Many people seem to enjoy small Saturday morning rituals that mark the start of the week-end: a few extra minutes in bed, a special breakfast, perhaps a visit to the car-wash or a favourite coffee shop or pub, and so on. In a monastery, Saturday mornings tend to be like any other morning and are distinguished only by their liturgical status. We keep today, the memoria of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as a ‘collect only’ memoria, which means the day is about as low-key as it is possible to get. It follows that the daily routine and its rituals are where we have to find not only purpose but also relaxation and renewal of energies. One such is our daily reading of the Rule of St Benedict. Today’s section, RB 7.62-70, on the twelfth step of humility, sums up not only what monastic life is about, but how we attain its purpose through the practice of various forms of humility. Crucially, it reminds us that it is not our doing at all, but that of the Holy Spirit. That frees us from any sense of personal achievement (Pelagianism be damned!) while at the same time encouraging us to try harder, that we may become what the Rule calls the Lord’s ‘worker, now cleansed from vice and sin’ (RB 7.70). Of course, how one views that sentence depends where one puts the emphasis, on the worker or the being cleansed. For me, on this particular Saturday morning, I’d like to hope it might be the being cleansed, readied for the great celebration of Sunday. And you? How many have going to confession built into your Saturday morning rituals, or shouldn’t I ask? It beats the car-wash any day! 🙂
The title of this post may be tempting fate, but most of us experience days when nothing much seems to happen. We just get on with things and the routine of life seems as dull and uneventful as ever. Even the weather conspires to reinforce the sense of ordinariness. But, and I admit it is a very great ‘but’, it is precisely at such times and in such circumstances that we ‘work out our salvation in fear and trembling.’ Today St Benedict sets before us the twelfth step of humility (RB 7. 62–70). It contains both a wonderful promise and a powerful warning. We must make a habit of virtue and move from fear to love in our following of Christ. We ourselves will probably never notice the turning-point. It’s unlikely to be a Road to Damascus experience or anything that will impress itself on us in a dramatic way. For most of us it will be gradual, imperceptible, something that occurs on one of those days when nothing much seems to happen. That is why they matter so much.
Note: if you are interested in St Benedict’s seventh chapter, On Humility, I have written many posts on the different steps he identifies, including, in 2015, a connected series of posts which begins here and covers the whole chapter systematically — or as systematically as I ever manage.
The observant among you will have noticed that I blogged on every step or degree of humility last year as well as this so are probably wondering whether I can have anything left to say.
Perhaps we could start by re-reading last year’s post on the twelfth step of humility, RB 7.62-70, here? It includes today’s portion of the Rule in audio format, and I think it’s important to listen rather than just scan the text with one’s eyes. Monks and nuns listen to the Rule every day, an activity that requires attention and focus. Mediated through a human voice, the Rule takes on an urgency and insistence we might otherwise miss. Different things strike one at different times, and I have never managed to read this particular step of humility without feeling I have encountered it for the first time.
First of all, there is Benedict’s insistence on an exterior attitude of humility which is difficult to fake in community because we live too closely together. We are acutely conscious of one another’s imperfections. But humility is not a way of masking imperfection: it is a way of transforming it. We must allow the words of the gospel to change us. Once we have really made our own the publican’s words, ‘Lord I am a sinner, not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven,’ we see everyone and everything differently, with the eyes of compassion and love rather than judgement or condemnation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that the kind of compassion and love I’m talking about is the soppy, self-indulgent kind, oozing complacency and self-regard. The monk looks outward with compassion because he has had compassion shown him in abundance. Consciousness of his own sin brings to mind God’s mercy and forgiveness (cf Ps 37 (38). 7, quoted by the Rule). He can never forget that. It becomes the mainspring of his life.
In chapter 7, St Benedict charts the movement from fear to love and here, in the twelfth step, paints a wonderful picture of a life increasingly transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, in which we do all things for the love of Christ. Note that he does not present a static picture. We do not attain holiness and then stop, as though there were nothing left for us to do. We go on, becoming more and more Christ-like. The practice of humility becomes less of a struggle, more of a delight. (I take this on faith as I haven’t got there myself, but I have glimpsed such humility in older monks and nuns, and I am encouraged.)
