The End of the Beginning: the Twelfth Step of Humility

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.


Delight in Virtue

Whenever I read what St Benedict has to say about the twelfth step of humility (RB 7. 62-70), a different word or phrase tends to strike me. This morning it was his observation that when we finally come to the perfect love that casts out fear, we do all that we formerly did ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue (delectatione virtutum)’. I am accustomed to noting that this chapter follows the Rule of the Master quite closely, that Benedict’s ‘good habit’ is not very far from Cassian’s ‘love of the good’ (amore ipsius boni), and that, like Cassian, Benedict introduces reference to the love of Christ (in Cassian it is affectus Christi) to end his chapter on a ‘high’. But it was that ‘delight in virtue’ which hit me today.

‘Delight’ is such a beautiful word, full of warmth and charm. Is that what we associate with virtue? For many of us, acting virtuously has elements of struggling against our inclinations, being good when secretly we would prefer to be bad — or at any rate, slightly less good than we feel we ought to be. Virtue has a brisk, cold bath quality to it: it is good for us and for others, but it is difficult to convince ourselves that it is anything other than a trifle unpleasant. We are glad when we have been virtuous; actually being virtuous is less appealing.

Benedict’s conclusion to his chapter on humility presents us with a real challenge. To find joy, delight, in being humble and in the practices that lead to humility, means a reversal of values. Self has to move from centre-stage; Christ has to become all in all. We shall never attain that kind of freedom by our own efforts; it has to be the work of grace. I think an important part of that is rethinking our vocabulary. All the words that suggest struggle and grim determination tend to focus us on ourselves; those that point to Christ are much lighter, happier, gayer in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Delight in virtue. That’s not a bad imperative for the day, is it?


The Problem with Being Perfect

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.