Costing Not Less than Everything: the Fourth Step of Humility

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.

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