Giving Ourselves the Fourth Degree

‘Be kind to yourself,’ we are told, meaning, I suppose, that many of us are rather severe on ourselves when we ought not to be. Yet St Benedict, for all his compassion, never, for one moment, suggests that we should be anything but clear-eyed about our own shortcomings and sins. He doesn’t expect us to collude with the sinfulness of others, either, but do all we can to bring them back to the right path. The means to be used vary according to our role in the community. If we are a superior, there is a duty to warn, exhort, encourage, correct and so on; if we are ‘just one of the brethren’ then it is love and prayer and good example we are to rely on. If we are outside the community, a guest, or one of the neighbouring bishops abbots, or Christians, we must tread circumspectly, but we still have a duty to act where we see something is wrong. There is a problem, however. Most of us want instant results, but virtue is rarely achieved overnight and correcting a bad situation takes more than goodwill. The Benedictine answer to this is patience, and in his chapter on humility St Benedict gives us a description of the kind of patience he means us to practise. We call it the Fourth Degree because it is the fourth rung on his ladder of humility (RB 7. 35–43).

I have analysed this chapter before, but today I’d like to concentrate on just one aspect: how we can apply the fourth degree not to our relations with others but to ourselves, in our inmost relationship with self. Most of us are aware of ‘difficulties and contradictions’ within ourselves. We weary ourselves with endless questionings, then prove suspiciously soft or self-indulgent in areas where we ought to be more challenging. In other words, most of us are, to a greater or lesser extent, something of an interior moral mess — and we don’t like it. We would be strong, clear, and so on. That is where patience comes in. We tend to think of patience as being a virtue we practise in relation to others, in the unjust or difficult situations to which the Rule alludes. But if we think about the root meaning of patience, from the Latin verb pati, which is connected with the idea of suffering, being laid open, we can see how we may apply it to ourselves. We can choose to be patient, to suffer interiorly, because we want to become what we are called to be and that means working away at everything inside us that is opposed to God. It will mean sufffering, because it will mean going against our inclinations and desires. Suffering isn’t fashionable, so when St Benedict tells us to hold fast to patience with a quiet mind, to go on suffering, we want to revolt. But it is only when we resolve to be patient interiorly as well as exteriorly, to struggle with the negativity we find inside ourselves as well as in our outward circumstances, that we have any hope of changing.

So, be kind to yourself, no; give yourself the Fourth Degree, yes.

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The Fourth Degree Again

Like most Benedictines, I have spent many long hours thinking, reading and praying about the Fourth Degree of Humility (RB 7. 35–43). Some of my earlier reflections are to be found in this blog; but it is the actual living out of humility that is the real test, and I suspect many of us would admit that we practise the fourth degree only rarely. Of course there are difficulties in obedience; of course there are injustices to face; but enduring them ‘with a quiet mind’ or, as I prefer to translate tacite conscientia, ‘quietly and consciously,’ is not something most of us are very good at. We rage and rail, or at least grumble, both to ourselves and anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot. We do our best to stand firm, but we have an alarming tendency to wobble now and then, while the temptation to give up altogether is never very far away when times are hard. In short, the fourth degree reminds us we are frail human beings whom only the mighty grace of God can make strong.

It is interesting that when Benedict writes about persevering in the face of hardship and difficulty, he singles out the hardships inflicted on us by other people, especially those placed in authority over us. Many a novice has turned tail and fled the cloister when she discovered that there are times when ‘because I said so’ means exactly that, and being junior to fifty others means there are rather a lot of people to whom one is subject! The antidote to feelings of resentment or outright rebellion is mindfulness of Christ and the example of the apostle Paul as they ‘bear with false brethren, endure persecution and bless those who curse them’.

‘False brethren in the monastery?’ you ask. ‘Persecution? Cursing? Surely not!’ I think Benedict was being realistic. Monks and nuns are drawn from the rest of society. They have the same impulses to good and evil as anyone else, and circumstances can make for some surprising situations. For example, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I attended a conference in Germany where a nun from the East spoke very movingly about how her community had lived for years with a nun, or it may have been more than one, who proved to be a member of the Stasi. They knew they were being spied on, but they got on with the business of trying to live a good monastic life and bore with their ‘false brother’ as charitably as possible. One can scarcely imagine the strain that must have meant at times. Similarly, persecution is not unknown in the cloister, and sometimes it comes from the quarters one least expects.

That is why Benedict insists on the importance of patiently putting up with the suffering obedience may lay on us. We are to take a larger view: not what I suffer, but what God desires to bring about. It does take real humility to be truly obedient, something we learn gradually and sometimes painfully throughout our lifetime. But we are not learning to be humble or obedient for no reason at all. Humility scoops us out, so to say, that we may be more and more filled with Christ. It makes us more capable of ‘hearing’ God in any and every situation. Put like that, even the Fourth Degree can seem wonderfully attractive.

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