Making Every Word Count: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Reading St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility (RB 7. 60–61) on the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman is a happy coincidence. Happy, because Newman had an extraordinary gift for making every word count; a coincidence, because Benedictines have been reading this section of the Rule on this day for centuries.

After telling us how not to use our tongues in the ninth and tenth steps, Benedict now gives us some positive guidance. We are to speak gently, without mockery (risus), humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising our voice — and only when we have to:

cum loquiture monachus, leniter et sine risu, humiliter cum gravitate vel pauca verba et rationabiliia loquatur, et non sit clamosus in voce.

That is a pen-portrait of a sensitive and civilized speaker, a person who weighs his/her words and speaks modestly but effectively. It is interesting that Benedict substitutes the word rationabilia for the Rule of the Master’s sancta. The conversation of the monk won’t be limited to holy things, but whatever he speaks of will be spoken of with proper regard for both his subject and his audience. Words matter, and humility will be shown in the way we use them. A certain reticence is not only becoming, it is essential. Although Benedict doesn’t explicitly say so here, he makes it perfectly plain elsewhere that reticence is part and parcel of the monk’s interior work of listening out for the voice of the Lord. We can’t hear if we are making too much noise ourselves.

I think this little passage of the Rule gives us much to reflect on. Most of us allow words to tumble from our lips or keyboards without really thinking about them. We are so busy rushing on to the next idea that we fail to register the effect we have on ourselves, let alone others. We do the same when we listen or read. We don’t take in what is said but rush to judgement, sometimes with disastrous results. Benedict reminds us again of the contrast between biblical notions of wisdom and foolishness and clearly wants  his monks to be endowed with the former. That takes time and patience, and a readiness to accept correction when we are wrong.

A question each of us might ask today is this: what do my words convey to others? Do I use language to impose my will on them, or to bolster my self-esteem? Is my humour kind, or is it cruel? How do I link my belief in the Word with the way I use words in my everyday life? The answers may be chastening.


In a Manner of Speaking: the Eleventh Step of Humility

Being a monk or nun is not an ‘add-on’. What we do, what we wear, what we eat and drink, the timetable by which we live — all these are more or less exterior things that anyone could adopt, were they mad enough to do so. The inner transformation, the renunciation of self and the openness to God that follows, are what really count. That is why many of those who look at monastic life from the outside fail to appreciate the importance of St Benedict’s eleventh step of humility, which is all about how this interior transformation manifests itself in one very significant area, the way in which we speak. Consider:

The eleventh step of humility is for a monk, when he does speak, to do so gently and without mockery, humbly and seriously, in a few well-chosen words, and without raising his voice. As it is written, ‘A wise person is known by the fewness of his words.’ (RB 7. 60–61)

This is more than a recapitulation of what he has already said in the ninth and tenth steps of humility. It is not just restraint he urges but a very positive practice of brevity, simplicity, gentleness and forethought. It is worth thinking about that. The monk is by definition a quiet person because he always attentive to the voice of God in any and every situation. Noise and clamour are, or should be, alien to him. Kindness and thoughtfulness should be second nature to him, so should the gentleness that comes from genuine strength, the strength given by God. In short, when a monk speaks, transformed by grace, his words should be gracious.

Just think. If, every time we opened our mouths, what we said were brief, to the point, gentle, kind and not strident, how much better for everyone that might be. But it would require effort, some of that constant watchfulness I mentioned in earlier posts. Such effort should not be a strain although at first it might seem so. What Benedict is recommending is something we most of us probably aim at but often fail to achieve. For example, one reason I try to write briefly and simply in this blog, even at the risk at misunderstanding, is because I think this step of humility reminds us that the more words we use, the more in love we are with our own grandiloquence, the less likely we are to communicate anything of value. We need to make our words count, so we need to count our words. More than that, we need to work at the inner transformation which will make the eleventh step of humility natural to us. We will never recognize it in ourselves, but others will. More importantly, I think God will.