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.

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The Art of Contentment

Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.

Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.

If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.

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Treasuring the Ordinary

There is something about the return to Ordinary Time and the use of green vestments that is tremendously reassuring. We cannot live on the peaks all the time; we have to come down into the valleys and go about our ordinary tasks. Our salvation is worked out where we are, not where we are not.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t really treasure the ordinary until it goes from us. Walking to the ‘bus stop is a dreary trudge, until we can walk no longer. The rattle from the street is irritating, until we can hear no longer. And as for people, they can be maddening indeed, until they are no longer there to madden us. We seek the extraordinary and forget that it is in the ordinary that we are most likely to meet God. The ordinary is not something incomplete, waiting to be transformed into something better. It is for us the way of perfection, something to be treasured.

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