked to do is to take on a whole new mindset. It is probably no accident that, when Benedict wrote, the word vilitas mentioned above referred to slavery. He could not have made it plainer that we are to be content in any and every situation, no matter how demanding or distasteful. That is not the same as complacency, against which we must always be on guard. We are to become profitable servants, people on whom God — and the community — can rely. We may feel we are no more than a beast of burden, but as such we are brought very close to the Lord (RB 7.50, quoting Ps 72 (73). 23). I think St Francis, whose feastday this would have been were it not Sunday, exemplifies the teaching of St Benedict on this subject, for contentment and humility walk hand in hand.


Facing the Truth about Ourselves: the Fifth Step of Humility

by Digitalnun on October 3, 2015

The fifth step of humility is one most of us would prefer to shy away from, because it is all about open acknowledgement of what we are really like. RB 7.44–48 is not about sacramental confession of sin, although the monastic practice of manifestation of thoughts, as we call it, played an important role in the development of private auricular confession in the early medieval period.

Benedict is well aware that, particularly in the confines of the monastery, the thoughts that canter through the mind can be a source of much difficulty and distress. We can become obsessive; we can spend so much time going over something that we no longer see clearly; things get out of proportion and, equally, important things can be allowed to slip. In short, we exhaust ourselves getting nowhere.

Cassian was clear about the benefit of manifesting one’s thoughts (logismoi) to a spiritual elder. He seems to have had in mind everything one thought or felt, so that a judgement could be made about the spiritual course of the disciple. Benedict introduces a new idea, plucked from the Rule of the Master, that this manifestation of thoughts should be made to the superior, the abbot. The Church has always frowned on this, regarding it as unwise to give a superior so much potential influence or control over the individual. In fact, canon law actively discourages sacramental confession of monks to their abbot. That is not the same as a friendly chat about temptations or tendencies with someone wiser or more experienced who can help one put things into perspective; and if that person happens to be the abbot, it can strengthen the bonds of the community.

What I think we can all take from this step of humility is the recommendation not to constitute ourselves the best judges of our conduct. Articulating the incoherent jumble of thoughts and feelings inside us can be helpful, especially if the person to whom we are articulating them is sensitive enough to let us know when we are merely being self-indulgent. Most of us in monasteries probably opt for extreme reticence, which may, or may not, be a good thing. It is certainly a very British take on the fifth step of humility! Facing up to the truth about ourselves is never easy, but if we are to live in the sunshine of God’s love, there is no room for shadow. Even the hidden things must be brought out into his healing light.

Note: A post on the Fourth Step of Humility was also published today: see here.


Costing Not Less than Everything: the Fourth Step of Humility

by Digitalnun on October 3, 2015

Many a monastic superior has waxed lyrical about St Benedict’s fourth step of humility (RB 7.35–43), and why not? Benedict takes an unexceptional statement of Cassian, to the effect that a monk must always be obedient, gentle and patient, and applied the rambling and exhaustive gloss of the Rule of the Master to a situation that ought not to exist but is, alas, only too common, and not only in monasteries: obedience to an unjust, harsh or otherwise misguided superior.

Benedict does not say, as some would like him to say, that obedience must be total and unthinking, no matter what is ordered. That is slavery and, where what is commanded is wrong, sinful. We do not cease to be morally responsible for our actions just because we have vowed our obedience. Indeed, the Church has always maintained that the obligation of the vow of obedience extends only to what is lawful: we are obliged to obey in all that is not sin but we have the duty to protest and oppose when sin is in question. What Benedict is tackling is how we obey in an imperfect rather than sinful situation and the kind of humility it requires.

His first recommendation is that we should embrace suffering, quietly and consciously, tacite conscientia patientiam amplectantur. It is a beautiful and much disputed phrase suggesting a noble lack of outcry when subjected to harsh and unjust treatment. Very few of us actually manage that. We rumble inwardly, even if we are not brave enough to articulate our anger and distress outwardly. But Benedict goes further. He reminds us that this quiet embracing of the situation is rarely a once-for-all response. We have to go on, standing firm, never giving up. It is obedience for the long haul and it will test our humility to the limit, just as it tested the Lord’s. In Latin ‘patience’ patientia shows its connection with ‘suffering’ patior more clearly than in English. Throughout this passage, therefore, Benedict plays on the double resonance of the word and when he piles on example after example of suffering patiently borne, we are almost crushed by the weight of scriptural and theological reference.

