The second vow the Benedictine takes is the vow of obedience. Obedience!!?? we howl. But we’re grown ups. We’re supposed to take responsibility for ourselves. We’re supposed to be pro active. We’re supposed to make our own moral decisions. Yadda yadda yadda.
Yes, no doubt true up to a point. We don’t want a church made up of doormats and robots. However, the vices of any age are best corrected by the virtues we find most repellent. Our age is the age of the dictatorship of relativism. It is the age of individualism run rampant, the age of personal freedom (code for personal pleasure as the sole guiding principle) and tolerance (code for “leave me alone willya?”)
That obedience is demanded is a scandal and an outrage to our society. Yet obedience is the vow Benedict calls us to. He expects his monks to be instantly obedient. As soon as the bell tolls calling him to the Divine Office the monk is to leave what he is doing and instantly hurry to the oratory. Benedict says the young monk must instantly obey his superior in virtually a military fashion. The word ‘obedience’ is rooted in the word for ‘listen’, so obedience is essentially the virtue of listening and acting rather than talking back and resisting.
What’s the point? Well, instant obedience and a clear order of command makes for an efficient religious community, but Benedict always has his eye on the spiritual development of his monks, not just the orderly running of a community. He wants to cultivate a spirit that is sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit–one that responds to God with instant obedience because instant obedience has become a habit. The habit of instant obedience also cultivates a certain mindset about oneself. If I am instantly obedient I am reminded every time that I do not know best. That there is a greater and wiser authority, and that I will learn faster and better and deeper all that there is to know if I learn to listen and obey.
Ouch! That one hurts, but the spiritual life is a long hard journey, and Benedict knows that a little pain at the beginning will pay great dividends later. When the going gets really tough the person who has learned obedience will be able to put his head down and plow through the darkness relying not on any consolations, but on the sheer, dogged obedience that will eventually bring them home.