Days When Nothing Much Seems To Happen

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.

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An Addition to the Three Rs

Time was when the building-blocks of education were the three ‘R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. They still are, but I think the time has come to supplement them with the three ‘H’s — a sense of history, a sense of humour and a modicum of humility.

You cannot have failed to notice how many people take their idea of history from the visual media. The presentation of Thomas Cromwell as hero in the televised version of Wolf Hall may strain the credulity of some, but Mark Rylance acts so well and is so convincing that I’m sure many will have concluded that Cromwell was basically a nice man, fond of his wife and children, and cruelly ill-used by villains like Thomas More. What about the systematic re-writing of history to be found in Jihadist videos? Or the thousand and one other portrayals of historical events and processes subtly coloured to argue a case or to interpret a past world through the lens of the present (think Downton Abbey, for example)? History is not an exact science, but it requires tough thinking and careful assessment of evidence. It is also multi-disciplinary. I’m sure it would help us not merely to read but also to decide what is worth reading in the first place (apologies to Trevelyan). I therefore suggest it should be the first addition to the three ‘R’s.

My second would be humour. You have only to look at Social Media or the pages of an online newspaper to see how many people have become so literal-minded that they fail to register that not everything is said or done with the same level of seriousness. Just as a sense of history gives a feel for period and the development of ideas, so a sense of humour is a great help in interpreting the words and actions of others. I’m not sure one can teach humour, but I think it would be worth a try.

Finally, I come to humility. It is no accident that today we read the twelfth step of humility in the Rule of St Benedict and find that humility — true humility — should be our constant disposition. I think sometimes we can exaggerate our own ability to solve problems or cure ills. If we did indeed have the solution to the world’s problems, the world would be beating a path to our door, but as it manifestly isn’t, perhaps we could pause and ask ourselves do we know all the facts, have we considered all the implications of such and such a course and, perhaps most important of all, are we in a position to judge?

Regular readers will know I have written this with a smile, but also with a grain of seriousness. How we approach the world, how we interpret the words and actions of others, how we manage to convey ideas of our own, matters. Get it right and there is peace and plenty. Get it wrong and there is war and division. Education plays a key-role in determining outcomes. As technology changes the shape of traditional education for ever, it is certainly something I’d urge thinking and praying about.

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The End of All Our Striving: the Twelfth Degree of Humility

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.

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