There are some significant shifts in vocabulary between RB and RM, but the important point to note is that Benedict is constantly referring to the paschal mystery and situating our humility and obedience in the context of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. And then the killer point: ‘To show that we ought to be under a superior (prior, the first time Benedict uses this word for ‘superior’, instead of RM’s maior), it adds, ‘You have placed people (ie. fallible human beings) over our heads.’ (RB 7.41) That doesn’t allow much wiggle-room, and it is made worse by remembering that in the Ancient Near East, it was the custom of victorious rulers to place their foot on the necks of their defeated enemies. One hopes that Benedict didn’t know that and was thinking merely of the coenobitic system where a community is led and governed by a superior. Either way, Benedict is uncompromising. We just have to get on with the business of living with imperfection.

What I think the non-monastic reader may miss in this chapter is the daunting dailyness of it all. In a large community, with its complex system of obedientiaries (managers or officials), obedience isn’t simply given to the superior, it is given to many and the chances of encountering rough or hostile treatment are greatly increased. Many a novice has anguished over the right way to respond to a crotchety senior; many an obedientiary has tossed and turned about the rightness or otherwise of abbatial policy. There is, however, another side to the fourth step of humility, and one that ought to be recognized. Everyone in the monastery strives to practise it, and it means admitting that one’s own conduct may fall short of the ideal. One of the most luminous memories of my own novitiate concerns the late D. Hildelith Cumming, a brilliant musician and one of the few world-class printers monasticism has produced. We had, as many did, some spectacular rows. One of the most heated concerned payment of tax, I arguing that we should always pay in full and not expect any concessiosns, she arguing against. I was left feeling crushed and sore but after supper that night I found D. Hildelith waiting for me. She embraced me in a bear-hug and said, ‘I was wrong, my dear; you were right. I’m sorry.’ That was the fourth step of humility, and I have never forgotten.


Obedience: the Third Step of Humility

by Digitalnun on October 1, 2015

Benedict’s third step of humility (RB 7.34) is as brief as it is profound:

Tertius humiltatis gradus est ut quis pro Dei amore omni oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicit apostolus, Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’

Notice that he gives motive (love of God), concrete practice (obedient submission to a human superior) and example (the Lord himself). Monastic obedience is not about the exercise of power and control, it is about love and discipleship; but that love and discipleship cannot take just any form we like. All of us are called to obey God, but the vowed coenobite is required to give obedience to a human superior, a flawed human being who may fall far short of the ideal but who is believed to mediate the will of God to both the individual and the community. Obedience thus becomes an act of faith as well as love. Benedict is well aware of what he is asking. In giving Christ as the example to follow, he quotes Philippians 2.8. Our monastic obedience will lead us to the cross and to death as surely as it led him. That may sound rather wonderful in theory, but the glow tends to dim when put into practice!

In a way, what Benedict says here about the love of God may seem to undermine what he said earlier in RB 7.67 about progressing from fear to love, but it marks an important change from his primary source, the Rule of the Master, with its frankly rambling discourse, to the simplicity of Cassian. I think it also emphasizes that obedience, especially ‘to death,’ is impossible without love. St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that better than most. Attempts to kidnap her as a feminist icon avant la lettre or to promote her as a type of passive, Lydia Languish, spirituality demonstrate complete ignorance both of Thérèse herself and of the Carmelite world she inhabited. The Little Flower was steely enough to face down all opposition, speak freely and frankly, and yet, to obey. Her last days, spent in an agony of supposed abandonment and spiritual emptiness, were the fruit of a lifetime of obedience lived with a love and intensity those of us who are older and greyer can only marvel at. May she pray for us who lack her courage and insight.


The Example of Christ: the Second Step of Humility

by Digitalnun on September 30, 2015

With his second step of humility, RB 7. 31–33, St Benedict pulls together two ideas he has already explored and gives them a further resonance. He speaks of regulating our voluntas, our drive towards power and control — getting our own way like any peevish toddler, if you like — and checking our desideria, the pull of our appetites — what older writers used to call lusts. But he situates this control in context: we are to follow the example of Christ, who came ‘not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him.’ If you know the sources of this passage (mainly Cassian and the Rule of the Master), you will see at once that Benedict has transformed the orginal, rather Stoic notion of super-abundant control of the will and appetites into the warmer and more personal notion of discipleship because he is clear why humility matters. It brings us closer to Christ. Asceticism is a necessary part of the Christian life, but it is not an end in itself.

