Making Every Word Count: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Reading St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility (RB 7. 60–61) on the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman is a happy coincidence. Happy, because Newman had an extraordinary gift for making every word count; a coincidence, because Benedictines have been reading this section of the Rule on this day for centuries.

After telling us how not to use our tongues in the ninth and tenth steps, Benedict now gives us some positive guidance. We are to speak gently, without mockery (risus), humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising our voice — and only when we have to:

cum loquiture monachus, leniter et sine risu, humiliter cum gravitate vel pauca verba et rationabiliia loquatur, et non sit clamosus in voce.

That is a pen-portrait of a sensitive and civilized speaker, a person who weighs his/her words and speaks modestly but effectively. It is interesting that Benedict substitutes the word rationabilia for the Rule of the Master’s sancta. The conversation of the monk won’t be limited to holy things, but whatever he speaks of will be spoken of with proper regard for both his subject and his audience. Words matter, and humility will be shown in the way we use them. A certain reticence is not only becoming, it is essential. Although Benedict doesn’t explicitly say so here, he makes it perfectly plain elsewhere that reticence is part and parcel of the monk’s interior work of listening out for the voice of the Lord. We can’t hear if we are making too much noise ourselves.

I think this little passage of the Rule gives us much to reflect on. Most of us allow words to tumble from our lips or keyboards without really thinking about them. We are so busy rushing on to the next idea that we fail to register the effect we have on ourselves, let alone others. We do the same when we listen or read. We don’t take in what is said but rush to judgement, sometimes with disastrous results. Benedict reminds us again of the contrast between biblical notions of wisdom and foolishness and clearly wants  his monks to be endowed with the former. That takes time and patience, and a readiness to accept correction when we are wrong.

A question each of us might ask today is this: what do my words convey to others? Do I use language to impose my will on them, or to bolster my self-esteem? Is my humour kind, or is it cruel? How do I link my belief in the Word with the way I use words in my everyday life? The answers may be chastening.


John Henry Newman and Ecumenism

When it was announced that the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman would be celebrated on 9 October, the day of his reception into Full Communion with the Catholic Church, rather than the day of his death (his entry into eternal life), some Anglicans, who honour Newman as much as Catholics do, were disappointed, seeing it as a slight on them and on the ecumenical endeavours of both Churches. Was it just another instance of tactlessness on the part of Rome, or was there some deep, sinister meaning behind it all?

It is sheer guesswork on my part, but I suspect Rome chose the date of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism because it marks the chief event of his life: the moment he laid aside his doubts and questionings and embraced the demands of his intellectual and moral certainty that the Catholic Church was the true Church. It was an act of integrity, entered upon after a long, painful and searching journey of faith. He is therefore an apt patron for those with what we used to call religious difficulties, who seek to know the truth whatever the cost. It does not imply any slight on the Church which first nurtured his faith. Newman himself was well aware how much he owed to the Anglican tradition.

Where ecumenism is concerned, however, I think we often confuse wanting to highlight the things we share with wanting to gloss over the things that still divide us. The ARCIC statements have indicated areas of agreement between Catholics and Anglicans, but areas of agreement are not enough, in and of themselves. We seek truth; and although we rejoice in the mutual charity and understanding we now enjoy, we know we still have a long way to go. It is something we have to work at, not just assume has already happened or doesn’t much matter. From a Catholic perspective, the schism between East and West is the most important breach in the unity of the Church and the one that most needs healing. Here in England that may not be so obvious because we tend to think solely in terms of Anglicanism, Non-Conformity, and Roman Catholicism (though the Eastern Catholic Churches are here, too).

Newman’s feast day is a good day for thinking and praying about these things. How we understand unity; what we mean by authority; the sacramental tradition; the role of Scripture and Tradition; these are all important questions, to be approached with humility. Important though they are, there is something we need to remember even more. It is not clever arguments but love which makes one holy. It is also, incidentally, what wins the hearts and minds of others.

Personal note
I trust my Anglican friends know how much I love and value them. I am a Catholic by conviction, as they are Anglicans by conviction; but we know we are not yet one in faith and practice.