Male and Female Models of Holiness

Today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, the Second Step of Humility, RB 7. 31–33, reads as follows:

The second step of humility is not to love one’s own will nor delight in fulfilling one’s own desires, but imitate in deed that saying of the Lord, ‘I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ Likewise, it is written, ‘Self-indulgence incurs punishment, but constraint wins a crown.’

I wonder whether monks and nuns are encouraged to understand this key text on humility differently? For the monk, who is often a priest, humility frequently takes a more active form. Even if he has no pastoral responsibility, his service as hebdom means that the monk will be expected to preach to his brethren on occasion and share the fruits of his prayer and lectio divina with others. The nun (and I do mean nuns here, not sisters), unless she happens to be the superior or novice mistress/junior mistress, has no preaching or teaching role except extraordinarily. In the past, this has tended to create two different models of humility. For men, the humility of leadership; for women, the humility of obedience or, as I prefer to call it, the humility of the handmaiden.

In the Church both leadership and obedience and the humility they express are rooted in the humility of Christ. He alone is the true leader, the supremely obedient one, the perfect pattern of humility. I do wonder, however, whether these two aspects of humility — leadership humility and obedience humility — have in practice tended to become more separate than they are in theory, and led to two different models of holiness. I have never really been convinced by arguments about complementarity as they tend to peter out into simplistic notions of biology or lead to rancorous disputes about ‘what St Paul actually meant’. Nor do I want to exalt reason to the exclusion of any other God-given quality. Mind and heart are equally involved in the quest for God; mind and heart are both redeemed, or nothing is.

The Church needs the gifts of all her children. Some must be exercised through sacrifice, but I question whether we should expect women and girls in the twenty-first century to model their holiness on what was appropriate in the first. That is a challenge for those us who are Benedictines. We have a rich and gracious history and many wonderful examples of monastic holiness to draw on, but the people joining us today have grown up in a very different world, with very different experiences and expectations. How do we ensure that the humility we try to grow into in the monastery is truly the humility of Christ, and not some deformation of our own? In Him, we are told, there is neither male nor female. I believe we need to think and pray about the models of holiness we propose with much more care than we may have hitherto.


9 thoughts on “Male and Female Models of Holiness”

  1. I think this is a very important subject you touch on here and one which can lead to a lot of conflict if not handled carefully. I so agree with your last sentence and believe that it applies as much to men as to women, for men’s personalities and behaviour can be just as much distorted by wrong models as women’s. Food for much thought in this post.

    • I agree about this applying to men as much as to women. I’ve been careful to confine myself to what I have observed first-hand, but if there is a distortion on one side, the chances are that there is a distortion on the other.

  2. As I started reading this I thought, “Mmhm? I’m not so sure…” and then realised that you were describing something rather than advocating it. I tend to be rather suspicious about talk of specifically male and female holiness, perhaps especially when these are applied to monasticism. I’d also point out that the tendency to identify priesthood and (male) monasticism is hardly of the essence of monasticism, indeed one could even argue that it is a distortion of both priesthood and monasticism.

    But the more fundamental issue that this raises for me – and which dovetails with things I’ve been conscious of in another context – is that I’m not sure that leadership and obedience can be separated. An important reason why the Orthodox Church chooses her bishops from among monastics is that their monastic training should have taught them obedience, an obedience which involves setting aside their own desires in order to learn to see things dispassionately. It seems to me that this is hugely important for anyone who exercises leadership and so the suggestion that we can separate leadership and obedience seems rather dangerous.

  3. Just to be clear, I certainly wasn’t advocating distinct male/female models of holiness, merely describing a situation I believe exists and which I think impoverishes the understanding of monastic vocation among both men and women. Monastic priesthood does complicate the picture, and would be my explanation as to why we have so often ended up with monk as leader/ nun as obedient subject disjunctions. I hesitate to write of anything beyond the monastic sphere, but I think all my readers could add to these points.

  4. D. Catherine this is an extremely interesting topic for the Church, and society at large, but one which clearly needs our continuing prayer, contemplation and discernment.

    I think that you are probably right. Men and women (monks and nuns) possibly see and interpret the words leadership, humility and obedience in slightly different ways. Within a marriage, a father teaches (often by example more than via words) both his sons and daughters a ‘male’ version of leadership, humility and obedience. Similarly, a mother (who ideally complements her husband, in order to complete the ‘whole part’ of their marriage) also teaches both her sons and daughters a ‘female’ version of leadership, humility and obedience. After almost 32 years of marriage I believe these have been imprinted upon the very ‘essence’ of who we are, as a heterosexual couple [here, I will very quickly include that I am in no position to comment upon the life of any homosexual person, either male or female. It is not anything that I have any experience of].

    Despite believing in our younger days that equal dignity meant equality of virtually everything, I have learnt over the years that we are ‘instinctively’ different; thinking and reacting in different, and largely traditional male and female, ways. It is hard-wired into our brains and our very being. As a tomboy, who played and competed with boys on an equal footing, I’ve grown into a woman who cannot cope, at times, with the ‘muscularity’ of men or their more rigorous interpretation of hierarchies within public organisations.

