Obedience – Joyfully Counter-Cultural

Obedience – Joyfully Counter-Cultural

Obedience is indistinguishable from religious life because religious life is always about the imitation of Christ – and Christ is the one who comes not to do his own will but the will of Him who sent him (see John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38, and many other moments throughout John’s Gospel).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that obedience looms large in the Rule of St Benedict and in Benedictine spirituality and personal and community life – a whole chapter in the Rule is devoted to it (Chapter 5) but the practice of obedience runs right through the fabric of the Rule, both in its language explicitly and implicitly in its spirit.

Stemming from this our fifth core value in the scheme of Bethlehem Cistercian Family cores values is obedience.  This, as a good starting point for our reflection, is what our value says:

We aim to foster a respect for authority and one another, learning to listen well and respond deeply, working to hear  and understand the viewpoints of others, knowing that selfless service of others in our community is obedience in action.

True, Christ-like obedience begins in listening.  St Benedict asks that the entire disposition of the monk be one of turning in an active listening to the God who is always addressing himself to us – thus he begins his Rule in a very direct way instructing the disciple to “Listen”!  And the Latin root of the term which is used for the remainder of the Rule for obedience – obedientia – is “audire”, “to hear, or listen”.  This is a listening which is meant to penetrate to the depths of oneself, and cannot be a mere external reception of information.  Obedience implies that we are ready to go beyond the limits of our own judgements to listen and respond deeply to what others say to us and ask of us.  That sometimes means a very significant shift in mindset and intention on our part, and almost certainly will ask us about our own self-will and selfishness.

The model for obedience remains Christ.  The pivotal text which invites our constant return and reflection is provided for us in St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2:5-12).  This very beautiful hymn – probably not by Paul himself but one which was used by the early Church in some aspect of its common prayer – has become identified by the Greek word which describes Christ’s response to the Father’s command – Christ empties himself, and this emptying is described in Greek as kenosis.  Christ’s obedience is such that he renounces himself completely – the hymn is clear that he does not cling to his equality with God but empties himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men, and, becoming such, humbles himself further to accept death, the death of the cross.  All of this coalesces to circumscribe the obedience which characterises Christ’s relationship with the Father – he surrenders everything so that he might be able to perform the Father’s will perfectly and utterly willingly.  It is definitive of Christ’s obedience to the Father that he trusts the Father completely – the Father’s will is always directed toward good, and, in the case of Christ’s incarnation and death and resurrection, not just any good but the redemptive and salvific plan of the Father for mankind, realised in Christ’s self-gift.  Precisely in this trust in the Father’s will does Christ’s obedience bring us to a new level of experience, understanding and invitation – it hinges in the trust that Christ has in the Father, and that the Father has in Christ.

At the heart of obedience is precisely this, and it is this which makes it often a difficult aspect of our lives – to be able to lay aside my own will to listen to and carry out the will of another.  St Bernard reserves some of his strongest language for the sort of self-will which runs counter to Christian, and specifically monastic obedience.  In a chapter sermon to his monks on the solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord, Bernard interprets a well-known story from the Old Testament in terms of pride and how it must be healed.  The story is that of the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha, found in II Kings 5.  Briefly, Naaman, a Syrian, was told by Elisha to go down and bathe seven times in the Jordan river so that he might be cured of his leprosy.  For Bernard this seven time dipping in the water is meant to heal seven forms (or leprosies) of pride which afflict us.  There is, without doubt, an ascending structure to the sermon, and with some trepidation we reach the sixth and seventh leprosies, for which St Bernard reserves his harshest language and invective – residing in the heart (the place where we should be listening, and therefore obeying at the deepest level), the twofold leprosy of self-will and self-counsel:

“I call self-will the will that is not common to God and humans, but ours alone.  We do what we want, not for the glory of God or to profit our brethren, but for ourselves; not intending to please God or benefit our brethren, but to satisfy our own whims.  Love, which God is, is exactly the opposite of this….  Self-will cuts off God himself, because it is wrapped up in itself.  It would have God altogether unable to punish its sins, or unwilling to, or to be unaware of them.  It wants, in short, that God not be God; it wants him impotent, or unjust, or unwise.  The most savage malice, totally detestable, is the desire to destroy, the justice, and the wisdom of God.  This is the foulest leprosy of the soul, because of which a person must wash in the Jordan and imitate him who did not come to do his own will; wherefore the Lord says during his passion, Not my will but yours be done.”  

