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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Values Worth Defending?

In recent days politicians of every stripe have appealed to our western democratic values and urged that they are worth defending in the light of violent onslaughts by Islamist extremists. At one level, that sounds eminently reasonable. I, for one, would not want to live in a society where failure to observe the puritanical code imposed by its de facto rulers could lead to flogging, mutilation, stoning or decapitation. But I am not sure that I am absolutely convinced by that appeal to ‘western values,’ either. As a Catholic, I’m always going to question some of the prevalent western assumptions about abortion or the morality of capital punishment, for example, not to mention having some very different ideas about poverty and riches. Yesterday’s debate in the Lords about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill left me wondering whether Lady Campbell’s eloquent explanation of how illness affects judgement would be matched against Lord Cashman’s equally eloquent account of how he had wished to die alongside his partner of thirty-one years. The emotional charge of both was compelling, but also, for me, highlighted the way in which we are losing a common ground for our morality and our decision-making. We actually don’t agree on what constitutes our core western values.

If you think that last statement too sweeping, run through some of the things you would identify with being western and democratic and ask yourself whether there is still general agreement on what they are and on what limits, if any, should be, or are, imposed and by whom. We do not agree on life-death issues, sexual morality, the legitimacy or otherwise of nuclear weapons, the duty of helping the less fortunate, and so on and so forth. Even the idea of free speech, which has been so much discussed of late, proves on examination to be more nuanced than some would have us believe. No one is entirely free to say whatever he/she likes (though it often seems  they are) because we have laws governing slander and libel. The problem comes when an individual or a group refuses to accept the law and situates itself outside the common legal framework of the land. That seems to me to be happening more and more. I also wonder whether we are tending to appeal to transient emotions in much of our decision-making rather than trying to weigh pros and cons as fairly as possible. It is a piquant and sometimes discouraging mix.

This morning I find myself encouraged by two things. First, Pope Francis has been speaking clearly and plainly in the Philippines about many of the things we are arguing about in the west. He has come out on the side of the angels rather than the bankers and the religious bullies that often dominate our conversation. Secondly, the story of St Antony, whose feast we keep today, reminds me of the perennial creativity of Christianity in the face of opposition and darkness. Antony heard the gospel imperative to go and sell all he had and follow Christ. He did so, and gave the Church both the monastic and the eremitical way of life. A thousand years later St Francis heard the same gospel and gave the Church a new love of the poor Christ and a new way of following him. These are not western democratic values, although the Church has played an important role over the centuries in shaping western civilisation. What we can take from them is, I suggest, the same in each instance. We do not need to defend our values, but we do need to live them.

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St Clare and the Problem of Poverty

This post is little more than a question. St Clare, whose feast we keep today, is very closely associated with what is known as the privilege of poverty. She fought hard to ensure that her nuns should live as St Francis and she had desired, owning nothing, reliant on the goodness of God to provide for their needs. Today, most religious take a vow of poverty. The way in which it is interpreted depends on the individual Order or Congregation. Benedictines, of course, don’t take vows of poverty, although as part of our vow of conversatio morum we undertake to live with the frugality proper to monastic life, and our being in solemn vows means that individually we own nothing at all. In practice, whether you visit a small Benedictine monastery such as ours, or a Poor Clare community such as the one nearby at Much Birch, you will see buildings and material goods being used by the nuns. Poverty in this context does not mean destitution; it has much more to do with detachment.

My question is very simple. Those of us who live religious life know how important it is to strip ourselves of attachment to anything we can ‘privatise’, including the status it is sometimes thought to confer. What I would like to know is whether this has any significance or value to those who are not in religious life. Sometimes one hears people saying, ‘Oh, you’re a nun, you don’t need such-and-such’ or even, as has happened to us, ‘I was going to throw this out as it’s worn out but thought maybe you could use it’. Clearly, there is some conception of religious poverty at work, even if it is a rather strange one, but does it connect with the search for God and the attempt to live a holy life? In other words, is poverty one aspect of religious life we need to present differently if it is to be seen for what it truly is? Thoughts, please.

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St Francis as viewed by a Benedictine

If you go to Subiaco, where St Benedict lived as a hermit before deciding that coenobitic monasticism was a safer option for the rest of us, you will see one of the earliest paintings of St Francis in the chapel of St Gregory. The saint is shown without stigmata or halo, suggesting that it was executed during his lifetime. Interestingly, one eye is larger than the other, reminiscent of the icon of Christ at St Catharine’s Monastery, Sinai. Another fresco shows Cardinal Ugolino, later Pope Gregory IX, consecrating the chapel. A friar stands behind him. In my view, it is St Francis again, so perhaps he was present at the consecration. (Sadly, I can’t show you any photos as those we have are the Subiaco community’s copyright.)

These two images seem to me to tipify the Benedictine view of St Francis. He is recognized as being a kindred spirit although the way of life he drew up for his friars is very different from that of monks. He is also recognized as a holy man while yet alive. I think that says something important about both forms of religious life, something we may lose sight of as we bustle about doing our various good works today.

Benedictines sometimes forget the years Benedict spent in his cave, alone with God. Franciscans sometimes forget the saint of the stigmata, who was anything but sentimental. Both were men of huge compassion, open to the new, their lives rooted in prayer. Benedict probably was not a priest, Francis was a deacon; neither was in the least ‘clerical’ in the bad sense. Both had a tremendous sense of the holiness of God and his endless creativity. That portrait of St Francis in the heart of a Benedictine holy place is an encouragement to all of us to open our eyes and see what God is doing now.

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Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.

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