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Fr Billy Swan

In the second part of a two part article, I explore another six tips from St Benedict on how we can ascend the ladder to humility

1. Have a Poor Self-Image: Self-Abasement: Blaise Pascal was someone who pointed to the importance of pondering deeply the mystery of our human condition. And when we do, he tells us, we find what he calls the ‘sublimitas et miseria hominis…the grandeur and misery of man’. In other words, having a grip on the reality of who we are, means knowing that we are sinners and yet called to be saints. This is how St Benedict instructed his monks: ‘Believe in your heart that you are an unworthy servant of God, humbling yourself and saying with the prophet – “I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men and despised by the people”’ (Ps. 22:6). Another saint puts it this way: ‘Left to myself, I am nothing but total weakness. But if you look upon me for an instant, I am at once made strong and filled with new joy’ (St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ). From the perspective of the wise poet, Goethe once wrote: ‘The discerning person who acknowledges his/her limitations is not far off perfection’.

The combined wisdom here encourages us to look our incompleteness straight in the eye. Perhaps in our culture we both bypass the darker side of our nature and underestimate our high calling. The wisdom of St Benedict keeps us in touch with our human nature that is always in need of redemption and saving. Every day presents the possibility to go off the rails, to disintegrate because of sin or regress into addiction. In the language of the story of the Prodigal Son, we can always leave home for a distant country. But with his grace, he keeps on the right path. His grace is enough. St Philip Neri prayed each morning: ‘Lord, lay your hands on Philip today, for if you don’t, Philip will betray you’. Now there is the saint who knows his need for God. In the words of St Paul, ‘when we are weak, we are strong’. Finally, self-abasement doesn’t seek the approval of another but keeps focused on what is true of me. Again, the words of St Benedict contain so much wisdom: ‘Do not desire to be called holy before you are; but be holy first, that you may be so called’ (Chapter 4, The Tools of Good Works).

2. Think Inside the Box: Prudence. Today, it’s fashionable to be a rebel or revolutionary. We celebrate heroes from the past who bucked the trend and shook the system. We like free spirits and non-conformists. But what happens when we reach a time when everyone does their own thing to such an extent that there is hardly an establishment to rebel against? Who are the rebels of this age? You’ve guessed it – the ones who bring back discipline and the importance of living by rules that protect values and order. This is not a hearkening back to the uniformity and conformity of the past. It is, however, a call to prudence. A prudent person knows when to keep an open mind and when to close it. A prudent person knows that we must chose some good over another. The prudent person also knows what evil to avoid.

Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues, the other three being justice, fortitude and temperance. According to the Catechism: ‘Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; the prudent person looks where he is going’.

For centuries, monasteries have been communities that have modelled the virtue of prudence. Guided by father Benedict’s words of prudence: ‘Only do what is lawful and follow the example of your elders’; ‘The monk should fulfill daily the commands of God by works; he should love chastity and he should hate no one’. Here is wisdom that channels our passions including our desire to be rebels. We might think that by an act of rebellion or defiance we are stepping out of the box. But the box might be bigger than we realise. Human history has seen it all before. Best to listen to the advice of people like St Benedict before we speak or act. Speak and act we must, but always with prudence.

3. Don’t Speak Up – Silence. The world in which we live is noisy. Even when we try to pray, there is a temptation to fill awkward silences with words. Many of us are not conformable with silence. But for the monk and contemplative, silence is the language of God. We need to be silent to hear his voice. St Benedict famously advised in the Prolog of his Rule that monks should ‘Listen with the ear of your heart’. Elsewhere he says; ‘Let us do what the Prophet says – ‘I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue’ (Ps. 39:1); ‘Because silence is so precious, the monk should rarely speak even for good and holy reasons’. Without real listening, communion with God and each other is impossible. If no one listens and everyone speaks, there is noisy chaos. Monastic wisdom says that ‘when you meet a wise person, listen to them and you will learn wisdom; when you meet a foolish person, listen to them and you will learn patience; when you are alone, listen to God and you will learn everything else’.

4. Laughter is Not the Best Medicine Dignity. Curiously in his Rule, St Benedict guards against unrestrained laughter. He writes: ‘Guard your tongue against vulgar or wicked words. Do not love excess talking; watch how you joke around and avoid unrestrained laughter’. Does Benedict want us to be serious all the time? Is there to be no fun? I doubt if this is what he meant. Rather he is warning against humour at someone else’s expense or laughter that demeans human dignity. The Germans have a term called 'Schadenfreude' which means taking pleasure at another's misfortune. This is precisely what St Benedict warns us against for its effects are toxic.

5. Don’t Be The Life of the Party Discretion. Benedict is intentionally clear in how speech can build up or tear down. It can build bonds of communion among us or damage it. When we are to speak, he says: ‘Do so gently, humbly, earnestly and quietly with few and sensible words; for it is written “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words”. The father of Western monasticism is also keen that monks not take sides of a dispute where one is pitched against another. He urges discretion in all things and puts the emphasis not on who is right but what is right. He also urges discretion when the answer we give to a request is ‘No’. He says: ‘If a brother makes a stupid request, the other monk shouldn’t sadden him with a cold refusal, but politely and humbly tell him no’. What Benedict is getting at here is how to be gracious and discrete even when we can’t deliver on what another person wants. There is a right way of saying ‘No’ and a wrong way. The right way is always done within the relationship we have to the other and done in a way that doesn’t damage it. Think of how many times we make stupid requests of God. He doesn’t react angrily or impatiently. He sometimes says ‘No’ because He has already said a greater ‘Yes’ to what is good for us.

6. Keep your Chin Down Reverence. The final step of the twelve is another appeal to the humility that leads to reverence for all people and all things. It is an attitude that celebrates the goodness of creation without wanting to always grasp or control it. It is a closeness and identification with the tax-collector in the temple who went home at rights with God. In the words of St Benedict: ‘Wherever you go, bow your head in prayer, remembering the words of the publican “God be merciful to me a sinner”’. What Benedict is interested in is the formation of the monk and his continued growth in holiness. The Rule is to help him attain that holiness and stay in it. He writes: ‘The purpose of this Rule is to help you to be holy - or at least help you get started. So do your best to fulfill this little rule for beginners; and you will, by the grace of God, reach the heights of knowledge and virtue’.


Christ’s choice of twelve Apostles deliberately corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel who descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. This was the origin of the Jewish people. Therefore, when Jesus chose the twelve, he had the renewal of the whole of Israel in mind. Like the number seven, twelve is also associated with completeness and wholeness. Even Jordan Peterson wrote a best-selling book called ‘Twelve Rules for Life’. St Benedict also offers us a 12 -step guide to genuine self-esteem that is radically different than the wisdom of our age but yet comes from the heart of the Gospel. This wisdom has been lived by the hundreds of thousands of the sons and daughters of St Benedict who have lived his Rule for centuries in religious life. So when we teach our children about genuine self-esteem and cultivate it for ourselves, we ignore this wisdom at our peril. St Benedict, pray for us!!


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