Male and Female Models of Holiness

Today’s section of the Rule of St Benedict, the Second Step of Humility, RB 7. 31–33, reads as follows:

The second step of humility is not to love one’s own will nor delight in fulfilling one’s own desires, but imitate in deed that saying of the Lord, ‘I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ Likewise, it is written, ‘Self-indulgence incurs punishment, but constraint wins a crown.’

I wonder whether monks and nuns are encouraged to understand this key text on humility differently? For the monk, who is often a priest, humility frequently takes a more active form. Even if he has no pastoral responsibility, his service as hebdom means that the monk will be expected to preach to his brethren on occasion and share the fruits of his prayer and lectio divina with others. The nun (and I do mean nuns here, not sisters), unless she happens to be the superior or novice mistress/junior mistress, has no preaching or teaching role except extraordinarily. In the past, this has tended to create two different models of humility. For men, the humility of leadership; for women, the humility of obedience or, as I prefer to call it, the humility of the handmaiden.

In the Church both leadership and obedience and the humility they express are rooted in the humility of Christ. He alone is the true leader, the supremely obedient one, the perfect pattern of humility. I do wonder, however, whether these two aspects of humility — leadership humility and obedience humility — have in practice tended to become more separate than they are in theory, and led to two different models of holiness. I have never really been convinced by arguments about complementarity as they tend to peter out into simplistic notions of biology or lead to rancorous disputes about ‘what St Paul actually meant’. Nor do I want to exalt reason to the exclusion of any other God-given quality. Mind and heart are equally involved in the quest for God; mind and heart are both redeemed, or nothing is.

The Church needs the gifts of all her children. Some must be exercised through sacrifice, but I question whether we should expect women and girls in the twenty-first century to model their holiness on what was appropriate in the first. That is a challenge for those us who are Benedictines. We have a rich and gracious history and many wonderful examples of monastic holiness to draw on, but the people joining us today have grown up in a very different world, with very different experiences and expectations. How do we ensure that the humility we try to grow into in the monastery is truly the humility of Christ, and not some deformation of our own? In Him, we are told, there is neither male nor female. I believe we need to think and pray about the models of holiness we propose with much more care than we may have hitherto.

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