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Oblate Blog: November 16, 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 3, Retreat: October 2011 - The 11th & 12th Degrees of Humility

This blog includes the 3rd conference given at the oblate retreat on the weekend of October 7-9, 2011. It covers the 11th and 12th degrees or steps of humility from the Rule of St. Benedict. Read the 11th degree from the Rule, p. 37

The 11th Degree of Humility:

This again is a very brief degree and at first sight seems to differ little from the 10th degree. But, I think there is a real distinction between the two. We do at least two things with our mouth – we laugh and we talk. Of course we also use the mouth to eat and for other things. This degree of humility is certainly built on the preceding two degrees. If a monk or oblate has the two preceding degrees; that is a certain seriousness and thoughtfulness about them, then he or she will probably have this degree of humility also. A person who has learned silence and control of the emotions will usually speak wise words. Such a person is one we will probably tend to go to for advice. It will usually come later in life. We tend to acquire this degree through a rather long life and a long time of work and trying to follow it. Such a person says few words but they are usually words of wisdom. This practice is usually acquired through years of practice. Wisdom of speech does not just come on its own. We have to work at it throughout our life.

It is interesting that Carol Bonomo in her book Humble Pie calls this degree "brevity." She says that "When Benedict’s monks do speak – silence has already been placed before them – they speak briefly, reasonably and quietly. They are men or women of few words." One monk writes that "Humble persons won’t make braying jackasses out of themselves." Another monk says: "the eleventh step of humility is to be expected only at the eleventh hour." In other words you can’t force it on newcomers; it’s the normal outcome of a lifetime in search of wisdom.

Carol Bonomo says: "For Benedict, brevity isn’t just the briefness of words, but where those few words come from—the good walk with Christ, along the road to the New Jerusalem. I think it’s like the companionable quiet of the old couple, still deeply in love, still caring and courteous, long beyond the limitations of words." (My own parents)

When Pope Paul VI visited Monte Cassino in October, 1964, he called attention to a certain "elegant gravity" of style which typified the sons and daughters of St. Benedict. The idea of gravitas as a virtue associated with humility and silence occurs six times in the Rule. Michael Casey in his book on humility says: "Benedict probably intended more than a certain stateliness of gait and demeanor. For him gravity was a sign of a solid monk: one who weighs his words and avoids whatever lacks substance."

Father Casey thinks that the key to understanding this step of humility is to appreciate that Benedict is itemizing the qualities of an elderly person who has attained a measure of wisdom: gentle, serious, humble, grave, taciturn, low-voiced, and sparing of words.

The eleventh degree is not to be expected until later in life. It is not a code of monastic etiquette to be forced on newcomers. It comes from a lifetime spent in search of wisdom. What Benedict presents here in this eleventh step is the external form of one who has made much progress in prayer. Without the inner substance the humble exterior is a sham. Obviously the older monks have to learn to put up with certain abrasiveness among the younger members. Father Casey says that we need to remember that "Most people will soften over the next forty years." We might all remember this quotation from St. Augustine: "Let us not forget what we were once, and then we will not lose hope for those who are now what we used to be."

The 12th Degree of Humility: (Read the Rule p.37)

I remember our novice master telling us it is difficult to find a single word to indicate this degree. It is complete humility. In a way it summarizes all the degrees. All humility of course must come from the internal spirit, but that internal spirit must be expressed by external observance. Our novice master told us that in this last degree gratitude, humility and love all become one. In the first paragraph of this degree gratitude especially receives attention. St. Benedict adopts the publican, the tax collector, in the Gospel to illustrate this degree. The spirit of this man, who could only say before God "Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven." This spirit is impossible without real gratitude. He is like the sinner before the cross. How should that sinner feel? He should feel so wretched as to not to dare raise his eyes to heaven, because it is he that has crucified God; and yet at the same time the sinner should have joy and gratitude that God would do this even for me, the sinner. Somebody once said that if we really understood what the Cross meant, we would die from sorrow and from joy. That is what this degree of humility means. Both gratitude and humility must be present. Our eyes in a sense are cast down to earth but also raised to God at the same time – sorrow and joy.

Our novice master told us that the last part of this degree shows us what St. Benedict has been talking about in all of chapter seven. We ask if that is humility? Yes, of course, but more perfectly perhaps he has been talking about love. Any of these degrees of humility done without love is useless. Following these degrees, like other things in the following of Christ, can be difficult. But, they are only hard to help us grow in love. We no longer do these things out of fear, but out of love. Love of God and others, this should make following the Rule of Benedict, or living the Christian life, easy and joyful.

Let’s take a look now at what Father Michael Casey says about this degree. He says that when the monk reaches this degree the person is wedded to his or her earthliness, and rid of the pervasive temptation to get above him or herself. The Christian saint after all, remains one of us, without glamour or high reputation. Think of the book of Isaiah where the prophet says: "He had no form or grace to draw our gaze, no beauty to attract our desire. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrow, no stranger to grief." Even at the summit of the spiritual ascent there is no escaping the Cross of Christ. But what has changed is that the monk or oblate following the Rule of St. Benedict has learned by experience to stop kicking against the goad. He or she has begun to accept that God is present even in the worst of human experiences, and the search for God is longer postponed by ill-advised campaigns to improve his temporal lot. It is important to remember, Fr. Casey says, that "spiritual progress brings no guarantee of temporal fringe-benefits.

As we approach the end of life it is the mercy of God that is our song. The remembrance of all our misdeeds is grist for the mill. But, the fact that God should shower grace on one so clearly undeserving is a thought that brings much consolation. In the first degree the monk tries to avoid falling into forgetfulness of ultimate realities. At the end no effort is needed: mindfulness is second nature. We are simply filled with an awareness of God’s love and we are filled with gratitude for that love. God’s love has not wavered no matter how often we may have failed him. Every problem and sin becomes a song of praise for a love that is undeterred by human weakness, blindness or malice. No matter where the person is, he or she stands in the presence of God.

St. Benedict expects humility to overflow from within and to stamp its character on his followers.

And finally a few words from Carol Bonomo’s book: She calls this degree constancy. Here she says, in this last degree, Benedict asks of us that we manifest our humility externally as well as internally, that it becomes who we are no matter where we are or what we’re doing. She says that: "For Benedict, the summit of this ladder, so carefully constructed and painfully ascended, is perfect, fearless love. Humility is a slow business, she says, at least if it’s authentic humility."

We need to remember that it is worth the effort. With the daily exercise of humility we will finally reach the summit of perfect love.