The Art of Contentment

I have always loved St Benedict’s sixth degree of humility, which we read today, though not necessarily for the reasons he intended. I tend to skip over the part where he says that a monk should regard himself as a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum. In the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery that is probably true (I was no good at looking after poultry, for example, and no one ever trusted me with a sewing machine — for good reason), but I prefer not to dwell on my own ineptitude. It is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole and which to me are immensely encouraging.

Benedict takes an idea of Cassian and gives it a subtle twist, asking us to be content with the worst and meanest of everything, omni vilitate vel extremitate contentus sit monachus. That sounds fine, until we have to practise it. One of the constant little asceticisms of the cloister is having no choice. What we do, where and how we live, what we wear, what we eat, even the person next to whom we sit in choir or the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf! To be content, no matter what . . . how are we to do that when everything seems so contrary to what we would have chosen? How are we to be content when we are ill or stuck next to someone who sings out of tune or our room (monastic cell) is painted that hideous colour? Are we just to buckle under and try not to care?

I think first we have to distinguish between contentment and complacency. Benedict certainly does not expect us not to care, it is what we do with our caring that matters. There is no room for complacency or studied indifference in monastic life or any other. We are constantly striving towards our goal, towards a more perfect union with Christ, and that necessarily involves change, disruption even. We are not called to be Stoics or suet puddings. But contentment, that can be much more elusive — more serene, peaceful, less agitated than we are accustomed to thinking. It means being happy, joyful even, whatever happens, because we are rooted in Christ. An essential part of this involves giving up comparing ourselves with others, hankering after this or that, or finding our security in the status symbols of our time. It means taking our gaze off ourselves — and most of us are reluctant to do that. We even try to make a virtue of our focus on self, ‘Lord, I am not worthy. . . .’ Well, no, of course we aren’t worthy; but unless we are hopelessly deluded, or have a very incomplete theology of grace, we know we must trust to our Saviour for everything. Contentment liberates us from all the useless things with which we try to bind ourselves and Him.

I think that is why the sixth degree of humility speaks to me. It frees us from the idiocy of self-reliance and competitiveness and all the other ways in which we try to avoid the truth about ourselves and the truth of God. We stand before the Lord with all our faults and failings open to view, knowing that the circumstances in which we find ourselves are best for us. There are times when I wish with all my heart I could be free of sarcoma and sarcoidosis but I know they have taught me things I could never otherwise have learned. They have not made me a saint, alas, but they have shown me that sanctity is not what I once thought it was; that I am not called to do great things for Christ but only little ones; that it is in fidelity to the tasks of every day, in acceptance and perseverance, that the barnacles of sin are rubbed off and we are made a new creation. How could we not be content with that?

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Contentment: the Sixth Step of Humility

You may be wondering why I have given this post the title I have. What has contentment to do with humility? Isn’t St Benedict’s sixth step (RB 7. 49-50) all about having a very modest, indeed one might even say, negative, opinion of oneself? Not exactly. He does say that a monk should regard himself as a a bad and unworthy workman, operarium malum se iudicet et indignum, which, in the case of many a task laid on us in the monastery is probably true (I was no good at looking after poultry, for example, and no one ever trusted me with a sewing machine — for good reason). But it is the words used to preface that remark which provide the clue to understanding the passage as a whole. Benedict takes an idea of Cassian and gives it a subtle twist, asking us to be content with the worst and meanest of everything, omni vilitate vel extremitate contentus sit monachus. That sounds fine, until we have to practise it. One of the constant little asceticisms of the cloister is having no choice. What we do, where and how we live, what we wear, what we eat, even the person next to whom we sit in choir or in the refectory, these are all decided for us; and strange indeed are some of the choices made on our behalf!

What I think Benedict is getting at is the necessity of freeing ourselves from dependence on any exterior props or status symbols, doing things our way or calculating our self-worth according to more or less bizarre notions of our own. The things we think confer status outside the monastery are a nonsense inside, but we can still hanker after them. We can become discontented with our lot, comparing it unfavourably with that of others, which is terribly destructive, both of the individual and the community. Work can become a cover for ambition or self-seeking. We can suffer from a need to be thought special or extraordinary. We can effectively opt out of the common life because we are too busy or important (in our own eyes, at any rate). We cease to be monks and nuns and become something else entirely. I am sure you can find equivalents in your own life, whether monastic or not.

