CHAPTER VII. Of Humility
1 Feb. 2 June. 2 Oct.
The fourth degree of humility is, that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in, as the Scripture saith: “He that shall persevere to the end shall be saved.” And again: “Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.” And shewing how the faithful man ought to bear all things, however contrary, for the Lord, it saith in the person of the afflicted: “For Thee we suffer death all the day long; we are esteemed as sheep for the slaughter.” And secure in their hope of the divine reward, they go on with joy, saying: “But in all these things we overcome, through Him Who hath loved us.” And so in another place Scripture saith: “Thou hast proved us, O God; Thou hast tried us as silver is tried by fire; Thou hast led us into the snare, and hast laid tribulation on our backs.” And in order to shew that we ought to be under a superior, it goes on to say: “Thou hast placed men over our heads.” Moreover, fulfilling the precept of the Lord by patience in adversities and injuries, they who are struck on one cheek offer the other: to him who taketh away their coat they leave also their cloak; and being forced to walk one mile, they go two. With Paul the Apostle, they bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them.
Our father Saint Benedict does not conceal from us the cost of monastic discipleship. He tells us that in striving to become obedient we will come up against “hard and contrary things, nay even injuries.” This means that a monk will suffer things that irk him, that rub him the wrong way, that annoy him to the point of exasperation. Even more, Saint Benedict says that we will get injured in the fray of life alongside other men with whom we have in common the inclination to sin. We read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that a hermit was asked, “How is it that some struggle in their religious life, but do not receive grace like our predecessors?” He replied, “Because then love was the rule, and each one drew his neighbour upward. Now love is growing cold, and each of us draws his neighbour downward, and so we do not deserve grace.” A terrible indictment this: that love is growing cold.
One does not come to the monastery to put the finishing touches on virtues hard won in the world. More often than not, all the holiness that we thought we had acquired in the world will crack apart in the cloister, revealing that, all along, it was a façade of cheap plaster concealing deep fissures. This is a great grace. Learn to say:
I praise and thank, O Lord, for having demolished all that I have built up that I may learn to rely on Thee alone. I praise and thank, O Lord, for having brought me low, that I may learn what it is to be lifted up by another. I praise and thank, O Lord, that my brother reveals to me all my vices and flaws: my hard-heartedness; my quickness to judge; my self-centredness; my holding on to injuries; my reluctance to show mercy; my record-keeping of wrongs. I beseech Thee, O Lord, to shake up all that I thought solid; to demolish the monuments that, relying on my own resources, I have built in honour of myself. Batter, break, and pulverise, O Lord, all that my pride persists in building and rebuilding. Raze to the ground all that puffs me up with self-satisfaction, all that makes me complacent and lifts me above the brothers Thou hast given me.
It is the cenobitic life that reveals a man to himself. The brother whom you judge unfaithful reveals to you your spiritual arrogance. The brother who angers you reveals to you your want of meekness. The brother who annoys you reveals to you your little patience. The brother who troubles your peace reveals to you the shortness of your longanimity. The brother who offends you reveals to you your own capacity of offending others. The brother who does not measure up to your standards of virtue, and discipline, and observance reveals to you that your own heart is turning to stone for lack of compassion.
How would Saint Benedict have us bear with hard and contrary things? “Embrace them patiently,” he says, “with a quiet conscience. Grow not weary nor give in.” There are brothers who, at the first stinging slight or offence, draw themselves up and give vent to their outrage. There are brothers who, as soon as they detect coldness, or a want of courtesy, or rejection cannot contain their sentiments of hurt. There are brothers who, when faced with hard or contrary things, say, “This is not for me. This life is too hard. I am put to death all the day long. I am accounted as a sheep for the slaughter. I have left all things to follow Thee, O Christ, and what hast Thou given me?” Would such brothers still their thoughts long enough in the presence of Our Lord, they may hear Him say, “What I have given you? I have given you one opportunity after another to become like Me in My Passion: to be silent, patient, and forgiving. I have given you a single thorn from My bloody crown, a tiny splinter of the wood of My Cross, wounds in no way comparable to My wounds. And this I have done in order to draw you to Myself, to make you like Myself, and to unite your heart to My Heart.”
Saint Benedict quotes the psalmist, and says, “Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.” There is a pernicious by-product of the bone-chilling heresy that is Jansenism that causes some souls to think that their hearts may never seek comfort from the Lord nor wait for Him to assuage their sorrows. This is not the Gospel read in the Church, nor is it the Gospel read by the saints. What does Our Lord say, not to one but to all? Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et onerati estis, et ego reficiam vos.
Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Is it permitted to seek comfort? Not only is it permitted; Our Lord makes it a precept when He says, “Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matthew 11:28). Blessed Columba Marmion, when he was still the young Father Joe Marmion, encouraged Vincent Dwyer, his dear friend in Australia, to seek consolation in Gesù sacramentato. He used the Italian expression. Writing from Dundrum on 28 February 1882, Blessed Marmion said:
The life of a priest is very much more lonely than we anticipate. I have often been for says without opening my lips to a mortal. This may seem very strange but it is true, and if we can’t find our pleasure before Gesù sacramentato, we will, inevitably, go for consolation into society and then . . . .”
Blessed Marmion left the sentence unfinished, suggesting that he who seeks his consolation in what the world has to offer will not finish well. What is true of the diocesan priest in his the loneliness that will, in some way and in some form, always be his lot is even more true of the monk in the solitude of his cloister. If a monk cannot find his pleasure—that is, his consolation—before Gesù sacramentato, he will look for it elsewhere, and in doing this depart from the purity of the monastic vocation.
“Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.” This is Saint Benedict’s word to the monk worn down by adversity, discouraged by his own failures and by the failures of those around him. Where can one go to be comforted? Where can one go to wait for the Lord? In my experience, a monk finds comfort, and may be sure of being visited by grace, when, in his affliction, he goes to one of three places. First of all, when he goes the Blessed Virgin Mary; second, when he opens the Sacred Scriptures in search of light; and third, when he places himself before the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in silent expectation. These three places are like destinations of pilgrimage, or again, like three tents of meeting in the life of the monk: the Mother of God, the Word of God, and the Real Presence of God. Comfort may not come at the moment we think we need it so desperately, nor at the moment we expect it, but it will come. It will come at the perfect moment willed by God. Much of a monk’s life is a long waiting for the Lord. Wait, then, and as you prayed (or will pray) on the day of your monastic profession, you will not be disappointed in your hope. Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum et vivam, et non confundas me ab expectatione mea. “Take thou me unto Thyself, O Lord, and I shall live; let me not my expectation be for nothing” (Psalm 118:116).