Rule of St. Benedict: Obedience

This is a talk I gave at a faculty retreat a few years ago.  The anecdotes I used then are not written directly into the text and so there are some small gaps (you’ll see it most when you get to the Clue reference).  Like any good talk I went off-script a few times, and I have some notes to myself that are so terse I can’t understand them anymore, so what you read here is not quite coherent.  I should have taped myself!

Obedience. “I’m going to explain the Rule of St. Benedict in ten minutes.”

Obedience is a hard saying for us and it is very easy to find ourselves qualifying it, making clear all the things it definitely does not mean.  It’s true that this word means so many things, and it really does have its roots in “to listen” and it really doesn’t mean an abdication of moral responsibility.  But let’s not lose sight of the obvious sense.

Obedience means the sacrifice of the self-will.  It really does mean to place yourself in the hands of a superior, a higher, a greater, and to do what that person says or commands even if you disagree.  Any attempt to avoid this meaning is pretense.  Obedience is scary and when given to a wicked person can be disastrous (this is why the Rule puts its initial emphasis on the qualifications of the person who receives obedience, the abbot).

Obedience is good.  Obedience is right.  Obedience works.  The Rule places great emphasis on obedience.  Why?

  1. Our deepest spiritual malady is pride. The greatest theoretical exposition on this that I know is St. Augustine’s Confessions. The greatest practical exposition is the Rule.  What went wrong for us in the beginning and what remains at the foundation of all the ills inflicted on ourselves and on those around us is pride.  The abandonment of self-will is the abandonment of the addict’s drug, the drunk’s scotch, the liar’s lie.  It’s the poison killing us.  That fear you feel down your spine when you hear “obedience” is exactly the same as the alcoholic’s fear in an intervention.
  2. Here’s a “nicer sounding” version. The Rule commands us to practice the surrender of our wills that we naturally owe God. The abbot stands in the place of God and receives our full submission of will in a safe “practice environment.”  He could well abuse that trust, but the point of the practice is lost if we hold back.  Obedience is the big-boy and big-girl equivalent of those trust exercises at company retreats.
  3. Obedience frees us from our own closed-in-ness. Pride destroys our vital connections—it is by being with others, for others, present to others, that we grow and become fully ourselves.  That frightens us because it feels like death.  We don’t want to lose ourselves.  But this social aspect is essential to the human person.  It is natural for us—good for us, fulfilling for us—to love others as ourselves.  This is rooted in an even more fundamental reality, not social but theological.  It is natural for us—good for us, fulfilling for us—to love God more than ourselves.  Pride destroys all this by setting us above God and our fellow travelers; the illusion that we are greater than them cuts us off from them.  Obedience roots out pride and so is the servant, protector, guarantor, of the love we need in order to live.
  4. Obedience and love are one in Jesus Christ. His obedience to the Father is His love for the Father, shown perfectly in His total self-emptying on the Cross. Reflecting on any successful friendship will reveal this identity; no theorizing will bring us to see it otherwise.  In love I pour myself out for the other.  In obedience I do the same.  In our earthly relationships the two will never perfectly converge because the obedience is finite and the love is finite, and the things they target in the other person are different.  In the eternal they will.  Obedience is one of the virtual parts of love, as anyone who has ever made coffee—or taken out the trash, or taken the children to their dentist appointment, or stopped drinking, or quit their job—for their spouse can attest.

The Rule’s emphasis on obedience is not neurotic.  We are.  Because we are broken we twist obedience into many things it is not, both as the giver and receiver of obedience.  We conclude that obedience is the problem and should be comfortably avoided.  The reverse is true.

Part Two

Now.  Let’s talk practicalities.  Obviously we don’t live in a society where our relationships are governed by the formal oath-swearing of superiors and subordinates.  Only a few of us are fortunate enough to live in a monastery and we are not in the military (anymore, in some cases!).  So how do we translate the strong emphasis on obedience in the Gospel and in the Rule to our daily lives?  I think we have to look for opportunities to say yes to others and let ourselves be guided by others.  This is an important part of the way St. Paul talks about the Christian life in his letters.

We can have obedience in our homes if we think of it as saying yes when we don’t want to.  There are so many ways, large and small, in which we are given a chance to say yes to a husband or a wife or a mother or a father.  How often do we say no?  How often do we let someone else decide what our day will be like?  How much do we defend our free time and expect work to be done on our terms, when we’re good and ready?  It’s one thing for me to do what my wife asks because I think she’s right or because it needs to be done or because I don’t care one way or the other.  There’s still control there.  But this—obedience—is when I do it because she asks me too.  We don’t have to run away by saying no every time the task is hateful to us.  We can try to say yes.

This brings up for me at least a surprising connection.  Obedience is fun—not because “yippee, I don’t have to make any more choices!”  My life would be unspeakably dull if I lived it out on my own terms, always got my way.  Thank God my life has not been entirely within my control, even though at any given instant I would have sworn that the happy path would be getting my way. Don’t we all have the experience of getting exactly what we want—winning, in that extremely satisfying way—and finding that it does not make us happy?  And likewise, I think we’ve all had the opposite experience, of finding that the path forced upon us turns out to be fun.  Joy is not “in here.”  It’s out there, outside us, with others.  So what is the downside, exactly, to saying yes when we don’t want to?  Ok, maybe we get stuck playing a board game with an 8-year old where no one has any fun.  Big deal.  More often, we end up discovering a path in life we could not see before, finding a joy we maybe never would have found otherwise.   We see how small we were, because now we are standing over here.

This applies at work, too.  Obviously we could talk about obedience in terms of the letter of appointment we sign and the very real superior-subordinate relationship that entails.  We could also talk about the good order of a community that obedience fosters and sustains.  Those are important…But let’s stay with the line we’ve already begun here.  Don’t we all run the risk of associating success at work with control, with getting our way, with defending our interests (because of course we know best) against all the hostile forces trying to make us miserable—administrators, colleagues, students.  Parents.  It’s not just that that kind of control is an illusion (you could never attain it)—it’s that, even if you COULD attain it, it wouldn’t work.  Try this.  The next time someone asks you to do something or try something or help them with something at work, just say yes.  See what happens.  The same surprising joy, maybe.  Or maybe a dud…but what’s the big deal?  It’s just getting stuck playing 2-person Clue with an 8-year old.  I don’t think that any of us (I hope) will look back on our lives and think, “Wow, I really wish I had gotten my way more often.”

So, obedience as joyous.  We don’t live in a monastery but we can find “superiors” in our lives very easily.  We can find ways to say yes to other people, to be connected with them in the sacrificing of our wills.  We can grow in the obedience which is a part of love. We don’t have to run away from it just because it hurts.  The pain of doing what we don’t want to do is the pain of growth.  It’s the pain of breaking chains.

Obviously volumes remain to be said and worked out.  I especially had hoped to talk about the ways we receive obedience and the ways we can be obedient to our students, but that will have to await another day—or hopefully be a part of your own reflections.

[I got some flak from a few friends for not doing Part Three on obedience to our students.  As I explained to them, I felt my classroom timer go off, signaling “the end of class.”  IOW, that’s about how much material I would have tried to cover in a 40 minute class with my students.]

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