Yet I am always with Thee (VII:The Sixth Degree)

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.”

Contemporary consumerist culture does its utmost to keep people in a state of  perpetual dissatisfaction with what is. Having is rated above doing, and doing above being. Even small children clamour for the latest version of a game. Devices are designed to become obsolete. The art of repairing things at home and of mending clothes has become nearly obsolete. Adolescents, like their elders, restlessly search for something more, something else, something newer, something different, something that others will envy. When a man enters the monastery he resolves to leave all of this madness behind him in the world. He says to himself, “Now I will be content with the meanest and worst of everything”. Little by little, however, a worldly way of seeing, and judging can reassert itself, even in the cloister. Unless a man enters wholeheartedly into the 6th Degree of Humility, he risks finding himself, if not altogether discontent, at least not altogether content with what the monastery provides in the way of accommodations, food, drink, clothing, tools, and other things. The 6th Degree must be read in conjunction with Chapter XXXI, in which, concerning the Cellarer of the monastery, Saint Benedict says:

Let him look upon all the vessels and goods of the monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar. Let him not think that he may neglect anything: let him not be given to covetousness, nor wasteful, nor a squanderer of the goods of the monastery; but do all things in proper measure, and according to the bidding of his abbot.

Similarly in Chapter XXXII, Saint Benedict says:

If any one treat the property of the monastery in a slovenly or negligent manner, let him be corrected; and if he do not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the Rule.

In Chapter XXXIV, again with regard to things, Saint Benedict says:

Let him, therefore, that hath need of less give thanks to God, and not be grieved; and let him who requireth more be humbled for his infirmity, and not made proud by the kindness shewn to him: and so all the members of the family shall be at peace. Above all, let not the evil of murmuring shew itself by the slightest word or sign on any account whatsoever.

Being content with the meanest and worst of everything does not mean that a monastery should be cluttered with things that are worn, broken, or ugly. Miserabilism is not a Benedictine virtue; it is no kind of virtue at all. Saint Benedict does not, in any way, advocate a kind of brutalist aesthetic. He is a friend of beauty and of order. He recognises the sacramental potential of things and refers all things to their ultimate end when, in Chapter LVII, he says, Ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “That God may be glorified in all things”. A true Benedictine aesthetic summons all things to be what they are, and this in praise of God who made them: Benedicite omnia opera Domini, Domino; laudate et superexaltate eum in saecula, “Bless the Lord, all ye works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever” (Daniel 3:57).

Saint Thomas (I, q. 39, art. 8) says that beauty exists where three conditions are found together. These three conditions are integritas, consonantia, and claritas. Integrity means wholeness or perfection; for a thing to be beautiful it must be complete in all its components. Instinctively one knows that a broken thing lacks integritas; therefore Saint Benedict says that nothing is to be treated or handled “in a slovenly or negligent manner” (Chapter XXXII). Consonantia, or harmonious proportion means that all the components of a thing are rightly fitted together; there is nothing jarring, nothing monstrous, no one thing in opposition to the rest. Claritas means that a thing radiates its being; one is attracted to a thing because its appearance delights the eye and, in a certain manner, reveals the truth of the thing. One can find these three conditions of beauty in things as different as a mosaic of Ravenna, a finely wrought vessel of the altar, a well–crafted instrument, a Romanesque or Gothic church, a Japanese tea ceremony, a rightly–ordered tool shed, a noble chasuble, the presentation of a salad, a Baroque baldachin, or a piece of Shaker furniture.

Even in the loveliest of monasteries, there will always be something lacking. Not everything will be whole, harmonious, and radiant all of the time. The 6th Degree of Humility has to do, then, not with the things that surround us, but with the interior disposition of one who makes use of them. The man who is content with the meanest and worst of everything does not make his contentment depend on the conditions of things around him. His contentment comes from within.

The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup: it is thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me. The lines are fallen unto me in goodly places: for my inheritance is goodly to me. (Psalm 15:5–6)

The man whose heart is fixed ubi vera sunt gaudia (where true joys are found) recognises and delights in the beauty around him. Where that beauty is lacking, he will do whatever he can to repair it. This is an aspect of the work of reparation. The peacemaker of the Beatitudes is also an artisan of beauty.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, living humbly and gratefully in Nazareth, in Bethlehem, in Egypt, and in every place where she made her home, shows the monk how to be content with the meanest and worst of everything. When the Archangel Gabriel beheld the Virgin of Nazareth, he greeted her, saying: Dominus tecum, “The Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28). The Archangel found the Blessed Virgin Mary with God, and found God with her. His greeting resonates with the prayer of the psalmist that Saint Benedict quotes in the 6th Degree of Humility: Et ego semper tecum, “and I am always with thee” (Psalm 72:23).  Our Lady surely made this verse of the psalm her own.

Psalm 72 contains the prayer of the monk who has begun to live the 6th Degree of Humility. I pray that each of us may say it in all truth:

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? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. (Psalm 72:23–26)