    At the same time, I have wondered whether it is the ‘cyclical’ nature of women’s lives which puzzles men? It can come across as an indecisiveness, appearing not always to be able to make up our minds. Yet, in general terms, we do not gain our fulfilment from our careers with quite the same degree of rigour as our husbands; traditionally we have not been the main breadwinner. There is a more subtle balance between our career, who we are married to and our children. Here I would say that watching our own children grow has been enormously helpful to my understanding.

    As a woman, I am not sure that I understand your phrase “humility of leadership” though, with regard to a man being asked to take on the service of hebdom, or presbyter at Mass, or any priestly service within the Church for that matter. Having once given the address at the Women’s World Day of Prayer I can appreciate the vulnerability of publicly exposing your very being, but that is also done as a wife, mother and teacher. The fruits of one’s labours, relationships, prayer and lectio come out in the lives of others, and vice versa. My perception, and here I may be wrong?, has been that ‘authority’ within the Church, monastic or otherwise, has in the past been a strongly held, top-down structure. For me, the better notion of ‘leadership’ involves a humbling of oneself in order to take on the burden of service, hopefully assisted by the mutual respect of those around us.

    Similarly, I am not sure that I understand your phrase “humility of obedience” either. In the past, and again I may be wrong?, I have felt that women’s role within the Church has been subservient. They have done a lot of the practical work but been excluded from discussion and decision making? Surely, the Church needs to consider leadership, humility and obedience for all, religious (of whatever type) and lay, men and women. We all need a better understanding of these terms in order to have more fruitful relationships that help build up the entire Body of Christ. Leadership in the Church is not something that women have experienced in the past, outside of their own religious institutions and schools. Yet, nowadays, boys and girls are growing up and being educated together. It is vitally important that we consider female leadership within the mixed environment, but also at the same time consider its impact on the existing male leaders.

    As Christians, we already try to model our lives on Christ but his mother Mary also provides us, men and women, with more feminine qualities of leadership to look to as well. Within such a small space it has been difficult to touch upon all aspects D. Catherine’s blog but maybe we could take her lead and spend time thinking and praying about models of holiness, male and female.

  5. I think that it’s a difficult concept to get my hear around. Why there would or should be different definitions or ideas of holiness based on gender or role.

    If each of us are unique and equally valued in Christ’s eyes, it follows that we are equally formed and grow within that context, being formed by our heritage, our environment, particularly from early childhood.

    I’ve read recent evidence that we are formed for life within the first five years of our life, the first three being critical to that process. Which is where a good Christian home and devout parents are an excellent preparation for formation.

    Stephen Cherry in his book ”Barefoot Disciple’ seeks to find humility:

    “seek to find a form of humility which is robust and confident enough to cope with the world today and which is true to the example and teaching of Jesus. That is, humility which combines a certain kind of acceptance of vulnerability and suffering with a deep desire and profound determination for the kingdom of God. We will call this ‘passionate humility”.

    I just found that the form of humility he describes is one that we could or should share. It’s not founded on gender or role, but rather centered on the example and teaching of Christ.

    Perhaps it can be given as part of our childhood formation, but can also be a gift given to us in life as we grow and learn about Jesus. Many come to faith later in life, and the trans-formation that occurs will bring that humility that a servant discipleship shows through their actions and words. At least I believe it to be so, from my own personal experience of such a trans-formation.

  6. Thank you, Lorraine and Ernie, for your thoughtful comments. As I said, in the above post I was writing from within and principally about the monastic experience. Humility is a key theme in the Rule of St Benedict, so I apologize if my writing was not clear — I was using a kind of monastic shorthand about leadership and obedience. As always, what one doesn’t say is as important as what one does.

    • D. Catherine, we need humble people in the rest of the Church and society at large as well.

      The difficulty comes for all of us in learning what we mean by humility and how to exercise it. I would like to think that the Rule of St Benedict had much to offer the laity and the wider Church. The challenge here is in how we interpret that which is appropriate for lay, or alternative religious, life and that which belongs more particularly to the cloister.

      I would like to think that the alternative was possible too. That monastics never forgot what they learnt in their own families and continue to learn from their friends and family? Surely, we are all trying, in some small way, to model our lives on Christ (and the holy family?)?

      As an addition really, I can see how an Abbot may act in persona Christi but does an Abbess not have to conduct herself more as a mother within a family, rather than a father? It’s just a thought.

      • Thank you.

        You must allow for the fact that I may, in a monastic blog, address questions and texts that I think are best understood in the context of monastic life as it is lived by monks and nuns. In offering my thoughts to a wider public, I am not limiting the way in which anyone chooses to interpret or add to them, but that interpretation or addition may not be consistent with the purely monastic point I am making.

        Thus, I would say that any monastic superior, whether male or female —abbot/abbess/prior/prioress— should act in accordance with RB 2 and RB 64, and I would reject as unBenedictine the distinction you are trying to make. The female superior is believed to represent Christ in the community every bit as much as the male superior. That is why I question whether the male/female disjunctions we sometimes see are valid: I don’t think they are, and that was what I was writing about.

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