In a Manner of Speaking: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Being a monk or nun is not an ‘add-on’. What we do, what we wear, what we eat and drink, the timetable by which we live — all these are more or less exterior things that anyone could adopt, were they mad enough to do so. The inner transformation, the renunciation of self and the openness to God that follows, are what really count. That is why many of those who look at monastic life from the outside fail to appreciate the importance of St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility, which is all about how this interior transformation manifests itself in one very significant area, the way in which we speak. Consider:

The eleventh step of humility is for a monk, when he does speak, to do so gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising his voice. As it is written, ‘A wise person is known by the fewness of his words.’ (RB 7. 60–61)

This is more than a recapitulation of what he has already said in the ninth and tenth steps of humility. It is not just restraint he urges but a very positive practice of brevity, simplicity, gentleness and forethought. It is worth thinking about that. The monk is by definition a quiet person because he always attentive to the voice of God in any and every situation. Noise and clamour are, or should be, alien to him. Kindness and thoughtfulness should be second nature to him, so should the gentleness that comes from genuine strength, the strength given by God. In short, when a monk speaks, transformed by grace, his words should be gracious.

Just think. If, every time we opened our mouths, what we said were brief, to the point, gentle, kind and not strident, how much better for everyone that might be. But it would require effort, some of that constant watchfulness I mentioned in earlier posts. Such effort should not be a strain although at first it might seem so. What Benedict is recommending is something we most of us probably aim at but often fail to achieve. For example, one reason I try to write briefly and simply in this blog, even at the risk at misunderstanding, is because I think this step of humility reminds us that the more words we use, the more in love we are with our own grandiloquence, the less likely we are to communicate anything of value. We need to make our words count, so we need to count our words. More than that, we need to work at the inner transformation which will make the eleventh step of humility natural to us. We will never recognize it in ourselves, but others will. More importantly, I think God will.