And just when you think St Bernard has had enough and you can breathe a sigh of relief, he gets going with self-counsel:

“But the leprosy of taking counsel with yourself alone is more pernicious than that because it is more hidden, and the more frequent the practice, the more sensible the person thinks he is!  This is the vice of those who have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  They so obstinately follow their error that they are unwilling to agree with any advice.  They are destroyers of unity, enemies of peace; they are destitute of love, swollen with vanity; they please themselves, have a superlative opinion of themselves, and are ignorant of God’s righteousness while wanting to establish their own.  What greater pride is there for one person to prefer his own judgement to the whole community as though he alone possessed the Spirit of God?” 

St Bernard, On the Resurrection of the Lord, Sermon 3

Of course, St Bernard is thinking very much within the context of his monastic community and in line with the recommendations and expectations of the Rule of St Benedict.  But are his ideas so far removed from our lives that we cannot glean something from them?  When we read behind the very strong language and imagery his points remain valid for us, in whatever situation we find ourselves.  To cling to my own self-will without regard for the opinion and wisdom of others sets myself up, virtually, as a god-like figure who is right all the time, at the most extreme point, and has little if any use for the insights provided by others.  This obstinate clinging to self-will refuses to see that others have truth to tell us, and that we ourselves (indeed, no one!) are not possessed of the entire truth.  It is precisely in learning to listen to another, with humility, and give way to their will which demonstrates our own search for truth and our openness to it in the mouth of others.

Self-counsel lies somewhere along the same trajectory, and thrives on the conviction that I have no obligation to hear and learn from others.  I become, effectively, the arbiter of all decisions, both great and small, which I have to make, and put myself in a position, of course, in which my decisions cannot be questioned – I’m always right, and no-one can prove me otherwise! 

Benedict is convinced that God’s will is revealed above all in the heart of a community which has the capacity to discern questions together.  This has far-reaching consequences, especially since Benedict doesn’t consider that it will always be the oldest and presumed wisest who will pin down what God’s will is in a particular matter – he asks that all the community be brought together to decide important questions because God sometimes speaks through the youngest.  This demonstrates a far-sighted egalitarianism on St Benedict’s part – all have a part to play in decision-making and have a right to be heard.

This has its implications not only for the obedience which we owe to our superiors – and we all have someone above us at some stage! – but also for the obedience which we are called to show to one another.  One of the most impressive aspects of any community’s life is how the community members listen to one another and try to obey one another.  This deep level of respect for the other and a healthy, and indeed life-giving, mutuality recognises and builds up the dignity which each person enjoys.  I listen to another and respect what they say and ask of me not because of their position within the community, or the authority which they enjoy, or because they are smarter than me, but because they deserve to be heard on the basis of their personhood and worth, which I share with them.  It is a great pity that this sort of respect and consideration, marked out in this ancient wisdom document, has little real application in our secular society today, a society which, despite its much vaunted protesting to the contrary, seems to promote inequality, lack of real respect for the other person, and a new demagoguery based on old principles, that might is right and whoever can shout loudest (and shoot first) holds the power.  What is now almost completely forgotten in our world and society is that the word “dialogue”, literally in Greek “two words”, by its very nature implies that two people are speaking, and both are listening to the otherIn a world where speaking first is always the goal, being obedient – listening – is entirely counter-cultural.