Of course, one does sometimes meet superiors who think they will encourage humility in the community by giving people jobs for which they are completely unsuited. If not actually mad or bad, they are undoubtedly dangerous to know but, hopefully, they are few and far between. Most superiors are wise enough to know that encouraging people to attempt things they might never otherwise have the courage to try can be very helpful, but one has to know when to hold back and not burden people with tasks beyond them; and no one can deny that all the mundane tasks of the monastery have to be done by someone, and that someone has to be you and me, for there is no one else. We all have to knuckle down and do jobs we don’t like, often for years on end; and to do a job badly, yet to the best of our ability, takes a special kind of humility — the humility that says with faith, ‘This is best for me.’

I think that in this sixth step we finally reach what most people would understand by the word ‘humility’ — an attitude, a disposition that makes the individual malleable, ready to meet whatever difficulties life throws at him/her with cheerfulness and acceptance. It is no longer a question of obedience alone. What we are now asked to do is to take on a whole new mindset. It is probably no accident that, when Benedict wrote, the word vilitas mentioned above referred to slavery. He could not have made it plainer that we are to be content in any and every situation, no matter how demanding or distasteful. That is not the same as complacency, against which we must always be on guard. We are to become profitable servants, people on whom God — and the community — can rely. We may feel we are no more than a beast of burden, but as such we are brought very close to the Lord (RB 7.50, quoting Ps 72 (73). 23). I think St Francis, whose feastday this would have been were it not Sunday, exemplifies the teaching of St Benedict on this subject, for contentment and humility walk hand in hand.

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The Grace of Contentment

The sixth step of humility is for a monk to be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, to regard himself as a bad and worthless worker, saying to himself with the prophet, ‘I am reduced to nothing and am all ignorance; I have become like a dumb beast before you, yet I am always with you’. (RB 7. 49–50)

Those words of St Benedict, which we read today, go clean contrary to what most people would say was a healthy attitude to self. ‘Because I’m worth it’ has become a commonplace justification for every indulgence under the sun. But if we go back to the roots of Benedict’s argument, we are forced to confront a very different world-view and a theological meaning that could easily escape us.

Benedict’s sixth step of humility is based on Cassian’s seventh sign, ‘If he is content with the lowest possible position and considers himself a bad workman with respect to everything enjoined him.’ It takes us straight back to the world of Late Antiquity, where manual work was fit only for slaves, and to Luke 17. 7–10, where the servant does no more than is expected of him. What is not said is as important as what is. Compared with God, we are creatures of no consequence — and yet, we are beloved.

For Cassian in the desert manual labour was a way of bringing a disciple to understand the meaning of humility as distinct from obedience. For Benedict, with his much more sophisticated monastic enterprise, where obedientiaries might remain in place year after year, it was a reminder that work was given, not chosen, a form of asceticism to be practised every day. The reference to Psalm 73 in the final verse situates the sixth step of humility in a familiar context, that of apparent injustice. We live in a world where the evil prosper and effort is not always rewarded as we think it should be. Yet — and it is an important qualification — it is here that the monk learns his lesson and experiences the closeness of God.

What the sixth step of humility manifestly does not ask is the false humility of Uriah Heep. We are not meant to say we are bad at our job if we aren’t. Equally, we are not to think we confer a benefit on others simply because we can do something well. We are meant to be free from such self-evaluation so that we can concentrate on what really matters, becoming closer to God. It does not take long to realise that we can be hindered in this by discontent. If we are always dissatisfied, seeking something else, something more for ourselves, we dissipate our energy. Contentment is not the same as complacency, but there are a thousand ways of disguising what we are truly about. The passionate campaigner for a good cause may indeed be selfless, but it is also possible to use a good cause to feed vanity and ambition. What Benedict wants is our spiritual freedom. His sixth step of humility is meant to set us on the right way to attaining it, and he proposes not some rarified spirituality but a solid, commonsensical approach to something that fills the larger part of every day — our work. It is here that we find grace, if we are open to it.

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