Reaching Zero-Point

Figure on cliffside walkway holding head with hands
By Edvard MunchNational Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, Link

From time to time, I think we all reach zero-point. We have no energy left; we’re emotionally drained; everything seems to be going wrong or, if not wrong, too much is being asked of us; and, of course, we feel guilty as well for what we (and sometimes others, also) perceive as failure or a shortcoming. That is when St Benedict’s sixth step of humility takes on fresh significance, but not necessarily the one we assume.

The sixth step of humility is for a monk to be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, to regard himself as a bad and worthless worker, saying to himself with the prophet, ‘I am reduced to nothing and am all ignorance; I have become like a dumb beast before you, yet I am always with you.’

R.B. 7. 49–50, quoting Ps. 72 (73): 22–23; cf Cassian, Institutes IV, 39.

Being content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything sounds dull and unattractive, especially when we feel worn out. I regret to say it can be used as a weapon or, more revealingly, provide evidence of envy or even ill-will when applied to other people. Why should X need that? Why should Y want such and such? Surely this is good enough for them — ‘good enough’ being determined by the speaker, not the one in need. Nuns are usually treated very kindly and generously by others but there have been a few hilarious instances of wondering whether someone’s intention was to send us to an early grave (giving dodgy electrical equipment, for example) or otherwise ‘keep us in our place’ by suggesting we are stupid or gullible. Benedict, of course, is not talking about material things only, nor is he encouraging a false humility which is no humility at all. He is asking for honesty and truthfulness and a recognition that we are not necessarily the best judges of self or conduct. We must resist the temptation to think better or worse of ourselves than we are. Both are forms of vanity, and that has no place in a monastery. Vanity is, quite literally, an emptiness which should be filled with the Spirit.

The sixth step of humility therefore invites us to reflect on our own conduct and treatment of others rather than wasting time thinking how badly they treat us, wishing we had what they do, or congratulating ourselves on how mortified we are in our acceptance of everything humble and horrible in our lives. We can be content without becoming complacent, with our focus on others rather than ourselves. As Benedict says again and again in different ways, we are to put others and their good first. I wonder how often we do?

When applied to a whole people, or even to a significant proportion of a people, the argument that ‘they’ should be content with what we decide for them can become deadly. We see it today in Yemen, in the race riots in the U.S.A., in many of the attitudes underlying the social unrest in Britain. But do we see it in our own treatment of those nearest (and hopefully, dearest) to us? The sad truth is that we cannot hope to change society for the better if we do not start with ourselves. If we want others to be kind, truthful, considerate, peaceful, we must try to become so ourselves. It would be wonderful if we could leave that to times when we feel brimful of energy and zeal. Unfortunately, it is usually when we have reached zero-point that we have to act. As Benedict’s quotation from the psalms reminds us, however, when we cease to rely on ourselves and rely instead on God, miracles can happen. It is when we leave God out of the equation that we end up not merely at zero-point but in wholly negative territory.

Audio version


10 thoughts on “Reaching Zero-Point”

  1. Thank you and again on point for me. It is true in those moments at zero point if we trust in God everything works out.

    The paradox of complacency and humility is interesting and so important. Understanding that should strengthen not deflate to submission.

  2. Dear Sister Catherine
    “We can be content without becoming complacent, with our focus on others rather than ourselves.“In doing that does everything else fall into place? How does one actually put those words” cease to rely on ourselves and rely instead on God,” in to action. If you do act, how do you know you are relying on God and not yourself? What does it mean to rely on God? I can think of a few standard answers. I know you do not use words lightly however sometimes one reads them and thinks oh yes..then one think again …? Thank you for your thought provoking blogs, and the effort they must take
    I wish you well.

    • Dear Jo, thank you for taking the trouble to read what I’ve written with such evident care. That is the highest compliment one can pay anyone. However, to answer all your questions even half adequately would require a separate post and go over ground I’ve already tried to cover. So, in short order, and raising as many new questions, I’d say: taking our eyes off ourselves is key. That frees us to listen and look, and gives God a chance to get a word in. I don’t mean a literal word, but an opportunity for our thoughts to attune to his. Relying on God is an act of humility. It means acknowledging that we are not self-sufficient. We need the help of others, and that comes to us in many different ways, sometimes even apparently negative ones. Bless you!

      • Dear Sister Catherine
        Thank you! For taking the trouble to reply, and so helpfully. Yup, it does raise other questions, however that just seems to be the way of things. Perhaps even my wonderings are self centred – so helpful first answer and I guess to do that you need the humility to rely on God.
        Ps.I hope you didn’t read my questioning as being negative or perhaps you are just saying you need to be humble ( or desperate) enough to respond to and recognise help when it comes and not to be picky as to where that help comes from.

        • I didn’t think you were being negative at all. Help comes from unexpected quarters sometimes. Remember how Naaman the Syrian got very ‘superior’ about being asked to bathe in the Jordan but it was only when he swallowed his pride and did so that his leprosy was healed.

  3. I read your post Sister as well, and I must say I appreciated the question from Jo which allowed you to answer in a way that for me was most needed.
    Thank you

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