To be content without becoming complacent is not easy; harder still to be content with ‘the meanest and worst of everything’ — including, it must be said, others’ treatment of us — as St Benedict writes in the sixth step of humility which we read today (RB 7.49–50). It gets worse. He goes on to say that, in respect of any task laid upon us, we must regard ourselves as ‘bad and worthless workers,’ which is contrary to everything we are taught to believe about our own self-worth and value as human beings. If Jesus had not said something similar in the gospel (Luke 17.10), we might be tempted to dismiss what Benedict says as the meanderings of a mad monk with a ‘down’ on humanity. In fact, it is precisely because Benedict has such a high vision of what we are capable of that he writes as he does. It is the innerliness of the monastic life, if I may coin such a word, that provides the clue. The monk or nun must contain within him/herself the source of their joy.
Today we mark the anniversary of the dedication of our monastery chapel. It is very small, rather mean-looking to an outsider, but it is the most important room in the house and, as such, the locus of the most intense moments of our lives as individuals and as a community. It is where we take the requests for prayer we receive from all over the world; where we recite the Divine Office, hour by hour, day by day; where we go to pray silently; where we keep vigil, and where we give thanks. We are content with its plainness, its small size, even its battered wooden floor. The secret to such contentment is to live in the present, not the past or future. The difficulty comes when the present is painful and we want to escape it, but Benedict has already written of that in the fourth step of humility, where he tells us not to tire or give up. We can only do that if we cultivate a life of prayer. Stoicism by itself is not enough because it lacks the all-important element of love. It is love, and love alone, that enables us to bear ‘the intolerable shirt of flame’ with joy and peace, to go on when all seems pain and loss. It is the secret of the Cross — a secret each of us must learn one day .