Friday, September 11, 2009


For no reason other than to impose a little order in my study of Benedictine spirituality, I decided over the next two or three months to focus on one topic important in monastic spirituality each month. This month, the topic is obedience.

I chose this first because, for me, it’s one of the more difficult things to deal with in Benedict’s Rule. None of us likes to lose control of our lives to another. We are told here in America that we’re free and should be able to do whatever we want “as long as no one else gets hurt.” A silly idea, but quite predominant. We like this least of all in spiritual matters, we insist strongly on freedom of conscience.

Too, I’ve read what a number of prominent Benedictine authors have written on the topic and many seem to down play the authoritarian side of this monastic vow. When I started to make notes to myself about this I wanted to too. I wanted to rationalize and say, “Well, it doesn’t mean you have to obey someone or you're under their thumb, it really means (name your option here).

Yet, it’s pretty easy to see that we all live under some form of obedience. Those of us who must earn our living day by day and care for a family have bosses, customers, subordinates, husbands, wives, children who demand our time and attention. It’s not a foreign concept to any walk of life. Then too, in the typical small, enclosed monastic community, not having the authority figure of the abbot and allowing each monk to do his own thing when and where and how he pleases would soon result in the end of the community. It would be nothing but chaos, confusion and eventual dissolution.

I have to conclude that there is an aspect of submission to authority which the monastic vow of obedience encompasses. It’s an ordinary part of every human life and Benedict is the master at seeing the ordinary as the path to the extraordinary.

Benedict also does nothing to hide the difficulties involved.

LISTEN carefully, my child,
to your master's precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father's advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
Sometimes, being obedient is a labor, it’s something that must be worked at day in and day out. Benedict sees disobedience as sloth, not for the indolent. Because of the distasteful connotations, however, obedience has gotten a bad name; it’s very little understood, and less sought after or, even, expected. A better understanding of this fundamental Benedictine ideal is much needed, especially by me. Thus, the rest of this month is devoted to it.

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