The Third Degree of Humility Revisited

This morning, as I was mulling over today’s reading from the Rule of St Benedict, I did what I sometimes suggest others do: I looked at this blog and duly found several references, including this post from 2014:

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to be obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

There is nothing in the above that I disagree with but it is written, as one would expect, from the viewpoint of the one under obedience. But what if one is the superior, the one imposing obedience/to whom obedience is owed? I think that is when the full force of what Benedict is saying is felt. It is a great and dreadful responsibility to ensure that anything asked is intrinsically sound, in the best interests of both the individual and the community. How often does a monastic superior settle for something less, for convenience or ‘necessity’, say, or even ‘what we’ve always done’? At least one may hope that a religious superior will make time to pray and reflect on what he or she is asking, but there are many who see obedience in predominantly functional terms and have no obvious checks on them — someone running a company, for example, or, more dangerous still, a country. They are unlikely to speak of obedience as such but will substitute other terms such as ‘service’ or ‘loyalty’ which they will then proceed to define in ways that suit their own purposes. And, as we know to our cost, such purposes are not always in the interests of anyone but themselves.

I think St Benedict’s third step of humility is a challenge to all of us, whatever our role in life. It reminds us that what we do has significance, a moral dimension we cannot ignore. Both the obedience we give and the obedience we ask play a part in uniting us with Christ, or, if we opt for selfishness or self-interest (not always the same thing), separate us from him.

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Obedience: the Third Step of Humility

Benedict’s third step of humility (RB 7.34) is as brief as it is profound:

Tertius humiltatis gradus est ut quis pro Dei amore omni oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicit apostolus, Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’

Notice that he gives motive (love of God), concrete practice (obedient submission to a human superior) and example (the Lord himself). Monastic obedience is not about the exercise of power and control, it is about love and discipleship; but that love and discipleship cannot take just any form we like. All of us are called to obey God, but the vowed coenobite is required to give obedience to a human superior, a flawed human being who may fall far short of the ideal but who is believed to mediate the will of God to both the individual and the community. Obedience thus becomes an act of faith as well as love. Benedict is well aware of what he is asking. In giving Christ as the example to follow, he quotes Philippians 2.8. Our monastic obedience will lead us to the cross and to death as surely as it led him. That may sound rather wonderful in theory, but the glow tends to dim when put into practice!

In a way, what Benedict says here about the love of God may seem to undermine what he said earlier in RB 7.67 about progressing from fear to love, but it marks an important change from his primary source, the Rule of the Master, with its frankly rambling discourse, to the simplicity of Cassian. I think it also emphasizes that obedience, especially ‘to death,’ is impossible without love. St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that better than most. Attempts to kidnap her as a feminist icon avant la lettre or to promote her as a type of passive, Lydia Languish, spirituality demonstrate complete ignorance both of Thérèse herself and of the Carmelite world she inhabited. The Little Flower was steely enough to face down all opposition, speak freely and frankly, and yet, to obey. Her last days, spent in an agony of supposed abandonment and spiritual emptiness, were the fruit of a lifetime of obedience lived with a love and intensity those of us who are older and greyer can only marvel at. May she pray for us who lack her courage and insight.

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The Third Degree (of Humility)

The third degree or step of humility is deceptively short and simple:

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’
Tertius humilitatis gradus est ut quis pro pro Dei Amore oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicat apostolus: Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.  (RB 7. 34)

Does this mean the superior is to obeyed to the letter, no matter how silly or outrageous his demand? No, it is much more difficult than that. Religious superiors are to be obeyed in all that is not sin, and our obedience is to be modelled on that of Christ himself, which means that every gift of mind and heart must be brought to bear in understanding, interpreting and sometimes perhaps even refusing, what is asked. Looked at in this way, mechanical or ‘blind’ obedience can prove to be no obedience at all because it fails in the essential element, which is to listen for the voice of God in what is commanded.

That doesn’t mean obedience is negotiable. We vow it, and we know that one day we shall have to give an account of ourselves to the most just of Judges. The motivation Benedict gives for obedience, here and elsewhere, is significant: love of God. We are not primarily concerned with the smooth running of an organization nor with mortification of our own wills. It is love that prompts us to submit to a superior; love that makes us listen for the voice of God in his commands; and love that makes us weigh whether our compliance should be given instantly and unhesitatingly, or whether we should, at the right time and in the right way, put to our superior the reasons why we think an order may be beyond us or not in the best interests of the community (cf RB 3, 68).

Far from freeing us from personal responsibility, obedience, as conceived of by St Benedict, places on us a very direct and personal responsibility to act maturely and wisely. We are called upon to co-operate with the superior in the service of the community. We are reminded that our obedience unites us with Christ; and just as his obedience led him to suffering and death, so ours may lead us where we would rather not go. We must hold nothing back; and because that is impossible to us by nature, we must pray that it may be given to us by grace.

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