“Listen carefully, my child, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice.”
So begins The Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the most enduring spiritual works of all time. Consisting merely of a prologue and 73 paragraphs, it is filled with spiritual and practical wisdom, and a keen insight into human nature.
It has been refreshing for me to hear from the Rule again, drip by drip, during these three months of Sabbath renewal, here in the midst of a community of twenty Benedictine monks. Each evening at the end of supper we listen to a few lines of Benedict’s instructions before closing in prayer.
Regardless of our calling in life, the threefold Benedictine vow of obedience, stability and conversion of life bears lessons we can all learn from. During this installment, I will reflect on obedience.
Obedience is ultimately a matter of obeying God the Father, in imitation of Jesus, who said, “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 6:38). Christ’s obedience involved a total self-emptying, freely and wholeheartedly laying down his life in sacrifice. Monastic life allows obedience and self-emptying to take on a visible form. The monks vow obedience to their abbot (a name meaning “father”) and habitually submit their own will to the will of the abbot and of their elder monks.
Benedict has no illusions of abbots being perfect; rather, he is aware that often they are awful. Many of the instructions of the Rule are directed at the abbot and the grave responsibility that he bears. If there are problems or toxic dynamics in the life of the monastery, they are ultimately his fault – unless he has truly been just and loving and the faults are ultimately due to the obstinacy of the unwilling followers. He plays the role of Christ within the community, first and foremost by his example and then by his exercise of authority.
Benedict is clear about this Christ-like authority not being one of power or control, but one of humility – including attentive listening and consulting. The abbot is not to make major decisions without pulling together other monks and listening deeply to what they have to say. He bears the ultimate responsibility for the final decision, but not before listening with an open mind and heart.
As one who has often borne the burden of authority amidst multiple seasons of disorienting change and turmoil, I can relate. Sometimes I don’t like listening to truths that expose my failures or invite me to pour more of my already depleted energy into a problem. Other times I have put off making the right decision out of fear of domineering or manipulative people, leaving the righteous ones to suffer in silence. Still other times it is tempting to avoid making decisions and over-consult – hoping someone will “just tell me what to do” and rescue me from my responsibility. When we leaders (whether parents, bosses, pastors or bishops) abdicate our authority, it is often more damaging than when we abuse our position of power. Either way, Benedict repeatedly reminds the abbot that he will give an account to Jesus on the Day of Judgment when our full story will be told by the all-seeing God.
You may be surprised that I am spending so much time talking about the duties of those in authority, but it is essential to see obedience in the context of healthy and holy relationships, not within the context of power or exertion of will. Too many Christians have only known “authority” as an abuse of power or an abdication of responsibility. They haven’t experienced enough of the real thing – with the result that many today (including many ex-Christians) are only suspicious of authority. We need to take their pain seriously and listen to their stories – admitting fault and humbly repairing as justice calls for. AND we can model authentic authority and obedience, and the freedom they bring. Obedience is wonderfully freeing.
Obedience, lived well, directly overturns the strongholds of the evil one. He tempts Adam and Eve – and each of us – to replace the words “thy will be done” with “MY will be done!” In our pride and self-protection, in our fears and insecurities, in our shame and isolation, we resist the intimacy involved in freely submitting to another’s will.
Benedict describes the good fruit the grows in the heart of monks as a result of their obedience: “They no longer live by their own judgment, giving into their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions.” Benedict’s understanding is that those who can obey and submit to an imperfect human being will be more free in submitting to a perfect and loving Father.
Obedience balances individual and communal needs, reflecting the truth that we are not isolated individuals each doing whatever we feel like, but all interconnected in relationships and called to love and serve one another. There are times in a monastery when an individual and talented monk is asked to give up his own personal dreams in order to fill a role needed by the rest of the community. The same often holds true in married life, in the workplace, or in the diocesan priesthood. In the Rule, these kinds of decisions aren’t to be made lightly by the abbot, but only through dialogue and consultation. Hopefully in a happy marriage, in a healthy work environment, or in a healthy bishop-priest relationship, there is a similar dialogue and consultation when challenging decisions need to be made, allowing freedom to move forward.
The church bells fill the Benedictine day with moments of obedience. The bells ring, and the obedient monk promptly rises from bed. The bells ring, and the obedient monk promptly lays down his work project and heads to the chapel to pray. But isn’t it interesting that the bells are rung more than once each time? There is always the ideal of a prompt and joyful obedience that immediately springs forth, combined with a realistic accommodation for human weakness and real-life circumstances.
Pride is the ancient sin of the devil and of our first parents. Each of us daily is tempted to cry out, “My will be done!” in a hundred different ways. Obedience chips away at our pride and selfishness and teaches us to love and serve others, freely, not because “I have to.” It looks different for the monk, the employee, the spouse, or the priest. But we all are called to Christ-like authority and Christ-like obedience in healthy and holy relationships. How do you allow obedience to set you free in your daily life?
This post was first published on Abideinlove.com and is reprinted here with permission.