Contentment: the Sixth Step of Humility

You may be wondering why I have given this post the title I have. What has contentment to do with humility? Isn’t St Benedict’s sixth step (RB 7. 49-50) all about having a very modest, indeed one might even say, negative, opinion of oneself? Not exactly. He does say that a monk should regard himself as a a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum, which, in the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery 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 it is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole. 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 in the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf!

What I think Benedict is getting at is the necessity of freeing ourselves from dependence on any exterior props or status symbols, doing things our way or calculating our self-worth according to more or less bizarre notions of our own. The things we think confer status outside the monastery are a nonsense inside, but we can still hanker after them. We can become discontented with our lot, comparing it unfavourably with that of others, which is terribly destructive, both of the individual and the community. Work can become a cover for ambition or self-seeking. We can suffer from a need to be thought special or extraordinary. We can effectively opt out of the common life because we are too busy or important (in our own eyes, at any rate). We cease to be monks and nuns and become something else entirely. I am sure you can find equivalents in your own life, whether monastic or not.

Of course, one does sometimes meet superiors who think they will encourage humility in the community by giving people jobs for which they are completely unsuited. If not actually mad or bad, they are undoubtedly dangerous to know but, hopefully, they are few and far between. Most superiors are wise enough to know that encouraging people to attempt things they might never otherwise have the courage to try can be very helpful, but one has to know when to hold back and not burden people with tasks beyond them; and no one can deny that all the mundane tasks of the monastery have to be done by someone, and that someone has to be you and me, for there is no one else. We all have to knuckle down and do jobs we don’t like, often for years on end; and to do a job badly, yet to the best of our ability, takes a special kind of humility — the humility that says with faith, ‘This is best for me.’

I think that in this sixth step we finally reach what most people would understand by the word ‘humility’ — an attitude, a disposition that makes the individual malleable, ready to meet whatever difficulties life throws at him/her with cheerfulness and acceptance. It is no longer a question of obedience alone. What we are now asked to do is to take on a whole new mindset. It is probably no accident that, when Benedict wrote, the word vilitas mentioned above referred to slavery. He could not have made it plainer that we are to be content in any and every situation, no matter how demanding or distasteful. That is not the same as complacency, against which we must always be on guard. We are to become profitable servants, people on whom God — and the community — can rely. We may feel we are no more than a beast of burden, but as such we are brought very close to the Lord (RB 7.50, quoting Ps 72 (73). 23). I think St Francis, whose feastday this would have been were it not Sunday, exemplifies the teaching of St Benedict on this subject, for contentment and humility walk hand in hand.