If we look at the way in which Benedict has constructed this section of the Rule, we can see immediately that he has incorporated a lot of material from the Rule of the Master. The lengthy description of exterior forms of humility comes from him, but Benedict changes the ending, so that the effects of humility are experienced in this life rather than the next. Underlying both, of course, is Cassian, and much ink has been spilled on what Benedict means by his reference to the ‘perfect love of God’, ad caritatem Dei . . . perfecta. I think we are meant to take it as a reference to God’s love for us (cf John 4. 18) which can never be transcended or improved upon. We thus end Benedict’s chapter on humility on a warm and encouraging note, one in which all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are named together — the only time Benedict does so in the whole of the Rule.
I was tempted to do no more than quote the text of St Benedict’s twelfth degree of humility, or refer you to previous posts on the subject, when I realised that it would be better to try to share some of the monastic experience of the Rule instead. Accordingly, I ask you first of all to listen to St Benedict’s words, as they are heard today in Benedictine monasteries throughout the world (not necessarily in this translation, of course):
Here we have St Benedict’s teaching on humility distilled into a little: it is the work of the Holy Spirit, leading us to that perfect love of God which casts out fear. Earlier, in chapter 1, Benedict had defined the ‘strong kind of monk’ as someone who ‘lives in a monastery and serves under a rule and abbot’. (cf RB 1.2, 1.13) We might call that the fundamental disposition of Benedict’s take on humility. It is mediated in and through community, under the guidance of the abbot. In other words, it is learned; and it is not something we can learn by ourselves, no matter how many good books we read nor good acts we perform. We need other people to help us change and become what we are meant to be. The things that humble us in the course of our daily life in community scoop out the pride, obstinacy and self-will we all have in abundance. (cf RB 58. 7) That is why Benedict recommends no particular mortifications or penances to make us humble. Just living together and following Rule and abbot will do the work, or rather, will allow the Holy Spirit to do his work in us, making us, in our turn, reliable workers for the Lord. (cf RB 7.70 et passim)
I think this shows, more than anything else, what an optimistic view of human nature Benedict had. Holiness is not just for the few but for all who truly seek God and are prepared to allow him to act through imperfect circumstances and weak and fallible human beings. We put up so many barriers to God. Monastic life is a constant process of removing those barriers one by one, of becoming vulnerable and discovering in our vulnerability the source of our healing.
May you have a blessed Sunday.
Yesterday I made use of the Twitter hashtag ‘phrases that annoy’ in connection with a mild joke. I was surprised to be taken up by another Twitter user who said that he thought being annoyed was contrary to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. My reply, that it wasn’t the being annoyed that was the problem but what we did with it, and that the Rule is for those who are not yet perfect, probably didn’t cut much ice. However, in the context of today’s reading from the Rule, RB 7.62–70, the twelfth step of humility, I think it highlights a problem we are all familiar with: ‘religious people’, nuns especially, are expected to be ‘perfect’; and when we don’t measure up to the other person’s expectations, there is grave disappointment.
Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that most people think of perfection as something static whereas I think it is much more a process of endless becoming. Take that being annoyed again. Someone who is unaffected by others, whose temper is always calm and unruffled, is not necessarily exercising any virtue. He/she may simply be ignoring what is happening, refusing to engage, living a rather inhuman life. The person who is annoyed, admits it, tries to turn the annoyance into changing things for the better is, in my view, much more virtuous, much more human. He/she is also likely to experience repeated failure and so will need to keep on reaffirming his/her original choice. That, to my mind, is part of what it means to grow in virtue.
When today Benedict talks of humility existing not only in the monk’s heart but also affecting our outward bearing, he is doing exactly the opposite of what most people expect. Nearly everyone thinks that one begins by practising humility outwardly and letting it percolate inwards. The reverse is true. We start by keeping the fear of God before our eyes and end, if we can ever be said to end, with a humility that is manifest to others — which is why most of us are going to go on appearing very imperfect to others. Moreover, the perfect love of God to which we aspire is not something in which we rest; it is something in which we move and act. For Benedict, the perfection of humility draws us into an ever more demanding observance in which the keynotes are love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. Nowhere does he say that we shall be free from temptation or that we shall not fail.
So, as we read Benedict’s words, I think we should take heart. Unless we are quite deliberately rejecting God, the messiness and imperfection of our lives is something to be treasured. If we were perfect, we would have no need of a Saviour; and I, for one, would much rather the Lord Jesus stooped to my need. Our struggles are transformed by grace, but even grace needs a chink or two to find a way in.