Et ego semper tecum (VII: The 6th 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.”

Those of you are familiar with the conversation concerning “perfect joy” that Saint Francis had with Brother Leo, will recognise in the sixth degree of humility the teaching of the Little Poor Man of Assisi. Saint Francis says,

Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt.

There is in the prideful man a fundamental discontent with what is, a restlessness that compels him always to look elsewhere, to be elsewhere, to despise what he has, and to crave what he has not. If this was true in Saint Benedict’s time, how much truer it is for us who were raised in a society of consumers driven by materialism. The world says, “Buy this thing, and you will be happy. You don’t live in the right house, nor in the right neighbourhood. You don’t drive the right automobile. You are not wearing the right clothes; you are not drinking the right coffee, or the right wine, or eating the right foods. You take your holidays in the wrong place. Change these things and you will be happy.” There will always be the poor fools who believe this discourse, and spend their lives trying to acquire the things that, according to the world, promise happiness.

Saint Benedict gives us the key to understanding the sixth degree of humility by quoting Psalm 72:23. He is, in effect, inviting us to open our psalter and ponder the whole psalm.* Psalm 72 expresses the bewilderment and frustration of a good man — devout and faithful to the Lord — who looks about him and sees that the wicked — those who pursue their lust for power, riches, and sensual —  appear to be prosperous and happy, while he, poor wretch, struggles to get by. He sees the “beautiful people” in the eyes of the world, and compares their lot in life with that of the friends of God.

* Psalm 72, Quam bonus Israel Deus
1 What bounty God shews, what divine bounty, to the upright, to the pure of heart!
2 Yet I was near losing my foothold, felt the ground sink under my steps,
3 such heart-burning had I at seeing the good fortune of sinners that defy his law;
4 for them, never a pang; healthy and sleek their bodies shew.
5 Not for these to share man’s common lot of trouble; the plagues which afflict human kind still pass them by.
6 No wonder if pride clings to them like a necklace, if they flaunt, like fine clothes, their wrong-doing.
7 From those pampered hearts what malice proceeds, what vile schemes are hatched!
8 Ever jeering, ever talking maliciously, throned on high they preach injustice;
9 their clamour reaches heaven, and their false tales win currency on earth.
10 Enviously the men of my own race look on, to see them draining life’s cup to the full;
11 Can God, they ask, be aware of this? Does the most High know of all that passes?
12 Look at these sinners, how they live at peace, how they rise to greatness!
13 Why then, thought I, it is to no purpose that I have kept my heart true, and washed my hands clean in pureness of living;
14 still, all the while, I am plagued for it, and no morning comes but my scourging is renewed.
15 Was I to share their thoughts? Nay, that were to put the whole company of thy children in the wrong.
16 I set myself to read the riddle, but it proved a hard search,
17 until I betook myself to God’s sanctuary, and considered, there, what becomes of such men at last.
18 The truth is, thou art making a slippery path for their feet, ready to plunge them in ruin;
19 in a moment they are fallen, in a storm of terrors vanished and gone.
20 And thou, Lord, dost rise up and brush aside all their imaginings, as a waking man his dream.
21 What if my mind was full of bitterness, what if I was pierced to the heart?
22 I was all dumbness, I was all ignorance,
23 standing there like a brute beast in thy presence. Yet ever thou art at my side,
24 ever holdest me by my right hand. Thine to guide me with thy counsel, thine to welcome me into glory at last.
25 What else does heaven hold for me, but thyself? What charm for me has earth, here at thy side?
26 What though flesh of mine, heart of mine, should waste away? Still God will be my heart’s stronghold, eternally my inheritance.
27 Lost those others may be, who desert thy cause, lost are all those who break their troth with thee;
28 I know no other content but clinging to God, putting my trust in the Lord, my Master; within the gates of royal Sion I will be the herald of thy praise.
Translation of Msgr Ronald Knox

A monk must not expect to have the things that people in the world use to shore up their insecurities, to assuage their anxiety, or to display their prosperity: exquisite foods and wines; a beautiful home; fashionable clothes, shoes, jewelry, haircuts, and “beauty aids”; the latest cars and electronic equipment; the trendiest restaurants, bars, and holiday spots. In the eyes of the world the monk is a failure and a fool, “a bad and worthless labourer,” as Saint Benedict says. In the eyes of the world a monk has no more than “the meanest and worst of everything.” The monk must accept that this is how the world views him, and glory in it for the sake of Christ.

Consider, brethren, the circumstances of your own calling; not many of you are wise, in the world’s fashion, not many powerful, not many well born. No, God has chosen what the world holds foolish, so as to abash the wise, God has chosen what the world holds weak, so as to abash the strong. God has chosen what the world holds base and contemptible, nay, has chosen what is nothing, so as to bring to nothing what is now in being; no human creature was to have any ground for boasting, in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

It sometimes happens that when a man enters a monastery, those nearest and dearest to him, and even his parents, may feel that he is rejecting the very security, privileges, and things they have worked hard to acquire. Consequently, they feel judged. This can sometimes put a strain on family relationships and friendships. Family and friends must be helped to understand that the monastic vocation, though it be radical in its demands, and in many ways opposed to the very things they cherish, does not entail a rejection of themselves, nor of their affection, nor of the good and wholesome things shared together. It is a response to the love of Christ, in whom all other loves are purified and ennobled. The monk can only say with Saint Paul:

But the things that were gain to me, the same I have counted loss for Christ. Furthermore I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8)

Saint Benedict’s sixth degree of humility ends with the telling phrase from Psalm 72: “Yet I am always with Thee.” For me, nothing can compare with living under the same roof as the Most Blessed Sacrament. The same psalm says, “To be near God is my happiness” or, as Monsignor Knox puts it, “I know no other content but clinging to God” (Psalm 72:28)


Add a comment