One of the great differences between Monastics and Oblates is that Monastics live in an environment where those within the monastery, by virtue of their vows, have committed themselves to fulfill the precepts of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Oblate lives in a very different circumstance, and those around the Oblate are often not committed to the same set of values to which the Oblate aspires. The Oblate strives to take seriously the call to humility, but humility is dynamically opposite to the aspirations of the world around him.
On the surface that sounds very formal, but it’s not. It is often a painful reality, and the Oblate frequently struggles with the need for personal balance in settings that can be very conflictual, in the family, in the various places of employment, and even within the parish church. The call to humility may sound as odd as Latin in the ears of the children of the world; but what is it that St. Benedict has to say to the Oblate who lives in less than ideal circumstances?
Chapter 7 - Of Humility [i]
Brethren, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: "Every one that exalts himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted" (Lk 14:11; 18:14). Since, therefore, it says this, it shows us that every exaltation is a kind of pride.
For St. Benedict humility is the ladder that extends from this world to heaven; by humility one ascends to heaven, by self-exaltation one descends into the morass and disharmony of the world. If you would learn peace, learn humility. If you embrace self-exaltation you embrace the disharmony that governs the world.
The starting place is learning Godly fear. The Book of Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”[ii] The very idea that God is to be feared is antithetical to the children of the world, and especially to the children of the world within the Church. According to C. S. Lewis, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of the day, 'a good time was had by all'.”[iii] However St. Benedict says,
1. The first degree of humility, then, is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes (cf Ps 35:2), shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God has commanded,
That has a direct implication on the calling of the Oblate as well as the Monastic. To assume that the Monastic has less temptation is to gravely underestimate the temptations that beset the Monastic. Temptation is a universal experience. Paul tells us, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”[iv] Monastic and Oblate alike suffer temptations.
Therefore, in order that he may always be on his guard against evil thoughts, let the humble brother always say in his heart: "Then I shall be spotless before Him, if I shall keep myself from iniquity" (Ps 17:24).[v]
The second degree of humility introduces us to a central dynamic of the spiritual life.
2. The second degree of humility is, when a man loves not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carries out that word of the Lord which says: "I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me" (Jn 6:38). It is likewise said: "Self-will has its punishment, but constraint wins the crown."
The surrender of the will is easy when there are no immediate circumstances that overwhelm either Monastic or Oblate. It is difficult, very difficult, in the midst of an impending conflict where the desires and pressure of the world around him[vi] call for a surrender of one’s material possessions, pride, and relationships. The Monastic at least theoretically has already surrendered such things in taking his final vows.
3. The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says: "He became obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8).
Here is the crunch. What St. Benedict wants us to do is to surrender our wills in the concrete circumstances in which we live. That means treating the boss respectfully even when we disagree with him. Within a larger context it means abiding by the rules of the various societies to which you may belong. There is an exception, if you are a member of an organization whose rules run clearly counter to the will of God, you have a choice; sell out your beliefs, or get out, or in some cases be a martyr.
It also means by extension listening to one’s wife or husband instead of immediately leaping into argument. What is at stake is no less than the issue of control. If you insist on being in control you will never find peace until you have in one way or another quelled everyone in your environment. Frankly, that’s not going to happen.
4. The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, and even though injuries are inflicted, he accepts them with patience and even temper, and does not grow weary or give up, but holds out, as the Scripture says: "He that shall persevere unto the end shall be saved" (Mt 10:22). And again: "Let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord" (Ps 26:14).
St. Benedict doesn’t want to leave this surrender on the higher plane of obedience in greater things, but on the everyday give and take of life. It’s like the old joke, “My wife and I share all the decisions; she makes the small ones, I make the big ones. She decides where I’m going to work, where we are going to live, how we should spend our money, and how we should discipline our children. I make all the big decisions, like World Peace, what the President is supposed to do and major things like that.” It is most often in the smaller things, the everyday things, that the issues of control test our willingness to live in surrender. Those are the decisions that should be shared by the husband and wife.
5. The fifth degree of humility is, when one hides from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesses them. Concerning this the Scripture exhorts us, saying: "Reveal your way to the Lord and trust in Him" (Ps 36:5). And it says further: "Confess to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever" (Ps 105:1; Ps 117:1). And the Prophet likewise says: ‘I have acknowledged my sin to You and my injustice I have not concealed. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ and You have forgiven the wickedness of my sins" (Ps 31:5).
There are two things at stake here. The first is complete openness to God. We should not live in the illusion that we can hide anything from God, nor even from ourselves. That is the point of confession. In order to make a good confession we must first admit to ourselves the very things in our lives that we are most embarrassed about, and then, lest we live in guilt, confess these things to God trusting in the Sacrifice of Christ that cleanses us from sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[vii]
Within the context of a Monastery or Abbey, the Superior has the responsibility of hearing Confessions. Oblates come from many backgrounds and for some Confession to God in the presence of a Priest may be something we don’t believe in. On the other hand, the question must be asked, “Why not?”
