The Humility of Trust: the Eighth Degree

When I was a young nun, I had a few doubts about Benedict’s eighth degree or step of humility; I still have doubts now I’m older, but the basis has changed. Benedict says

The eighth step of humility is for a monk to do only what is recommended by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his superiors [alternatively, ‘seniors’]. RB 7. 55

My younger self noted the use of the word ‘monk’, which for Benedict is never neutral but implies someone doing his best to live up to the monastic ideal, and heartily concurred with the wisdom of following the Rule as master, but I sometimes wondered about following the example of my monastic seniors. When one lives cheek by jowl with others, every little flaw becomes visible and it is only in the novitiate that one ever meets the perfect monk. A few years on and the imperfect monk shows his true colours. The only way I could make sense of what St Benedict asked was to see it as an exercise in trust; and of course, it does take great humility to trust weak and fallible beings and submit to them, laying aside one’s own ideas.

My older self sees things slightly differently. I have come to realise that the eighth degree lays on the seniors the obligation of being trustworthy, of setting a good example to others. It requires something of the same humility in laying aside one’s own ideas about what is best, accepting that one is oneself weak and fallible and that one’s imperfect best is, in fact, the best one can offer.

For both young and old the repository of wisdom we call the Rule is our guide, but it is a guide that must be constantly interpreted afresh in the concrete situations of our daily life. My younger self and my older self may practise this step of humility in slightly different ways, but it is the same kind of humility that is striven for. To trust another is an act of faith. It involves a surrender into the hands of God, but not God clearly seen but rather the God we perceive dimly and sometimes uncertainly in the face of those we live with in community. It is ultimately another preparation for the surrender we will all one day make in death.

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5 thoughts on “The Humility of Trust: the Eighth Degree”

  1. ‘The example of superiors’ Is an interesting expression which invites interpretation.
    I would certainly regard those who command my respect by their consistent wisdom, spirituality and moral courage as my superior and would desire to follow their example irrespective of their age or station in life. If however I am asked to follow the example of a foolish buffoon whose moral character is conspicuously flawed I think I might hesitate. I would not regard such a person as my superior.
    Being in the presence of truly Wise and Godly person does make one humble. In their presence I realise what a foolish buffoon and morally flawed person I really am.

    • In a monastic context, we don’t have any choice about who is our superior. Everyone who came through the door before us is senior to us, although not all will be singled out for a post of authority such as prior or abbot (the head of the community is usually elected by all the solemnly professed members of the community). That means that we must be prepared to learn from each one of them, even if it is how NOT to behave. That is why I think there’s a two-fold obligation in this particular step of humility: to trust, and to be trustworthy.

  2. Thank you Sr Catherine for taking the time to explain the context. I can see why I’m not cut out for monastic life, in more ways than one 🙂

  3. A very honest summary. Much appreciated! The seniority theme is a pertinent one. I seem to recall going for the occasional AWOL 10 minute walk to escape from the ancient “wisdom” … either that or spontaneously combust :-).

  4. A nun who was very important to me in my teens and who by example, inspired me into the study of contemplative religion said once “The thing about being a nun is that the first 15 years are the worst…..” she had been in profession for 35 years by then and followed the statement with a gale of laughter. Humour clearly helped her remain grounded and humble in the face of all that her professed life presented and offered her. Deep was her joy and deep was her love of humanity… There is something very profound in the lesson of ‘no choice’ it demands and yet, I think it also frees one to really concentrate on what is important… Thank you for your words Sister.

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