The Art of Contentment

I have always loved St Benedict’s sixth degree of humility, which we read today, though not necessarily for the reasons he intended. I tend to skip over the part where he says that a monk should regard himself as a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum. In the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery that 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 I prefer not to dwell on my own ineptitude. It is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole and which to me are immensely encouraging.

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 the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf! To be content, no matter what . . . how are we to do that when everything seems so contrary to what we would have chosen? How are we to be content when we are ill or stuck next to someone who sings out of tune or our room (monastic cell) is painted that hideous colour? Are we just to buckle under and try not to care?

I think first we have to distinguish between contentment and complacency. Benedict certainly does not expect us not to care, it is what we do with our caring that matters. There is no room for complacency or studied indifference in monastic life or any other. We are constantly striving towards our goal, towards a more perfect union with Christ, and that necessarily involves change, disruption even. We are not called to be Stoics or suet puddings. But contentment, that can be much more elusive — more serene, peaceful, less agitated than we are accustomed to thinking. It means being happy, joyful even, whatever happens, because we are rooted in Christ. An essential part of this involves giving up comparing ourselves with others, hankering after this or that, or finding our security in the status symbols of our time. It means taking our gaze off ourselves — and most of us are reluctant to do that. We even try to make a virtue of our focus on self, ‘Lord, I am not worthy. . . .’ Well, no, of course we aren’t worthy; but unless we are hopelessly deluded, or have a very incomplete theology of grace, we know we must trust to our Saviour for everything. Contentment liberates us from all the useless things with which we try to bind ourselves and Him.

I think that is why the sixth degree of humility speaks to me. It frees us from the idiocy of self-reliance and competitiveness and all the other ways in which we try to avoid the truth about ourselves and the truth of God. We stand before the Lord with all our faults and failings open to view, knowing that the circumstances in which we find ourselves are best for us. There are times when I wish with all my heart I could be free of sarcoma and sarcoidosis but I know they have taught me things I could never otherwise have learned. They have not made me a saint, alas, but they have shown me that sanctity is not what I once thought it was; that I am not called to do great things for Christ but only little ones; that it is in fidelity to the tasks of every day, in acceptance and perseverance, that the barnacles of sin are rubbed off and we are made a new creation. How could we not be content with that?