The Art of Contentment

I have always loved St Benedict’s sixth degree of humility, which we read today, though not necessarily for the reasons he intended. I tend to skip over the part where he says that a monk should regard himself as a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum. In the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery that is probably true (I was no good at looking after poultry, for example, and no one ever trusted me with a sewing machine — for good reason), but I prefer not to dwell on my own ineptitude. It is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole and which to me are immensely encouraging.

Benedict takes an idea of Cassian and gives it a subtle twist, asking us to be content with the worst and meanest of everything, omni vilitate vel extremitate contentus sit monachus. That sounds fine, until we have to practise it. One of the constant little asceticisms of the cloister is having no choice. What we do, where and how we live, what we wear, what we eat, even the person next to whom we sit in choir or the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf! To be content, no matter what . . . how are we to do that when everything seems so contrary to what we would have chosen? How are we to be content when we are ill or stuck next to someone who sings out of tune or our room (monastic cell) is painted that hideous colour? Are we just to buckle under and try not to care?

I think first we have to distinguish between contentment and complacency. Benedict certainly does not expect us not to care, it is what we do with our caring that matters. There is no room for complacency or studied indifference in monastic life or any other. We are constantly striving towards our goal, towards a more perfect union with Christ, and that necessarily involves change, disruption even. We are not called to be Stoics or suet puddings. But contentment, that can be much more elusive — more serene, peaceful, less agitated than we are accustomed to thinking. It means being happy, joyful even, whatever happens, because we are rooted in Christ. An essential part of this involves giving up comparing ourselves with others, hankering after this or that, or finding our security in the status symbols of our time. It means taking our gaze off ourselves — and most of us are reluctant to do that. We even try to make a virtue of our focus on self, ‘Lord, I am not worthy. . . .’ Well, no, of course we aren’t worthy; but unless we are hopelessly deluded, or have a very incomplete theology of grace, we know we must trust to our Saviour for everything. Contentment liberates us from all the useless things with which we try to bind ourselves and Him.

I think that is why the sixth degree of humility speaks to me. It frees us from the idiocy of self-reliance and competitiveness and all the other ways in which we try to avoid the truth about ourselves and the truth of God. We stand before the Lord with all our faults and failings open to view, knowing that the circumstances in which we find ourselves are best for us. There are times when I wish with all my heart I could be free of sarcoma and sarcoidosis but I know they have taught me things I could never otherwise have learned. They have not made me a saint, alas, but they have shown me that sanctity is not what I once thought it was; that I am not called to do great things for Christ but only little ones; that it is in fidelity to the tasks of every day, in acceptance and perseverance, that the barnacles of sin are rubbed off and we are made a new creation. How could we not be content with that?


16 thoughts on “The Art of Contentment”

  1. Sometimes contentment might be complacency, but in my current point in my life, I am more contented with who I am, where I am and what I have the privilege of doing.

    All of this is God’s business, as he has influenced all of these things. The journey has had it’s ups and downs, but sine , when I joined my new Parish, I have seen a turnaround that was unexpectedly joyous and great. I left the pain of not being considered suitable to train for Ordination and made a new start. With a new diocese, new Bishop, Supportive Vicar and Clergy and Congregation, I have explored a vocation, been trained and licensed and sent into the world to do things, that I had no dreamed off earlier. This has made my contentedness quotient extremely high. I still occasionally think about ‘what might have been’ but have come to see that what I want, may not be what God wants and wills for us. Now, still training for the role God has placed me in, I can see new horizons and calls to be more outside Church in the Community, while in Church taking the blessings that have been given to me, to share them among all of God’s people in our community. How this will shape up is still unknown, but a beckoning is growing stronger and perhaps Chaplaincy, which I did a placement with a few years ago, is the place I’m being drawn too?

    I no longer question such things, but trust God to do the right thing and place me where he wills. That took some doing, but leads to a sense of inner contentment that deserves to be shared, wider than msyelf

  2. It’s the little things that count. Being welcoming to people new to the church experience, coping with hypocrites who look down their noses and tut at new comers. We must open our arms and hearts to all who need Christ in these pagan times.

  3. As always your post gives me plenty to think about. I have watched the pain of my daughter and son in law coping with infertility and railed against God for making them suffer. However I can also see how they have in many ways been broken and rebuilt during the process and am slowly accepting that God has a plan for them that none of us know just yet. He has however given them enormous strength and I have watched them learn how to be content.
    In another note, Sister, I accessed the link to the daily reading of the Rule. Am a little confused that they are listed 6th Feb, then 10th etc. Am I wrong in thinking there should be one per day?

    • No, the problem is that the sort order of the audio files can be altered by anyone who uses the website. All 28 readings for February are there, but you may have to scroll up and down to find the correct one for the day. When I eventually manage to uploa dour new website, I hope to be able to change that.

    • Wonderful reflection. A couple of thoughts which opened my eyes. Setting aside some of Benedict’s language was particularly insightful. I know some who do not like the Jesus prayer because of the word “sinner.” This day and age sin is not in. LOL But sinners we are, however, as you point out, we are so much more. [i.e. Behold my daughter Catherine in whom I am well pleased! and so on…].
      The “little way” which was of course St. Therese the Little Flower and St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived by. FROG – Fully Rely On God is something I took away from your share.
      Next, our capacity for sainthood, what I would like to ask you is, do you believe we are all called to sainthood? That this is our baptism call?
      One last thing for your guest who’s daughter is struggling with infertility. That is really difficult Janet. One place that worked for us over three decades ago, was Dr. Thomas Hilgers Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. Even getting a consult and reviewing your history with him and his staff might yield the desired results.
      Happy Lent sister.
      PS My brother Paul was a Benedictine monk and priest at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Fr. Paul Schwietz, the padre of the pines. Miss him every day. 11.18.52 – 5.4.2000.

  4. Thank you, you give me a lot to ponder. Our pastor’s homilies frequently speak of the virtue of humility and now I will think of its degrees and contemplate on contentment versus complacency. He always says just when you begin to think you are humble, you have to think again. It is an ever illusive and yet important virtue.

  5. The scent to contnemnt is Joy in the little things, I think of St. Paul who reminds me that he leaned to be content ! It is such a hard lesson but I have to pinch myself to remind me that I have I have come along way in life and God has been there each and every step! Is is easy ? Not really, but if I remain awake to the realities of life a I can appreciate the little things that God has given me. Although, my illness has awoken me to appreciate the good days I leaned to accept the hard days and think as St Paul to accept what is given with joy and pray and give thanks in all life circumstances!

  6. I also have discovered that ill-health, while always a burden, can also be a blessing because it strips away self sufficiency (pride) and makes one concentrate on the smaller, but often more important, elements of life. One is reduced to attempting to be the best version of oneself that is possible in the circumstances and still one discovers that one fails. In the small things of life one discovers the reality that it is easy to ignore when one is rushing about being (or, rather, pretending to be) big and important. At the bottom of the jar, when all else has flown, one finds the importance of living in, and as, love. Being put on the grindstone grinds out the shell until only the heart of the grain remains. (Sorry for the mixed imagery.)

  7. The Lord has given us all another day of exquisite life. He has sent us serenity of spirit through you, dear Sister. I am renewed in my faith and acceptance of everything that life may be for us all. I can see, hear, pray, hope and rejoice in the life He gives us.

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