Going hand in hand with obedience is the possibility of disobedience.  St Benedict knew that this was part of our human condition.  It was, after all, Adam’s sin – St Bernard tells us that Adam defied God by “refusing” – his answer to God’s invitation to follow the Creator’s will was, in St Bernard’s Latin, “Nolo!” – “I refuse!”.  When we refuse to obey we, in some sense, participate in Adam’s sin and his pride – our refusal is setting ourselves up against God.  Disobedience, of course, can be of a hidden sort.  Above all, St Benedict detests that attitude with which we complain in our hearts about what we are asked to do or what we receive – it is the most unwelcome monastic vice: grumbling.  This grumbling, or murmuring, even if we carry out a superior’s request, robs the act of all its good – unless we show real repentance for our grumbling – and we lose the reward of the good act.  In a very important way a certain rule of law is upheld here: our external behaviour should mirror our interior disposition, and generally is taken to do so.  But when there is a disconnect between the two – my heart is consumed with anger or rebellion, but I act in a different way – then my hypocrisy reveals an unwillingness to hear the other and obey in love.  And above all we are back where we started – obedience asks that, even in trying circumstances, I put my own will aside to carry out the will of another.  In this matter, there is a footnote that we should add – it is presumed that we are asked to do good.  The moral law tells us that we are not under an obligation to follow a command which will offend against the moral law and the will of the Creator – we are not bound to do evil, and indeed are asked to avoid it.  However, in some very testing circumstances people sometimes appear to have little option but to obey another, and at very great cost to themselves – but they can never be held morally culpable in such a circumstance, when fear drives them beyond themselves.  And of course, another rule of law is clear on this, namely, that no-one is held to the impossible.

Above all, we return to the principle of the imitation of Christ.  The Rule, in Chapter 5, sets out at the very beginning the foundation for those who would be obedient – 

“The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all”.

Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 5 (RB 5)

Obedience should come naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.  This, fundamentally, is about our love for Christ – a love which is complete, prioritized, and formative in a new and absolute way – a love which comes before all else.  We have already heard these words in the preceding chapter, on the Tools of Good Works:

“Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else”.

RB 4

Now, there are two tools here – one about our way of acting, and the other about our love for Christ – but it’s clear that Benedict wants one to depend upon the other: my way of behaving should be different because I love Christ and so want to behave not as the world would ask me to behave but as my imitation of Christ asks me to behave.  And that is a very compelling directive!  The tool and invitation is complemented by a phrase which resonates still down the centuries from Benedict’s mouth to us: Chapter 72’s final advice to the monks:

Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ

RB 72

The magnitude of this preference can only be seen for its full significance when we consider that Christ preferred nothing whatever to the will of the Father, and he did this because he preferred nothing whatever to our redemption and salvation.  Christ puts nothing before his relationship with the Father and draws us into this relationship, a relationship of obedience which has no sense whatsoever if it is disconnected from the love of Father for Son and Son for Father, a love which is never compromised or qualified, but which is absolute and transfiguring.  And in it, and in its practice, is the peace which the world cannot give and yet which the world so greatly desires but refuses to pay the price of selfless sacrifice.  We leave, then, as seems always most appropriate, the last words to St Bernard:

“Therefore, my very dear brothers, preserve peace among you, and beware of offending each other, whether by deed or word or any gesture whatever.  Nor is it enough to avoid only the more serious offences, for example public insult or abuse or the venomous slander in secret.  It is not enough, I say, to guard one’s tongue against these and similar kinds of nastiness; even slight offences must be avoided, if anything may be termed slight that is directed against a brother for the purpose of hurting him, since merely to be angry with one’s brother makes one liable to the judgment of God.

“When an offence is committed against you, a thing hard to avoid at times in communities like ours, do not immediately rush, as a worldly person may do, to retaliate dishonourably against your brother; nor under the guise of administering correction, should you dare to pierce with sharp and searing words one for whom Christ was pleased to be crucified; nor to make grunting, resentful noises at him, nor mutter and murmur complaints, nor adopt a sneering air, nor indulge the loud laugh of contempt, nor knit the brow in menacing anger.  Let your passion die within, where it was born; a carrier of death, it must be allowed no exit or it will cause destruction and then you can say with the Prophet, ‘I was troubled and I spoke not’”

St Bernard, Sermon on the Song of Songs 29

-Part of our ‘Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

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