The Humility of Trust: the Eighth Degree

When I was a young nun, I had a few doubts about Benedict’s eighth degree or step of humility; I still have doubts now I’m older, but the basis has changed. Benedict says

The eighth step of humility is for a monk to do only what is recommended by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his superiors [alternatively, ‘seniors’]. RB 7. 55

My younger self noted the use of the word ‘monk’, which for Benedict is never neutral but implies someone doing his best to live up to the monastic ideal, and heartily concurred with the wisdom of following the Rule as master, but I sometimes wondered about following the example of my monastic seniors. When one lives cheek by jowl with others, every little flaw becomes visible and it is only in the novitiate that one ever meets the perfect monk. A few years on and the imperfect monk shows his true colours. The only way I could make sense of what St Benedict asked was to see it as an exercise in trust; and of course, it does take great humility to trust weak and fallible beings and submit to them, laying aside one’s own ideas.

My older self sees things slightly differently. I have come to realise that the eighth degree lays on the seniors the obligation of being trustworthy, of setting a good example to others. It requires something of the same humility in laying aside one’s own ideas about what is best, accepting that one is oneself weak and fallible and that one’s imperfect best is, in fact, the best one can offer.

For both young and old the repository of wisdom we call the Rule is our guide, but it is a guide that must be constantly interpreted afresh in the concrete situations of our daily life. My younger self and my older self may practise this step of humility in slightly different ways, but it is the same kind of humility that is striven for. To trust another is an act of faith. It involves a surrender into the hands of God, but not God clearly seen but rather the God we perceive dimly and sometimes uncertainly in the face of those we live with in community. It is ultimately another preparation for the surrender we will all one day make in death.


Of Love and Reverence

I love chapter 63 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Community Order, which we begin re-reading today. Everything it says about the mutually-respectful relations which should exist between older and younger community members, the little courtesies of the cloister it spells out in such affectionate detail, the carefully-nuanced explanation it gives of the abbot’s role, all breathe an atmosphere of beauty and calm I find immensely attractive. The only trouble is, I don’t think I have ever experienced such a community, or not for very long. That is the problem with all ideals. Most of the time they are something we aim at rather than achieve.

Having said that, I wonder whether sometimes we ignore what is right under our noses because we are too perfectionist. The lengths to which Benedict goes to ensure monks or nuns should live at peace with one another, no matter what their differences of age or background, and the expectations he has of abbot and community are something I have known at first-hand without perhaps sufficiently understanding that ‘good enough’ is truly good enough. The fact that none of it has ever been quite perfect is perhaps the best guarantee that it has been real. Only cults, or groups which have much of the cult about them, manage to present a flawless picture. It is how we cope with imperfection — disagreements in community, unintentional slights or louche behaviour  — that shows how genuinely loving and united we are.

Benedict provides us with a few guidelines and ways of ritualising some potentially tricky situations, but that is all. For the rest, he reminds us of Romans 12.10 and leaves us to make the best we can of it. During Lent I heard a phrase which has stuck in my mind. Benedict himself was too dignified a man to use the language of the soundbite, but this one is worth treasuring for what it says about community relations:

Remember that the toes you tread on today are the feet you will be called on to wash tomorrow.

I think that applies outside monasteries, too, don’t you?