Conformity and the Eighth Step of Humility

Superficially, St Benedict’s eighth step of humility (RB 7.55) reads like a recipe for disaster, urging the monk to a mindless conformity. If we do nothing other than what the Rule or community tradition suggests, won’t we end up monastic zombies? We prize intellectual adventurousness and look for imagination and innovation among those we admire, yet here is Benedict advocating a potentially dangerous form of stick-in-the-mud conservatism. Or is he? Think for a moment what the word ‘conform’ really means — being shaped, growing like someone or something, in its root sense of conformare, making something together. It is about life, not death; community, rather than the individual.

When we enter a monastery, it is because we have seen something that attracts us. We want to be like the community because we see in it something worthwhile, something worth aiming at. The only way to grow to be like the other monks or nuns is to follow their example. In time we may decide that we have been a little too literal-minded in our attempts to absorb the ethos of the community, but that is a change of gear rather than a change of direction. We are formed by the community we join, and we pass on the tradition we have inherited to others. There is nothing slavish or unimaginative about that. Indeed, we must be perpetually open to the Holy Spirit, always alert to what God is asking now, if we are to be truly faithful to our monastic vocation. But it takes humility to lay aside our own brilliant insights or adapt our pace to the slowest ship in the convoy. As Benedict is to insist later on, we go to God together, but that can be a hard lesson to learn.

The source for Benedict’s eighth step is Cassian, but with the significant addition of the Rule of the Master’s qualification monasterii to the phrase communis regula. It is not just any common rule but the common rule of this particular monastery, the way in which this community — and possibly no other — lives according to the Rule of St Benedict, that we have to take as our model. Moreover, Benedict doesn’t limit the formation of the newcomer to the superior or officials appointed by him. No, he says the whole community is involved, or so I understand his use of the word maiora, ‘elders’, in this context. Thus, what at first sight looked rather deadly turns out on closer inspection to be genuinely life-giving. Our membership of the community will change us, just as our presence will change the community; and that interior attitude of humility we have been cultivating so zealously will begin to show on the outside, too.

St Bruno, whose feast we celebrate today, is credited with having founded the most conservative order in the Church, that of the Carthusians; but their proud motto, ‘Never reformed because never deformed’ rests, in large part, from their wise and generous practice of precisely the kind of humility Benedict is talking about in today’s portion of the Rule. A community which consciously and perseveringly seeks the will of God in all things cannot go far wrong, though it is unlikely ever to be very numerous or popular. As a Bendictine, there is a part of me that regrets that I haven’t got what it takes to be a Carthusian, but I am very grateful for their example, not least of humility.


Costing Not Less than Everything: the Fourth Step of Humility

Many a monastic superior has waxed lyrical about St Benedict’s fourth step of humility (RB 7.35–43), and why not? Benedict takes an unexceptional statement of Cassian, to the effect that a monk must always be obedient, gentle and patient, and applied the rambling and exhaustive gloss of the Rule of the Master to a situation that ought not to exist but is, alas, only too common, and not only in monasteries: obedience to an unjust, harsh or otherwise misguided superior.

Benedict does not say, as some would like him to say, that obedience must be total and unthinking, no matter what is ordered. That is slavery and, where what is commanded is wrong, sinful. We do not cease to be morally responsible for our actions just because we have vowed our obedience. Indeed, the Church has always maintained that the obligation of the vow of obedience extends only to what is lawful: we are obliged to obey in all that is not sin but we have the duty to protest and oppose when sin is in question. What Benedict is tackling is how we obey in an imperfect rather than sinful situation and the kind of humility it requires.

His first recommendation is that we should embrace suffering, quietly and consciously, tacite conscientia patientiam amplectantur. It is a beautiful and much disputed phrase suggesting a noble lack of outcry when subjected to harsh and unjust treatment. Very few of us actually manage that. We rumble inwardly, even if we are not brave enough to articulate our anger and distress outwardly. But Benedict goes further. He reminds us that this quiet embracing of the situation is rarely a once-for-all response. We have to go on, standing firm, never giving up. It is obedience for the long haul and it will test our humility to the limit, just as it tested the Lord’s. In Latin ‘patience’ patientia shows its connection with ‘suffering’ patior more clearly than in English. Throughout this passage, therefore, Benedict plays on the double resonance of the word and when he piles on example after example of suffering patiently borne, we are almost crushed by the weight of scriptural and theological reference.

There are some significant shifts in vocabulary between RB and RM, but the important point to note is that Benedict is constantly referring to the paschal mystery and situating our humility and obedience in the context of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. And then the killer point: ‘To show that we ought to be under a superior (prior, the first time Benedict uses this word for ‘superior’, instead of RM’s maior), it adds, ‘You have placed people (ie. fallible human beings) over our heads.’ (RB 7.41) That doesn’t allow much wiggle-room, and it is made worse by remembering that in the Ancient Near East, it was the custom of victorious rulers to place their foot on the necks of their defeated enemies. One hopes that Benedict didn’t know that and was thinking merely of the coenobitic system where a community is led and governed by a superior. Either way, Benedict is uncompromising. We just have to get on with the business of living with imperfection.

What I think the non-monastic reader may miss in this chapter is the daunting dailyness of it all. In a large community, with its complex system of obedientiaries (managers or officials), obedience isn’t simply given to the superior, it is given to many and the chances of encountering rough or hostile treatment are greatly increased. Many a novice has anguished over the right way to respond to a crotchety senior; many an obedientiary has tossed and turned about the rightness or otherwise of abbatial policy. There is, however, another side to the fourth step of humility, and one that ought to be recognized. Everyone in the monastery strives to practise it, and it means admitting that one’s own conduct may fall short of the ideal. One of the most luminous memories of my own novitiate concerns the late D. Hildelith Cumming, a brilliant musician and one of the few world-class printers monasticism has produced. We had, as many did, some spectacular rows. One of the most heated concerned payment of tax, I arguing that we should always pay in full and not expect any concessiosns, she arguing against. I was left feeling crushed and sore but after supper that night I found D. Hildelith waiting for me. She embraced me in a bear-hug and said, ‘I was wrong, my dear; you were right. I’m sorry.’ That was the fourth step of humility, and I have never forgotten.