This is the second in a series of posts on the Benedictine Way. The first article on the vow of Stability is here.
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.
Obedience is a vow, and every vow is intended to be woven into life as one of the basic foundations of our existence. We are obedient simply because we are creatures, not the creator. Every day we must be obedient to a whole range of laws we never question. We are obedient to everything from the law of gravity to the law of stopping for red lights. To learn obedience and to value obedience therefore, is a way of squelching our natural tendency to rebellion and learning instead to find our proper place in the created order, and therefore our proper place in God’s providence. Obedience is at the heart of the Lord’s prayer, “Thy will be done…” and it should be at the heart of our very existence as the baptized.
If we could only learn obedience, then we would soon find peace, for peace is only found in the Divine Will. “Our hearts are restless til they find their rest in Thee.” It is only through obedience that we find that rest.
Obedience, however, is a difficult virtue to acquire. It is not found when obedience is easy. It is not acquired when the superior is intelligent, sensible and agrees with us. Obedience is only developed when we obey when it is difficult. Do we dislike our parish priest? Do we dislike his style of liturgy? Do we disagree with his teaching methods? Do we dislike and disagree with our bishop? Do we quietly go about choosing our own parish, our own superiors, our own liturgy, our own little church? Fine. I’m sure we have very good reasons for doing so. But don’t expect that you’ll ever learn obedience is you always think you’re right.
Obedience is tested when obedience becomes absurd. Obedience is tested when our superiors are idiots, petty minded autocrats or even downright bad people. Obedience is hardest when the superior goes against what we know, we really know is God’s will. That’s when obedience really starts to bite, and if we can obey when it is difficult–especially when it’s difficult–why then we’ve learned real obedience, and the lives of all the saints bear this out.
When we get into the habit of obedience…when it really gets into our bloodstream…then we start to be in a state of grace and a state of spiritual growth–and not before. Don’t you imagine that you are making spiritual progress if you are being disobedient to your rightful authority. You think you know it all spiritually or liturgically or morally or politically or Scripturally? Has your attitude led you to disobedience? Then you know nothing. You haven’t even started to grow spiritually.
Finally, obedience just might start to be the growth of humility in our life. When we really honestly for real get it into our hard little hearts that we are not the master of our souls, then the small white bird of humility might just be hovering about and might–just might decide to settle in our souls. The obedient soul says automatically–“I’m probably wrong” and from that seed humility grows.
If this post on obedience has made you mad and you are spluttering “Yes, but…” then I’ve hit the target. We forget that the spiritual life is supposed to be hard. It’s the hardest thing in the world.
In fact, it’s the hardest thing in the world because it’s not of this world.
Donor Subscribers, don’t forget to check out Suburban Hermit— my blog channel on monastic spirituality.