‘The seventh step of humility is that we should be ready to speak of ourselves as of less importance and less worthy than others, not as a mere phrase on our lips but we should really believe it in our hearts. Thus in a spirit of humility we make the psalmist’s word our own: I am no more than a worm with no claim to be a human person for I am despised by others and cut our by my own people. I was raised up high in honour, but when I was humbled and overwhelmed with confusion. In the end we may learn to say: It was good for me, Lord, that you humbled me so that I might learn your precepts’
This passage from The Rule is a warning against false humility. Something that we are perhaps always prone to, especially the English people. We are very good at supporting the underdog and brushing aside compliments that are given and yet behind those protestations there is a little bubbling pool of pride swelling in the heart. False humility serves little purpose. It does not make us humble, it does not fool those that give the compliment in the first place and it does not draw the soul any closer to God.
The words from the psalmist that Benedict quotes, referring to being no more than a worm seems contrary to the purpose of our creation and ‘human flourishing’.
There is much written and spoken of human flourishing, that the purpose of God for us, as his created beings, is that we should be able to flourish. There is certainly truth in this, however, the view of what human flourishing is has been distorted and conformed to the image of the world. The society in which we live, move and have our being is bound up in productivity, in wealth, in the accumulation of material possessions, of unrealistic standards of beauty. Young people in particular have thrust before their face particular goals – get married, have children, higher education, well paid job, multiple holidays and so on and so forth. Not achieving one or more of these is often looked upon as a sort of failure and those that have managed to secure them are then expected to be content and happy.
Yet we live in a society with increasing mental health problems around anxiety and depression. The rate of suicide (especially amongst young men) has become increasingly high. Society is setting us up for unrealistic goals. Benedict here is lowering the expectation placed upon each of us in our earthly pilgrimage. If we recognise that outside of God and the grace and mercy that He has for us that we are nothing, our only path is to be raised by Him and to Him. If we attempt to fill that God shaped hole with the other goals that society suggests are enough, we will find they are not and fall from a great height, or struggle to even climb toward them in the first place.
‘The eighth step of humility teaches us to do nothing which goes beyond what is approved and encouraged by the common rule of the monastery and the example of the seniors.’
Once again, in this fairly short and self explanatory step on the path to humility, Benedict is referring to the practice of monastic obedience. Once you have joined that community you have a duty to more than just yourself and to God. The journey that you have undertaken is no longer a private pilgrimage in the depths of your heart between you and the divine alone, but you are now part of a communal pilgrimage. We all walk together. The brothers and sisters in the order are to be considered with great importance, so that when your spirit is weak and your love of God is small, the love of fellow man and the commitment made to them may carry you through those dark or dry patches. For those of us not in the cloistered community or formal vows of the monastic life, we should view our Baptism and participation in the sacraments as the same vow. To our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as to God and our commitment to a depending personal relationship with Him.
‘The ninth step of humility leads us to refrain from unnecessary speech and to guard our silence by not speaking until we are addressed. That is what scripture recommends with these sayings: Anyone who is forever chatting will not avoid sin and there is another from a psalm: One who never stops talking loses the right way in life’
The purpose of this aspect of The Rule is two fold. Firstly, when we speak we are commanding someones attention, we are outrightly saying that what we have to say needs to be listened to, that it supersedes the thoughts or words of someone else. We may not actively be thinking that in our mind but if we analyse our conversations, that is what we are doing. We believe that when we speak we are adding something of value, or changing the course of the dialogue to our own agenda, or correcting, or elaborating. We do so because we want our thoughts recognised and approved of. This places us, in our minds at least, above others. How often, if we are honest, have we listened to someone but all the time been thinking what our reply shall be, rather than actually listening to the words they say?
Secondly, the guarding of silence is important. Through scripture we know that it is in the silence that we hear the still small voice of God. If we do not leave space to heard His Word then we will never take it fully into our hearts. To destroy that silence with our own spoken thoughts, for ourselves and for others, we are even suggesting that what we have to say is more important than the opportunity to hear from God directly. If we were to consider that every time we were to speak, our speech would certainly be reduced but increased in quality.
‘The tenth step of humility teaches that we should not be given to empty laughter on every least occasion because: a fool’s voice is for ever raised in laughter.’