The Book of Common Prayer gives the following advice,
If, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then
go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest,
and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of
absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal
of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the
strengthening of your faith.[viii]
My solution is, try it once, even if you don’t like the idea. There is an underlying dynamic here that should be recognized. If we live with secrets we end up living with hidden guilts that can destroy our sense of peace and well-being. Regardless of what you believe about making a Confession there should be at least one Christian person in your life from whom you hide nothing. Note that I said, “one”. Perhaps two if you are a very lucky person; but most often more than that is foolhardy.
6. The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holds himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: "I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before You, and I am always with You" (Ps 72:22-23).
Do you need to have everything in your life and environment perfect? Beware, that is a manifestation of the temptation to control. There is a delightful story told by C. S. Lewis,
She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sign and a smile "Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast". You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others.[ix]
The underlying issue in this type of gluttony is the desire to control. The moral of the story is be content with what you get, even if your steak turns out medium instead of medium rare, and a thousand other little annoyances that niggle at the average person. St. Benedict points out in this context that we are not all that perfect in the things we do; we are sometimes bad and worthless workmen. Recognizing that reality, we ought to relax a little when things aren’t perfect in our environment.
7. The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declares, but also in his inmost soul believes, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 21:7). "I have been exalted and humbled and confounded" (Ps 87:16). And also: "It is good for me that You have humbled me, that I may learn Your commandments" (Ps 118:71,73).
St. Benedict has a way of digging in on a point until we squirm. Considering our frustration with the imperfect things in our environment; we ought to recognize just how lowly and vile we can be. That ought to sober us up when we are in a critical mood, even if nothing else will.
8. The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk does nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.
Here St. Benedict circles around to obedience in the context of the rules of a monastery. For the Oblate there is a direct application to obedience in the context of the local parish. “Oh, Oh! Good grief! Did a Priest just tell me that I ought to be obedient in the context of the parish where I make my spiritual home?” Yes! Again, there is an exception, if you are a member of a parish where those in authority run clearly counter to the will of God, you have a choice; sell out your beliefs, or get out and find a place where you can obey. I won’t say, “in some cases be a martyr”, because that will make you a positive nuisance and it won’t do anything but cause unnecessary conflict in the place where you should be making your spiritual home. For your own sake you ought to belong to a parish where you can obey; it’s essential for your spiritual health.
9. The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholds his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence he does not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture shows that "in a multitude of words there shall be no want of sin" (Prov 10:19); and that "a man quick to speak is not established in the earth" (Ps 139:12).
Here, and in the next step, St. Benedict comes around to the quality of interaction that we have with those around us. Oblates don’t live in Monasteries, we live in family settings. One of the great perils of being quick to speak is manifested in what I call the Cocktail Party Syndrome. Two people are talking together, neither is listening to the other. When one is speaking, the other instead of listening, is thinking about the witty thing he might say as soon as the other person is finished speaking. The rule for Oblates is listen and respond, don’t be thinking instead about yourself and how witty or wise you might be.
10. The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: "The fool exalts his voice in laughter" (Sir 21:23).
When St. Benedict warns about being quick to laugh he is offering us a strong shield against compromising ourselves as Christians. Not all jokes are funny, some are disgusting, and others demeaning. There is a story told about Don Rickles. Frank Sinatra comes into a club where Rickles is performing, and Rickles says, “Make yourself comfortable, Frank, pull up a chair and hit somebody.” Funny or not, that kind of humour is demeaning. Try not to laugh at it.
11. The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaks, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."
Here is the other side of the coin. Don’t be the perpetrator of that kind of humour; use restraint instead. I’ve bitten off more than one joke because speaking it wasn’t appropriate in a certain setting, even when someone else says, “Tell the joke about the Oblate that . . .” There is a positive direction just as well as a negative one. Think before you speak and answer thoughtfully and with humility.
12. The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always lets it appear in his whole exterior appearance to all that see him.
Oblates differ from Monastics in several ways. One of them is that Benedictine Monks and Nuns dress in black cassocks, at least traditionally. Oblates spend a lot of money, time and effort looking the best they can. That latter is not the problem. The problem is that when outer appearance is so important that the Oblate is driven to trying to look better, flashier, sexier, or more affluent than others. Simply put, don’t be a show-off!
Let me modify the conclusion to apply to the Oblate:
Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the Oblate will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18).
In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed with fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue.
May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.
[i] The Rule: The only online copy of the Rule is in rather antique English, so I have taken the great liberty of mangling it in more modern English.
[ii] Proverbs 1:7
[iii] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
[iv] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[v] The Rule
[vi] His, or Her. I refuse to be awkward by fencing around with what some think is socially acceptable. I wrote this primarily for myself, and secondarily for everyone else, and I am not a His/Her.
[vii] 1 John 1:8-9
[viii] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 317
[ix] C.S. Lewis, online Screwtape Letters, chapter 17
Copyright © 2013 Robin P. Smith