Getting a Grip the Benedictine Way

I like the fact that we finish reading St Benedict’s fourth step of humility on the feastday of Blessed Columba Marmion (if you don’t know about him, look him up; better still, try reading him). Marmion was one of the greatest Benedictines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but he was far from being a universal favourite. Indeed, on his profession day, his abbot allegedly dismissed him saying, ‘I am very sorry you have been professed.’ I can’t imagine anything more cruel on such an occasion, but Marmion bore it humbly and gently; and that is the point.

All of us have to deal with contradiction in our lives, if not downright injustice. Most of us usually manage to do so without resorting to fisticuffs, though we may have to admit to a yelp of pain or cry of fury. At national or international level, the resort to fisticuffs sometimes comes quite early, but it is usually preceded by some name-calling and self-conscious parading of innocence. You do not need me to cite instances in the news at present. The trouble is, unresolved disputes, attempts to make others pay, inflicting humiliation all leave a toxic legacy. It is a truism to assert that the seeds of World War II were sown in the humiliation inflicted on Germany after World War I. We can look at what is happening in Europe today, or across the Atlantic to the pronouncements emanating from the White House, and shiver. The world as we know it is changing faster than ever: the promotion of ‘me first’ ideologies and the stifling of dissent and the free expression of opinion that does not correspond to current norms (e.g. the exclusion of Life and similar pro-life agencies from U.K. Freshers’ fairs. while allowing pro-abortion societies) should give even the most ostrich-like of us a moment’s pause.

So, what has Benedict to say? I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said in earlier posts on the subject (e.g., but I think the final sentence of the fourth step of humility is worth repeating. ‘With the apostle Paul they bear with false brethren and bless those that curse them.’ RB 7.43) That is not humility of the Uriah Heep kind; it is not opting out of conflict or confrontation by downplaying our own values or principles. Rather, it is to engage at the deepest possible level but to do so with restraint and courtesy, refusing to demonise our opponent or make negative assumptions about them. It is quite incredibly hard to do when our temper is roused or we feel an injustice keenly. That reminder about blessing, however, is very much to the point. If we can bless someone; if we can ask God for nothing but good for them and do so without half an eye on ourselves and how good we are being, we are allowing grace an opportunity to transform the situation.

Benedict’s fourth step of humility leaves no room for complacency or self-congratulation. It is searing in its demands. His way of getting a grip on ourselves and on situations that could easily get out of hand is definitely not for wimps. Perhaps that is why it is not popular. The easy way out, the ‘might is right’ formula, will always be seductive; but it may not lead to happiness or well-being.


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.


Costing Not Less than Everything: the Fourth Step of Humility

Many a monastic superior has waxed lyrical about St Benedict’s fourth step of humility (RB 7.35–43), and why not? Benedict takes an unexceptional statement of Cassian, to the effect that a monk must always be obedient, gentle and patient, and applied the rambling and exhaustive gloss of the Rule of the Master to a situation that ought not to exist but is, alas, only too common, and not only in monasteries: obedience to an unjust, harsh or otherwise misguided superior.

Benedict does not say, as some would like him to say, that obedience must be total and unthinking, no matter what is ordered. That is slavery and, where what is commanded is wrong, sinful. We do not cease to be morally responsible for our actions just because we have vowed our obedience. Indeed, the Church has always maintained that the obligation of the vow of obedience extends only to what is lawful: we are obliged to obey in all that is not sin but we have the duty to protest and oppose when sin is in question. What Benedict is tackling is how we obey in an imperfect rather than sinful situation and the kind of humility it requires.

His first recommendation is that we should embrace suffering, quietly and consciously, tacite conscientia patientiam amplectantur. It is a beautiful and much disputed phrase suggesting a noble lack of outcry when subjected to harsh and unjust treatment. Very few of us actually manage that. We rumble inwardly, even if we are not brave enough to articulate our anger and distress outwardly. But Benedict goes further. He reminds us that this quiet embracing of the situation is rarely a once-for-all response. We have to go on, standing firm, never giving up. It is obedience for the long haul and it will test our humility to the limit, just as it tested the Lord’s. In Latin ‘patience’ patientia shows its connection with ‘suffering’ patior more clearly than in English. Throughout this passage, therefore, Benedict plays on the double resonance of the word and when he piles on example after example of suffering patiently borne, we are almost crushed by the weight of scriptural and theological reference.