I think that St Jerome, whose feastday this is, and who often gets a bad press from those who haven’t bothered to read him, understood this very well. He struggled all his life with anger and sarcasm, but that struggle made him a better man. It opened him up to grace in a way that a quieter heart and tongue wouldn’t have. Above all, it gave him a vivid sense of his dependence upon God. When we struggle with humility it is because we have forgotten that and tried to do it all by our own efforts. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation. That is why we must keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him.

Note: I have often blogged about St Jerome. If you are interested, please use the search sidebar to find out more.


Watchfulness and Humility

by Digitalnun on September 29, 2015

St Benedict ends his discussion of the first step of humility with a reprise of what he said at the beginning: we must keep constant guard over our desires (RB 7.24–30). Not, you notice, over our actions alone, the concrete deeds we think of as sin, but also over our attractions and appetites, the concupiscentia that draw us from God. Benedict here confronts us with a very important truth. We sin in the will before we do or say anything sinful. We consent to that which is less than God, and that is the only chink in our armour that evil needs. Most of us probably tend to gloss over that. We don’t commit the big sins; ours are more like endearing little foibles. Only they aren’t. Compared with the infinite holiness of God, any sin, no matter how trivial it may seem, is horrible. That shouldn’t make us scrupulous in the bad sense, but sometimes we do need to cultivate an awareness of the moral significance of our thoughts and actions. We don’t occupy neutral territory.

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels. We usually think of St Michael as our great defender against evil, God’s champion; and so he is. But the role Benedict assigns the angels in today’s portion of the Rule is one of surveillance. They are constantly reporting on us to God, a kind of heavenly GCHQ. It is an uncomfortable image, and I think it is meant to unsettle us. Good and evil, wisdom and folly, life and death: these choices confront us every day in the detail of our lives. Only at the end will we see the whole pattern, but God sees the pattern now and he waits, tenderly, patiently, as only a loving parent can, hoping that we will amend. Our first step in humility is to become aware of God and it is only possible because he is so keenly aware of us.


Self-Will and Humility

by Digitalnun on September 28, 2015

It is noteworthy that Benedict devotes a substantial part of his first step of humility to consideration of the role of the will (RB 7. 19–23). It is significant that the word he chooses to express this concept is voluntas. That is not a neutral word. It is more akin to ‘self-will’. It means the desire for an unchecked autonomy which opposes even God himself. It is the desire to usurp the role of God — which is why it is so shocking and so deadly. Benedict’s advice is sharp and snappy: steer clear of it, and don’t be deluded into thinking that what we think best actually is best. We are back to needing right judgement again, but our unruly desires, our desideria, often lead us astray. Benedict, however, does not leave us plunged in despair at our own inability to help ourselves. He reminds us that God is always with us, and that our every desire is before him. I have always found that a good way of examining my conscience. What have I wanted today, where have I placed my desire, what has driven me? The answers can be troubling but they can also be encouraging. Grace is everywhere, even in the apparent chaos or failure of our lives. Recognizing that is humility in action.


Mindfulness the Beginning of Humility

by Digitalnun on September 27, 2015

Today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 10–18, is like a bucket of cold water over one’s head. It pulls one up sharp with its reminder that what we call ‘the spiritual life’ is quite the opposite of that deliciously dreamy, pseudo-mystical stuff peddled by religious charlatans. Humility begins with mindfulness, with remembering God, keeping the fear of him before our eyes at all times, and guarding ourselves at every moment from those sins of inattention into which we so easily slip. It is an active and earnest pursuit which transforms our whole way of life. God’s gaze is always upon us. To some, that is terrifying; but if we reflect a moment, it is really quite the opposite. We know — or should do — that our merciful Lord wills us nothing but good. The fact that he is always with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, should be a source of joy. Our problem is that we are too busy looking elsewhere, too caught up in our own ideas, that we don’t notice; and not noticing is where all the trouble begins. The sins of omission, the sins of inattention, are like a great pile of dead leaves around our ankles. They clog our way, hold us back, keep us from beginning to climb the ladder of humility, because they obscure its first step: awareness of God.


