Giving Ourselves the Fourth Degree

‘Be kind to yourself,’ we are told, meaning, I suppose, that many of us are rather severe on ourselves when we ought not to be. Yet St Benedict, for all his compassion, never, for one moment, suggests that we should be anything but clear-eyed about our own shortcomings and sins. He doesn’t expect us to collude with the sinfulness of others, either, but do all we can to bring them back to the right path. The means to be used vary according to our role in the community. If we are a superior, there is a duty to warn, exhort, encourage, correct and so on; if we are ‘just one of the brethren’ then it is love and prayer and good example we are to rely on. If we are outside the community, a guest, or one of the neighbouring bishops abbots, or Christians, we must tread circumspectly, but we still have a duty to act where we see something is wrong. There is a problem, however. Most of us want instant results, but virtue is rarely achieved overnight and correcting a bad situation takes more than goodwill. The Benedictine answer to this is patience, and in his chapter on humility St Benedict gives us a description of the kind of patience he means us to practise. We call it the Fourth Degree because it is the fourth rung on his ladder of humility (RB 7. 35–43).

I have analysed this chapter before, but today I’d like to concentrate on just one aspect: how we can apply the fourth degree not to our relations with others but to ourselves, in our inmost relationship with self. Most of us are aware of ‘difficulties and contradictions’ within ourselves. We weary ourselves with endless questionings, then prove suspiciously soft or self-indulgent in areas where we ought to be more challenging. In other words, most of us are, to a greater or lesser extent, something of an interior moral mess — and we don’t like it. We would be strong, clear, and so on. That is where patience comes in. We tend to think of patience as being a virtue we practise in relation to others, in the unjust or difficult situations to which the Rule alludes. But if we think about the root meaning of patience, from the Latin verb pati, which is connected with the idea of suffering, being laid open, we can see how we may apply it to ourselves. We can choose to be patient, to suffer interiorly, because we want to become what we are called to be and that means working away at everything inside us that is opposed to God. It will mean sufffering, because it will mean going against our inclinations and desires. Suffering isn’t fashionable, so when St Benedict tells us to hold fast to patience with a quiet mind, to go on suffering, we want to revolt. But it is only when we resolve to be patient interiorly as well as exteriorly, to struggle with the negativity we find inside ourselves as well as in our outward circumstances, that we have any hope of changing.

So, be kind to yourself, no; give yourself the Fourth Degree, yes.