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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A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

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