Like most Benedictines, I have spent many long hours thinking, reading and praying about the Fourth Degree of Humility (RB 7. 35–43). Some of my earlier reflections are to be found in this blog; but it is the actual living out of humility that is the real test, and I suspect many of us would admit that we practise the fourth degree only rarely. Of course there are difficulties in obedience; of course there are injustices to face; but enduring them ‘with a quiet mind’ or, as I prefer to translate tacite conscientia, ‘quietly and consciously,’ is not something most of us are very good at. We rage and rail, or at least grumble, both to ourselves and anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot. We do our best to stand firm, but we have an alarming tendency to wobble now and then, while the temptation to give up altogether is never very far away when times are hard. In short, the fourth degree reminds us we are frail human beings whom only the mighty grace of God can make strong.
It is interesting that when Benedict writes about persevering in the face of hardship and difficulty, he singles out the hardships inflicted on us by other people, especially those placed in authority over us. Many a novice has turned tail and fled the cloister when she discovered that there are times when ‘because I said so’ means exactly that, and being junior to fifty others means there are rather a lot of people to whom one is subject! The antidote to feelings of resentment or outright rebellion is mindfulness of Christ and the example of the apostle Paul as they ‘bear with false brethren, endure persecution and bless those who curse them’.
‘False brethren in the monastery?’ you ask. ‘Persecution? Cursing? Surely not!’ I think Benedict was being realistic. Monks and nuns are drawn from the rest of society. They have the same impulses to good and evil as anyone else, and circumstances can make for some surprising situations. For example, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I attended a conference in Germany where a nun from the East spoke very movingly about how her community had lived for years with a nun, or it may have been more than one, who proved to be a member of the Stasi. They knew they were being spied on, but they got on with the business of trying to live a good monastic life and bore with their ‘false brother’ as charitably as possible. One can scarcely imagine the strain that must have meant at times. Similarly, persecution is not unknown in the cloister, and sometimes it comes from the quarters one least expects.
That is why Benedict insists on the importance of patiently putting up with the suffering obedience may lay on us. We are to take a larger view: not what I suffer, but what God desires to bring about. It does take real humility to be truly obedient, something we learn gradually and sometimes painfully throughout our lifetime. But we are not learning to be humble or obedient for no reason at all. Humility scoops us out, so to say, that we may be more and more filled with Christ. It makes us more capable of ‘hearing’ God in any and every situation. Put like that, even the Fourth Degree can seem wonderfully attractive.