The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

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.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

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9 thoughts on “The Third Degree (of Humility)”

  1. I have been following St. Bernard’s Steps of Humility, in which he uses St. Benedict’s steps, on my blog. This simple list is so useful for one’s prayer life even in the world.

    Thanks for highlighting this step.

  2. The Holy Rule states “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”
    Whilst humility is sometimes hard rather than harsh, I feel St. Benedict sometimes had a wry sense of humour.

  3. An impressive post – I wonder if I could live up to the level of obedience, but I note that it’s not unquestioning, unthinking, blind obedience that’s being demanded.

    Having made the vows, the individual is committing their lives voluntarily to the service of Jesus Christ within the order and accepts that obedience comes with the package. The level of commitment is absolute, therefore, obedience in this context will be by their observing the vow of obedience in trust and love and that they won’t be asked to do anything sinful or impure.

    I compare this to the Army, where obedience was expected and was enforceable by legal mechanisms via the Army Act if you failed in your duty to obey orders.

    Much the same as those of the Benedictine rule, you are not obliged to obey orders which are against secular law, and which might also be sinful or impure.

    I recall that at the War Crimes trials after WW2 the defence that “I was obeying orders” wasn’t acceptable as a defence against criminal actions carried out by those charged with offences. They had a responsibility under the various Geneva Conventions to disobey illegal commands, even if the consequences for them personally might have been very serious. It seems to me that they had a choice to make, but those who carried out some terrible acts chose to either ignore the rules or did it because the had the power to do so and seemingly enjoyed what they were doing, or actually believed that their evil acts were acceptable. I wonder where their conscious was?

    Personal integrity and a strong sense of the morality of our actions seems to me to be essential if we’re to live ethically and morally, but I do understand that there might be people whose sense of right or wrong may be affected by problems relating to mental or physical health, society has a responsibility to recognise this when offences are committed and provide appropriate treatment rather than strict punishment.

  4. I think that true kindness and concern can be discerned by the soul as an act of genuine love. When it comes naturally out of the love of God people feel it physically, they are attracted by it and have a desire to be in an obedient union with it. On the other hand, to be passively obedient to superiors in the secular world can be soul destroying and nigh on impossible. especially if you are called to challenge an injustice or something immoral that they will not act on. The result is invariably that they will abuse their position to destroy people and expose the darkness surrounding them, a darkness that they will expect subordinates to uphold and cover by right of their position, making the subordinates sick, unhappy, scared, frustrated, sad, distressed and disempowered. Anyone who has experienced this and walked away from it, having failed the injustices, is going to be especially cautious of submission and being hurt to that depth all over again. Praise God that we have religious people, and Godly leaders, to set an example to the world and to show that true leadership is humbling and not corruptible.

  5. The term ‘the third degree’in my mind, from reading pulp fiction, conjures up images of brutal interrogation by the Police, as in being being ‘put through the third degree’ The Bible also teaches that Jesus learned obedience by what he ‘suffered’
    The only thing I can take comfort from today Sr Catherine is the smell of marmalade being prepared in the monastery and the thought that Bro Duncan is cossied up in front of the woodburner.I’m praying for grace as you suggest 🙂

  6. This piece raises a terribly important question, which is pertinent to most Christians. In a period of change that is affecting us all division is undesirable, it consequently calls for greater humility and trust between all parties concerned.
    To have acted on orders is not an excuse however, for wrong doing.

  7. While U.K. Viewer likens this obedience to the military, I was thinking it sounded much like Christian marriage. As St. Paul instructs women “Wives be obedient to your husbands”, and as in my marriage vows I promised to “obey” my spouse, there was never the intention of blind obedience, nor of dominance on the part of my husband, rather he was to love me as he loved himself, as we read in scripture. Perhaps the understanding of obedience is one aspect making for a good long lasting vocation, as well as a long lasting, successful marriage.

    • Jean, you’re quite right that obedience might be part of a marriage, but I didn’t take traditional marriage vows, because I didn’t see my role in marriage as that Patriarch which the vow of obedience implies.

      Marriage has to be built on mutual consent between the participants that they will share totally their lives, done in and through love and in the grace of God.

      My understanding of the marriage service as a Sacrament is that it’s those who are marrying who are actually carrying out the Sacramental nature of the ceremony – the Priest, Witnesses and Congregation are there to witness the promises made and to invoke the blessing of God upon the marriage.

      I for my sins married in a register office, I wasn’t a Christian at the time of our marriage. After 20 years together, having become a Christian, we celebrated our anniversary by renewing our marriage vows in the sight of God and the witnesses and were blessed at that time. By than, it was obvious to me that our marriage had been blessed from the outset as it had survived and got stronger as we lived our lives together – I just hadn’t acknowledged or considered it as I wasn’t a Christian throughout the first 15 years of our marriage.

      The renewal of our wedding vows was based on Current liturgy of the Church of England, which differs from the more traditional services in the Book of Common Prayer, now only rarely used in the Church today.

      • U.K. Viewer,

        I enjoyed reading your reply. Harold and I were still Anglicans when we married in a civil ceremony in the court house. This due to friction between two very difficult family members, one from each of our families – we did not want to bring warring factions into the church we attended, and as neither of us was Catholic at the time, we were free to marry where we wished. Twelve years later we celebrated our anniversary with a marriage blessing and renewal of vows in the Anglican Church, in the modern version, but our ceremony did include the vow to “obey”. At the time we both understood the roles of husband and wife to be as the R.C. Church teaches, marriage being a covenant rather than a contract, etc.

        We, too, believe our marriage was witnessed and blessed by God from the start, and we celebrated our 40th anniversary over the Christmas season. As with you and your beloved, mutual respect, shared responsibilities, Christ as the cornerstone of our marriage. We converted to Catholicism 22 years ago, on the advice of an Anglican priest who told us our understanding of the Sacraments were more in line with Rome than Canterbury.

        Wishing you and your Mrs. many more anniversaries enjoyed with good health and much happiness,

        Jean & Harold

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