The Ladder Image and Humility

by Digitalnun on September 26, 2015

We are so accustomed to use of the ladder image in scripture and patristics that we often fail to think about it. Ladders are purely utilitarian objects we have to use from time to time. When Benedict says, as he does in today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 5–9, that our life is like a ladder and our bodies and souls constitute the sides of a ladder of our ascending actions which the Lord draws up into heaven, we do not always register how positive he is. We are given in ourselves all the graces and helps we need to respond to our vocation. It is our very humanity, our frailty and fickleness, that God chooses to work with and transform.

We may think of ladders as a means of going both up and down, but for Benedict there is only one way — up. Yes, he acknowledges that pride may send us down the ladder, but he is much more confident that we will go up. His confidence is based not on any innate virtue on our part but on the Lord, who wills our salvation and provides all things necessary. The steps of humility and discipline we have to climb are not strange or unusual. We do not have to be spiritual athletes. We just have to pitch our ladder on firm ground (God) and start climbing, knowing that the Lord will do all the really heavy work of hauling us upwards. For a lazy person like me, that is rather reassuring. It is also, quite literally, humbling.


Humility and the Humble Gesture

by Digitalnun on September 25, 2015

Yesterday I did  not blog because we were reading RB 6, On Restraint in Speech, and I took Benedict’s words to heart and kept silent — not for any noble reason but because it seemed appropriate. Today, however, we begin the great chapter on humility, and there is so much rubbish talked about humility (when it is spoken about at all) that I think it worth saying something. First, we must distinguish between humility and the humble gesture.

Pope Francis is a master of the humble gesture, and in the U.S.A. right now he is showing how eloquent such gestures can be. That little Fiat 500 driving through Washington surrounded by huge security vehicles is a case in point. It was wonderful theatre, but theatre with a didactic purpose. He could not have demonstrated more clearly his rejection of luxury and excess, and he did so without actually using the words ‘materialism’ or ‘inequality’. (As an aside, I wonder what Donald Trump made of it all. Was he baffled, irritated, derogatory? Who knows?) Now, the problem with humble gestures is that they can proceed from genuine humility, or they can be mere gestures. In the case of Pope Francis, I certainly think they proceed from a profound humility of being but it would not shock me if, at some future date, I should learn that they were essentially a technique, a showman’s ploy. I say that because it is the business of a pope to teach, and like Benedict’s abbot, he must use every skill at his command (cf RB 2. 23–29). The sight of that little Fiat made me smile, I must confess, because it was witty as well as eloquent. It was an oblique comment on our love-affair, especially the U.S. love-affair, with the internal combustion engine and a lavish use of oil and petro-chemicals. Some of the major themes the pope has been addressing were expressed through his choice of vehicle, and in an age when the visual has such importance, it was nothing less than a little coup de foudre.

But what of humility itself, rather than the humble gesture? Why does it matter? What does it teach us — apart from making us more attractive to others? Humility grounds us in reality, in truth, and as such gives us a firm standing from which to act. It is, as St Benedict makes plain, and as St Bernard was later to observe in his De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (Steps of Humility and Pride), a grounding in God attained through prayer and sacrifice and constant failure. We learn about humility by being proud, by making mistakes, by discovering that we are not the ultimate or best judges of everything. The best antidote to thinking too well of ourselves is to be modest about our own abilities, recognizing them as a gift of God rather than something we have of ourselves or for our own benefit. Not, you notice, disparaging or belittling them or refusing to make use of them, but simply being honest about them. The best way of learning from our mistakes is facing up to them, again honestly, admitting that we were wrong to do such and such or to conclude so and so. As to judgement, I’ve probably said more than enough already this week, but there is one small point to add. Humility does not demand that we say we are wrong when we are right, nor does it require us to remain silent when there is a misunderstanding. Rather, humility urges us to regard truth, to explain ourselves more clearly perhaps, but always courteously and with the aim of furthering understanding. Humility is, ultimately, truth and we learn it best from him who is truth and humility personnified.

The important thing to remember is that the work of humility in us  — and I emphasize that it is a work, a process — begins with prayer, with constant attentiveness to God. There is no short-cut available. In the section of the Rule that we read today Benedict says that ‘holy scripture cries out to us’, clamat nobis scriptura divina. If we would be humble, if we would stand firm on the rock that is Christ, we must begin by listening to him and never give up.