In chapter seven of his Rule, Saint Benedict uses the Gospel of Matthew to concretize his teachings on humility: “In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two” (RB 7.42 [Matt 5:39-41]). Surely these must be some of the most countercultural words ever spoken by Jesus. Society, even in its ancient form, is not built this way. Humility, then and now, is seen as weakness; it is for those who lack the stamina or the backbone to fight back.
The rules of engagement as outlined by contemporary social norms take a more immediate form: when struck on one cheek, hit back with harder force. When deprived of your coat, complain about the type of person who took it. When pressed into service for one mile, fulfill the contract and move on unless a second mile is requested, then redo the paperwork and make sure everyone signs. This is the world we live in and the society we’ve fashioned. It is built on tenuous principles that demand a justice which looks more like revenge.
Benedict invites his monks to a deeper understanding of humility,one that not only demands honesty by asking, “Why did I do that?” but also that takes the time and space to consider the same question from the opposite perspective: “Why did he/she do that to me?” Both instances put humanity back into the equation of wrongdoing. Rarely do we do things without purpose or intent, and self-reflection in the wake of either brings a broader, more realistic understanding of what just happened. It forces us to name our guilt, find meaning there, and perhaps make amends.
When we walk away from our wrongdoing claiming, “they deserved it,” or “it must be all the stress in my life,” we abandon an opportunity to make things right and avoid repeating the offense. A lack of humility allows us to blame a condition or set of circumstances, thereby exonerating ourselves. Conversely, a lack of humility robs us of the potential for showing a patient tolerance of those who offended us. We are sometimes quick to assign unconditional malice to those who hurt us rather than respond empathically. Benedict would see both of these as wasted chances.
True humility opens our heart to contrition, forgiveness, and peace. It allows us to soften our harsh reaction when wronged; it also invites us to give others the space, understanding, and benefit of the doubt that they might need.
Father Timothy Backous, O.S.B.
Headmaster of Saint John’s Preparatory School