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Oblate Blog: November 2, 2011

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With this blog I will begin posting the conferences given at our oblate retreat October 7-9, 2011.  As you who were present know, the retreat was on the last six degrees or steps of humility as found in chapter seven of the Rule of St. Benedict. For those not able to attend the retreat perhaps you can read them on the blog.

Fr. Kenneth

Conference 2, Retreat: October 2011 - The 9th & 10th Degrees of Humility

This blog includes the 2nd conference given at the oblate retreat on the weekend of October 7-9, 2011. It covers the 9th and 10th degrees or steps of humility from the Rule of St. Benedict.
Read the 9th degree from the Rule, p. 37
Please refer to the included chart to see what various writers call this degree. (click here to view chart)

Basically St. Benedict is telling us here that the monk or the oblate or perhaps, we can say, any Christian, should be thoughtful before he or she acts or speaks. The follower of the Rule of St. Benedict does not just blurt out whatever comes to his or her mind. Most of us know this not as easy as it may sound. St. Benedict spends a whole chapter on silence but here he very briefly states the need for silence. In our age of course silence is not very much encouraged. Silence is usually looked upon as something negative, but really it is a positive thing. The mere absence of speech is negative but absence of speech for a purpose is positive. What is the purpose of silence? I think there are many purposes but perhaps here we can just mention two – namely so that the mind can work or so that we can be thoughtful. Secondly for the sake of listening whether that be to listen to God, a teacher, a brother or sister – whoever. Do we give God a chance to talk to us? Do we listen to the Word of God? So often this is spoken to us by others in our lives.

This degree of humility teaches us not only how to be silent but also how to speak. Prudence dictates when someone is to talk and when not to talk. It teaches us when to answer a question or when to be silent. It teaches us to think before we speak. It is so easy to talk as we all know. And you know once we say it, we cannot really take it back. If the word or words we speak hurt someone how do we repair that damage? We can say we are sorry and we need to do that, but that does not remove the fact that we said what we said. In a way the damage has been done and we cannot undo it. Acquiring a spirit of silence is not easy. I know from my own experience that one of the most difficult times for me to keep silent is when I am accused of something. Then immediately self-defense takes over and I can be adamant in trying to prove to the other person that I am not the one at fault.

The easiest way for us to restrict conversation is to be alone. In community, and it would seem that the same applies to a family, silence is sometimes necessary for the sake of charity. When we disturb others we are not being charitable. But silence for St. Benedict, seems to be more than that. Silence promotes a life of prayer and contemplation. The practice of silence needs to be governed by an awareness of how it can contribute to the contemplative dimension of the monastic day. All of us, I am convinced, need to try to find some time for silence in our day, obviously, if we have a family that is not easy. We especially need silence if we are to learn to listen. How many homes do we go in today and find the television always on or perhaps loud music always playing? I am not at all against watching television but here I am simply emphasizing the need also for some silence. Silence is an important reality. Each of us needs to find our own silence. Definitely we should not be afraid of silence or uncomfortable with silence. Fr. Michael Casey says in his book that unless we find silence, we will never find our hearts. He goes so far as to say that we sometimes need to make a deliberate decision to be quiet. We have all had the experience perhaps of being around someone who just needs to always be talking. No matter what is said that person always knows the answer or has already had that experience and sometimes it is difficult for someone to complete what they are saying before that one person breaks in and leads the conversation. Notice that St. Benedict here in this degree does not rule out speaking, he simply says that we must learn to control the tongue, to practice restraint.

Carol Bonomo has some good insights with regard to silence in her book Humble Pie. She says about herself, that there have been times when I’ve filled the quiet with scornful, solitary judgment. Such restraint of speech, as she says, follows the letter of the rule on silence, but has no community and probably no God in it either. She reminds us that within the steps of humility practicing silence involves others. It definitely involves listening. One of the old desert fathers said: "Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance." The silence this desert father speaks of is not the glaring silence of self-absorbed anger. We can spend times of silence judging others, condemning others and internally going through a lot of anger toward others. Obviously this is not listening. At many meetings we go to or listen to there is a lot more talking than thinking, and a lot more talkers than listeners and hardly any humble silence.

Let’s go on now to the 10th Degree of Humility:

Read p.37 

Father Patrick gave this degree the title of "gravity."

For some this is a difficult degree to understand for it speaks of laughter and quoting from the book of Sirach it says: "Only a fool raises his voice in laughter." How are we to understand this? I remember our novice master explaining this to us as follows: He said that this degree means control. St. Benedict does not condemn all laughter. He doesn’t say that the tenth degree of humility is not to laugh, but says that we should not be on the verge of laughter all the time because such a spirit is a superficial one. Our novice master told us, that with regard to all the degrees of humility, Jesus Christ is our model. I don’t think many of us can think of Jesus as one who never laughed, but also we don’t usually imagine him as a person who went around all the time telling jokes and laughing about everything. Our novice master told us that St. Benedict is here setting forth a prescription to control our whole emotional life which he saw as centered around the two – laughter and tears or perhaps better, joy and sorrow. There must be a balance between the two

Father Michael Casey sees this particular degree as the least popular of all the degrees. He points out that scholastic philosophy saw laughter as the most distinctive activity, present in every human culture yet denied to both angels and animals. Benedict seems to regard it as a vice. No doubt he tends to see, especially loud laughter as contradicting the whole tenor of monastic life as Benedict understood it. Laughter undermines seriousness, mindfulness, diligence, sobriety, moderation and kindness and acceptance of others.

Carol Bonomo in her book Humble Pie suggests that maybe it is easier to see this degree of humility through the lens of its opposite, what St. Bernard of Clairvaux calls giddiness. In a lovely act of humility, Bernard took the ladder metaphor and the steps ascending to humility, and went down them to show our steps of pride. I quote from St. Bernard, "The proud always seek what is pleasant and try to avoid what is troublesome," and he goes on: "You are scurrilous, over cheerful in appearance, swaggering in bearing, always ready for a joke; any little thing quickly gets a laugh." Carol Bonomo calls this degree soberness. And so she concludes that both soberness and its opposite – giddiness—are the ways we respond in community, ways that either set us apart in humility (soberness) or bring us together in the blind cheerfulness of denial and good will (giddiness). She suggests that we can approach this degree by paying attention, by listening deeply.

For myself who has been a monk in vows now for over 57 years, I can say that I cannot believe that St. Benedict wanted to rule out all laughing in the monastery. I believe he wanted us to have a gravity about us, a soberness about us that was not always looking for ways to be funny and make others laugh. You know when we are always looking for jokes to tell and trying to be funny, that can be a way of being proud. We all like attention, don’t we? And such behavior can easily lead to that attention. St. Benedict wants a spirit of quiet, a spirit of peace, a certain spirit of seriousness about us. And this I think includes also the oblates who are trying to follow the Rule of St. Benedict.

In brief I think St. Benedict wants us to have a certain emotional stability about us. We can be funny at times, but we can also be serious, we can also listen to others and how important that is to all of us.