Facing the Truth about Ourselves: the Fifth Step of Humility

The fifth step of humility is one most of us would prefer to shy away from, because it is all about open acknowledgement of what we are really like. RB 7.44–48 is not about sacramental confession of sin, although the monastic practice of manifestation of thoughts, as we call it, played an important role in the development of private auricular confession in the early medieval period.

Benedict is well aware that, particularly in the confines of the monastery, the thoughts that canter through the mind can be a source of much difficulty and distress. We can become obsessive; we can spend so much time going over something that we no longer see clearly; things get out of proportion and, equally, important things can be allowed to slip. In short, we exhaust ourselves getting nowhere.

Cassian was clear about the benefit of manifesting one’s thoughts (logismoi) to a spiritual elder. He seems to have had in mind everything one thought or felt, so that a judgement could be made about the spiritual course of the disciple. Benedict introduces a new idea, plucked from the Rule of the Master, that this manifestation of thoughts should be made to the superior, the abbot. The Church has always frowned on this, regarding it as unwise to give a superior so much potential influence or control over the individual. In fact, canon law actively discourages sacramental confession of monks to their abbot. That is not the same as a friendly chat about temptations or tendencies with someone wiser or more experienced who can help one put things into perspective; and if that person happens to be the abbot, it can strengthen the bonds of the community.

What I think we can all take from this step of humility is the recommendation not to constitute ourselves the best judges of our conduct. Articulating the incoherent jumble of thoughts and feelings inside us can be helpful, especially if the person to whom we are articulating them is sensitive enough to let us know when we are merely being self-indulgent. Most of us in monasteries probably opt for extreme reticence, which may, or may not, be a good thing. It is certainly a very British take on the fifth step of humility! Facing up to the truth about ourselves is never easy, but if we are to live in the sunshine of God’s love, there is no room for shadow. Even the hidden things must be brought out into his healing light.

Note: A post on the Fourth Step of Humility was also published today: see here.