Conformity and the Eighth Step of Humility

Superficially, St Benedict’s eighth step of humility (RB 7.55) reads like a recipe for disaster, urging the monk to a mindless conformity. If we do nothing other than what the Rule or community tradition suggests, won’t we end up monastic zombies? We prize intellectual adventurousness and look for imagination and innovation among those we admire, yet here is Benedict advocating a potentially dangerous form of stick-in-the-mud conservatism. Or is he? Think for a moment what the word ‘conform’ really means — being shaped, growing like someone or something, in its root sense of conformare, making something together. It is about life, not death; community, rather than the individual.

When we enter a monastery, it is because we have seen something that attracts us. We want to be like the community because we see in it something worthwhile, something worth aiming at. The only way to grow to be like the other monks or nuns is to follow their example. In time we may decide that we have been a little too literal-minded in our attempts to absorb the ethos of the community, but that is a change of gear rather than a change of direction. We are formed by the community we join, and we pass on the tradition we have inherited to others. There is nothing slavish or unimaginative about that. Indeed, we must be perpetually open to the Holy Spirit, always alert to what God is asking now, if we are to be truly faithful to our monastic vocation. But it takes humility to lay aside our own brilliant insights or adapt our pace to the slowest ship in the convoy. As Benedict is to insist later on, we go to God together, but that can be a hard lesson to learn.

The source for Benedict’s eighth step is Cassian, but with the significant addition of the Rule of the Master’s qualification monasterii to the phrase communis regula. It is not just any common rule but the common rule of this particular monastery, the way in which this community — and possibly no other — lives according to the Rule of St Benedict, that we have to take as our model. Moreover, Benedict doesn’t limit the formation of the newcomer to the superior or officials appointed by him. No, he says the whole community is involved, or so I understand his use of the word maiora, ‘elders’, in this context. Thus, what at first sight looked rather deadly turns out on closer inspection to be genuinely life-giving. Our membership of the community will change us, just as our presence will change the community; and that interior attitude of humility we have been cultivating so zealously will begin to show on the outside, too.

St Bruno, whose feast we celebrate today, is credited with having founded the most conservative order in the Church, that of the Carthusians; but their proud motto, ‘Never reformed because never deformed’ rests, in large part, from their wise and generous practice of precisely the kind of humility Benedict is talking about in today’s portion of the Rule. A community which consciously and perseveringly seeks the will of God in all things cannot go far wrong, though it is unlikely ever to be very numerous or popular. As a Bendictine, there is a part of me that regrets that I haven’t got what it takes to be a Carthusian, but I am very grateful for their example, not least of humility.

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