There are some significant shifts in vocabulary between RB and RM, but the important point to note is that Benedict is constantly referring to the paschal mystery and situating our humility and obedience in the context of Christ’s saving death and resurrection. And then the killer point: ‘To show that we ought to be under a superior (prior, the first time Benedict uses this word for ‘superior’, instead of RM’s maior), it adds, ‘You have placed people (ie. fallible human beings) over our heads.’ (RB 7.41) That doesn’t allow much wiggle-room, and it is made worse by remembering that in the Ancient Near East, it was the custom of victorious rulers to place their foot on the necks of their defeated enemies. One hopes that Benedict didn’t know that and was thinking merely of the coenobitic system where a community is led and governed by a superior. Either way, Benedict is uncompromising. We just have to get on with the business of living with imperfection.

What I think the non-monastic reader may miss in this chapter is the daunting dailyness of it all. In a large community, with its complex system of obedientiaries (managers or officials), obedience isn’t simply given to the superior, it is given to many and the chances of encountering rough or hostile treatment are greatly increased. Many a novice has anguished over the right way to respond to a crotchety senior; many an obedientiary has tossed and turned about the rightness or otherwise of abbatial policy. There is, however, another side to the fourth step of humility, and one that ought to be recognized. Everyone in the monastery strives to practise it, and it means admitting that one’s own conduct may fall short of the ideal. One of the most luminous memories of my own novitiate concerns the late D. Hildelith Cumming, a brilliant musician and one of the few world-class printers monasticism has produced. We had, as many did, some spectacular rows. One of the most heated concerned payment of tax, I arguing that we should always pay in full and not expect any concessiosns, she arguing against. I was left feeling crushed and sore but after supper that night I found D. Hildelith waiting for me. She embraced me in a bear-hug and said, ‘I was wrong, my dear; you were right. I’m sorry.’ That was the fourth step of humility, and I have never forgotten.


The Fourth Degree Again

Like most Benedictines, I have spent many long hours thinking, reading and praying about the Fourth Degree of Humility (RB 7. 35–43). Some of my earlier reflections are to be found in this blog; but it is the actual living out of humility that is the real test, and I suspect many of us would admit that we practise the fourth degree only rarely. Of course there are difficulties in obedience; of course there are injustices to face; but enduring them ‘with a quiet mind’ or, as I prefer to translate tacite conscientia, ‘quietly and consciously,’ is not something most of us are very good at. We rage and rail, or at least grumble, both to ourselves and anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot. We do our best to stand firm, but we have an alarming tendency to wobble now and then, while the temptation to give up altogether is never very far away when times are hard. In short, the fourth degree reminds us we are frail human beings whom only the mighty grace of God can make strong.

It is interesting that when Benedict writes about persevering in the face of hardship and difficulty, he singles out the hardships inflicted on us by other people, especially those placed in authority over us. Many a novice has turned tail and fled the cloister when she discovered that there are times when ‘because I said so’ means exactly that, and being junior to fifty others means there are rather a lot of people to whom one is subject! The antidote to feelings of resentment or outright rebellion is mindfulness of Christ and the example of the apostle Paul as they ‘bear with false brethren, endure persecution and bless those who curse them’.

‘False brethren in the monastery?’ you ask. ‘Persecution? Cursing? Surely not!’ I think Benedict was being realistic. Monks and nuns are drawn from the rest of society. They have the same impulses to good and evil as anyone else, and circumstances can make for some surprising situations. For example, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I attended a conference in Germany where a nun from the East spoke very movingly about how her community had lived for years with a nun, or it may have been more than one, who proved to be a member of the Stasi. They knew they were being spied on, but they got on with the business of trying to live a good monastic life and bore with their ‘false brother’ as charitably as possible. One can scarcely imagine the strain that must have meant at times. Similarly, persecution is not unknown in the cloister, and sometimes it comes from the quarters one least expects.

That is why Benedict insists on the importance of patiently putting up with the suffering obedience may lay on us. We are to take a larger view: not what I suffer, but what God desires to bring about. It does take real humility to be truly obedient, something we learn gradually and sometimes painfully throughout our lifetime. But we are not learning to be humble or obedient for no reason at all. Humility scoops us out, so to say, that we may be more and more filled with Christ. It makes us more capable of ‘hearing’ God in any and every situation. Put like that, even the Fourth Degree can seem wonderfully attractive.