Contentment: the Sixth Degree of Humility

Contentment isn’t very fashionable in Britain today. We want more, better and quicker — as our right, because we’re worth it, and just because we can. To be content with the existing state of things smacks of lack of ambition, cowardice even. A moment’s reflection will show that very often contentment is being confused with complacency. We ought not to be content that any human being should live in poverty, for example. To strive for what is right, seek to perfect any art or craft, research, improve, build, farm, manufacture as well as we can — there can be no objection to any of these things, rather the reverse. So why should Benedict’s sixth step of humility begin

‘a monk [should] be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, regard himself as a bad and worthless worker.’ (RB 7. 49)

and go on to quote Psalm 72 (73). 22–23 about being reduced to ignorance and being as a dumb beast before the Lord, yet ever with him? Doesn’t it go clean contrary to that sense of self-worth I mentioned at the start?

Part of the answer, I think, is that Benedict presupposes an entirely different view of self from that which has become popular. He is less keen on rights and entitlement than we are and more concerned with the spiritual good or ill that comes from the use or misuse of material posssessions. He also has a different conception of our place in the world. In some ways, the monastery is extremely egalitarian: the order of community is basically decided by the date of entrance. Yet Benedict does allow for rank to be adjusted ‘for a just reason’, on account of greater wisdom or virtue. In other words, monastic society operates on a moral framework quite distinct from that of society outside the cloister. The great enemies to the proper functioning of the monastery are pride and covetousness, and those of us who are monks and nuns may reflect a little ruefully on how easily small things can take the place of bigger ones. We may not have trophy houses and cars to boast about, but being acknowledged as an expert in something or other can be extremely gratifying, and should we be allowed a slightly faster computer than Brother X or Sister Y, well!!

Benedict will have none of it. We are to be as content to be thought a numbskull as an expert. Whether we work on the latest Mac or on an old Amstrad makes no difference. We are to be content, and for a very good reason. Discontent makes room for the passions of anger and covetousness. These wrack havoc in the soul and in community. We cease to look to God and the superior for what is needed and start to become individualistic, making little accommodations of our own which can prove highly destructive. Transparency becomes clouded with deceit and that lack of honesty inevitably carries over into our relationship with God.

It is significant that in quoting Psalm 72 (73) Benedict includes the half verse which states ‘yet am I ever with you.’ There is the motivation for this aspect of humility that he wants to encourage in his monks. God is with us, no matter how difficult our circumstances. It can be hard to believe that, but learning to be content is an important step in understanding the truth of what the psalmist proclaims. As with the monastery, so with the rest of society. Contentment may not be popular, but we might all be happier if we tried to learn how to be so.