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.