The Sixth Degree of Humility


3 Feb. 4 June. 4 Oct.

The sixth degree of humility is, for a monk to be contented with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him to esteem himself a bad and worthless labourer, saying with the prophet: “I have been brought to nothing, and I knew it not: I am become as a beast before Thee, yet I am always with Thee.”

One often misses the key word in the sixth degree of humility. Saint Benedict says contentus sit monachus. He would have his monk be satisfied with what is. The monk for whom nothing is ever as he thinks it ought to be will never be content. One of the meanings of the latin contentus is self-contained and quiet. There are individuals who thrive on being perpetually dissatisfied. Such men are not self-contained; on the contrary, they are driven by a disordered desire for perfection in persons, places, and things. Not finding what they require, such men are always restless. In their compulsion to attain the ideal of their fantasies they pass over the real, and so live in a state of discontent. Saint Benedict unmasks this for what it is a manifestation of pride.

Woe to the man for whom being a common labourer in the vineyard of the Lord is not enough. He forgets that even the common labourer is chosen by the Lord: “Go you also into my vineyard, and I will give you what shall be just” (Matthew 20:4). Such a man secretly nurtures a desire to be, in some way, remarkable, if not in the eyes of others, at least in his own eyes. Sent by the Lord into one vineyard, he fantasises about labouring in another. Working alongside his brothers, he spends his time taking note of their faults, their infirmities, and their foibles; he dreams of working alongside other brothers more in line with his own exacting notions of perfection. Pride and delusion, all of it.

As a remedy for this pernicious pride of perpetual discontent Saint Benedict gives a verse of Psalm 72: Ad nihilum redactus sum et nescivi, ut iumentum factus sum apud te et ego semper tecum. The sixth degree of humility ends with these consoling words: “Yet I am always with Thee”. Is this not enough? Restlessness, discontent, the critical spirit that cannot be contained: all of these things are manifestations of pride and offenses against the goodness of God. When tempted by the demon of perpetual discontent, counter his toxic insinuations with the prayer of the psalmist:

I am brought to nothing, and I knew not. I am become as a beast before thee: and I am always with thee. Thou hast held me by my right hand; and by thy will thou hast conducted me, and with thy glory thou hast received me. For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth?” (Psalm 72:22–25)