In a Manner of Speaking: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Being a monk or nun is not an ‘add-on’. What we do, what we wear, what we eat and drink, the timetable by which we live — all these are more or less exterior things that anyone could adopt, were they mad enough to do so. The inner transformation, the renunciation of self and the openness to God that follows, are what really count. That is why many of those who look at monastic life from the outside fail to appreciate the importance of St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility, which is all about how this interior transformation manifests itself in one very significant area, the way in which we speak. Consider:

The eleventh step of humility is for a monk, when he does speak, to do so gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising his voice. As it is written, ‘A wise person is known by the fewness of his words.’ (RB 7. 60–61)

This is more than a recapitulation of what he has already said in the ninth and tenth steps of humility. It is not just restraint he urges but a very positive practice of brevity, simplicity, gentleness and forethought. It is worth thinking about that. The monk is by definition a quiet person because he always attentive to the voice of God in any and every situation. Noise and clamour are, or should be, alien to him. Kindness and thoughtfulness should be second nature to him, so should the gentleness that comes from genuine strength, the strength given by God. In short, when a monk speaks, transformed by grace, his words should be gracious.

Just think. If, every time we opened our mouths, what we said were brief, to the point, gentle, kind and not strident, how much better for everyone that might be. But it would require effort, some of that constant watchfulness I mentioned in earlier posts. Such effort should not be a strain although at first it might seem so. What Benedict is recommending is something we most of us probably aim at but often fail to achieve. For example, one reason I try to write briefly and simply in this blog, even at the risk at misunderstanding, is because I think this step of humility reminds us that the more words we use, the more in love we are with our own grandiloquence, the less likely we are to communicate anything of value. We need to make our words count, so we need to count our words. More than that, we need to work at the inner transformation which will make the eleventh step of humility natural to us. We will never recognize it in ourselves, but others will. More importantly, I think God will.

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8 thoughts on “In a Manner of Speaking: the Eleventh Step of Humility”

  1. Sr, I am very interested in what you have to say at the beginning of your piece.

    As a married person one’s life isn’t one’s own, to do with as one pleases. One has to live by the wishes and constraints of a spouse, as well as by our own inclinations (attempting to hold both the individuals and their unity in balance). That is part of the marriage vows that have been taken.

    Trying to live an ‘inner transformation’, outside of a monastic enclosure, is not easy, given the clamour of the world. A contemplative approach can be misunderstood and even ‘bruised’ by the persistent need to see ‘evidence’ of great works of charity. Small acts of kindness, executed from within hopefully a ‘transforming’ life, is surely more sustainable and healthy?

    It is my understanding that the fruits of a contemplative life are only slowly released and witnessed over time. They are however, along with many other practices and charisms, one of the great ‘treasures’ of the Mystical Body of the Church.

    We are very lucky to have contemplative monks and nuns in our midst but I also like to hope that there is a place for lay men and women to practice something of their way of life, whilst still living in the world (just as circumstances allow). Is that not why we have a number of believers who have made an oblation of themselves to a particular community?

    • A thoughtful and heartfelt comment, Lorraine. Thank you. I am sure there is a place for contemplative laity as you describe. For me, one of the struggles to realise this is because the barriers you describe so well – need to achieve, slow progress etc, are not only out there in others, but internalised in those of us who make the attempt. If I may offer an experience from my own life. I often struggle with ill health, but instead of surrendering to the quiet and silence that heal, I fight to remain busy and active.

    • I don’t see any contradiction, Lorraine. I was merely pointing out in my first paragraph that many people latch on to the externals of monastic life, and when they do, they tend to read the Rule selectively. A monk, nun or oblate knows very well that the Rule is to be taken whole: the detail is important. Our own oblates make a promise to follow the Rule ‘insofar as my circumstances in life permit’. That is a recognition that there are other loyalties and duties which may take precedence over the more explicitly monastic ones. For example, the commitment to prayer which for us, as nuns, includes praying the monastic Divine Office daily as well as a stipulated amount of so-called private, contemplative prayer and lectio divina is simply not always possible for our oblates. God does not ask what we cannot give. Of course, the laity can share many aspects of our way of life with great fruitfulness; but he does not ask of them exactly what he has asked of us. In no way does that imply that the laity are somehow ‘inferior’. As I often like to remind our bishops whenever I get the opportunity, we are all, first and foremost, members of the laos, the people of God.

      • I wasn’t implying any contradiction, sister, but rather trying to expand your well elucidated point by giving another view which hopefully would help ‘build up’ the people of God.

        We are all different, with different gifts and interests. It is in using the qualities of each, whilst supporting each other’s weaknesses, that we help build the whole. Thank you.

  2. Dear Sister, St. Benedict’s rule, not unlike the discipline of other Founders, is apt and appropriate. In any state of life, and in whatever status, be it in fellowship or leadership, self control in speech is a good rule.

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