This is similar to the previous step in the need to guard the silence of the community. There is, of course, laughter that delights the Lord but there is also laughter that betrays the brokenness of our humanity. How often are we taken up in laughter simply because other people are laughing, having no understanding of the cause of context? What about the laughter that is at the expense of someone else – if they misspeak, slip, drop something, have an embarrassing moment. Silence is not worth losing in situations such as that.
‘The eleventh step of humility is concerned with the manner of speech appropriate in the monastery. We should speak gently and seriously with words that are weighty and restrained. We should be brief and reasonable in whatever we have to say and not raise our voices to insist on our one opinions. The wise, we should remember, are to be recognised in words that are few.’
This, again, is about not pushing our own agenda to the forefront over and above the ideas, opinions or mindset of others. To be dignified in speech and measured in tone and volume suggests an openness to being challenged, to having our opinion considered but no more than that of others. It is not dependant upon age or status. The wise person is the one that has spoken the least – because they have listened to others but also dwelt in the wisdom of God, spoken in the silence. To absorb all that can be learned we must let it penetrate our understanding, and this cannot be done if we are straining always to be heard.
‘The twelfth step of humility is concerned with the external impression conveyed by those dedicated to monastic life. The humility of their hearts should be apparent by their bodily movements to all who see them. Whether they are at the work of God, at prayer in the oratory, walking about the monastery, in the garden, on journey or in the fields, wherever they may be, whether sitting, walking or standing they should be free of any hint of arrogance or pride. They should guard their eyes and look down. They should remember their sins and their guilt before the judgement of God, with the words of the publican in the gospel for ever on their lips as he stood with his eyes cast down saying: Lord, I am not worth, sinner that I am, to lift my eyes to the heavens. Or the words of the psalmist might fit just as well: I am bowed down and utterly humbled’
When I was ordained I made a conscious choice to treat the vows that I had taken as would if I had taken life vows in a monastic community. I gave away all of my others clothes that I had amassed over the years and left my wardrobe an array of black trousers and black clerical shirts. The symbolism of the clergy attire is important to me. The black as a reminder that I have died to my old life in order to serve in a new life for God and the black coming into contact often with dust and wax in church buildings showing up so starkly to remind me of my own sin.
Some people have accused me of always wanting to be seen as a priest when I am in public, even when it is my rest day and I am not actively ‘at work’ so to speak, alluding to the desire to be recognised. However, this could not be further from the truth. If I were to only wear my cassock and collar when I was engaged in church activities, treating it as a uniform and wearing it around those who understand and respect it – it would be very easy to have my sense of self inflated by their reverence and deference. When I wear my cassock in the street, I am aware of the strange looks I get from some people, I hear them comment that I am a man in a dress or that I look strange, I also have to deal, occasionally, with outright hostility and offensive remarks. All of these interactions remind me that I am a servant. I am not in an elevated position but marked out as different. It also gives people the opportunity to speak to me, if they wish to, when they want to – putting their needs above my own. This is an important discipline in my priestly life – it is to remind me that I am not serving myself but Him who called me.
‘And monk or nun who has climbed all these steps of humility will come quickly to that love of God which in its fulness casts out all fear. Carried forward by that love, such a one will begin to observe without effort as though they were natural all those precepts which in earlier days were kept at least partly through fear. A new motive will have taken over, not fear of hell but the love of Christ. Good habit and delight in virtue will carry us along. This happy state the lord will bring about through the Holy Spirit in his servant whom he has cleansed of vice and sin and taught to be a true and faithful worker in the Kingdom.
Here Benedict makes sense of those seemingly harsh rules that he has offered in this chapter. Reminding ourselves of hell, bringing to mind the judgement, counting ourselves worthy and nothing more than a worm – it is not so that we may live in fear of God that petrifies us to into not doing anything for fear of retribution. That is a necessary step in order to re-order our lives. Some may progress through that quickly and attain the love that drives out all fear through that purgation, others, who may start further back on the path will take longer and seem to have to live through the harsh purgation for a greater period of time. The end result is the same, to fall deeply into the love of God so that that becomes our motivation. The fear of hell is to be a kickstarter on that process, if you will.