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.