Sunday, June 9, 2013
The Rule of Benedict -- Obedience
I feel incredibly guilty for recycling old material for inclusion into the blog, but most days I've been so mentally exhausted that creativity comes in the shortest of bursts. Anyway, I think I have some pretty good material that hasn't been published, so now I'm letting it see the light of day. The following posts will be excerpts from a reflection paper I wrote about the Rule of Benedict. Click here for more information about St. Benedict .
When I hear the word “obedience,” I tend to imagine the soldier who obeys orders without question. Obedience, in this sense, seems to require that one “checks in his mind at the door.” So it seems that before I can promise to be obedient, I need to know “What is obedience?”
Obedience has been defined as “holy listening.” The Prologue begins with the word, “Listen,” and continues with the instruction to listen “with the ear of your heart.”
But what do we listen to?
First, we listen to God because he is the ultimate authority in our lives. We are to listen to what God wants in any given situation and as the Prologue states, "welcome it and faithfully put it into practice" (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 20). In the eleventh step of twelve-step recovery programs, a person prays to know God's will and for the power to carry that out.
Next, we listen to those persons who are in positions of authority over us.
However, obedience is not living for the sake of an authority figure. That is dependence and an abdication of personal responsibility. The person who is dependent tries to become the other rather than a full expression of him- or herself (Chittister, Wisdom 137- 8). I see dependence as someone hoping that an authority figure will “shine his light” upon her so that she might be able to reflect that light. Thus, the dependent person ceases to be herself, but rather becomes merely a pale reflection of the authority figure.
Rather than dependence, listening to those in authority means accepting that I am not the sole judge of right and wrong. I alone do not possess all the knowledge I need to make right decisions. Obedience to those in authority means accepting the guidance of those entrusted to lead.
One obstacle to obedience is our Western culture's value of independence, which can be confused with license. License means that an individual is accountable only to himself. The individual becomes his own small world, in which he is the sole measure of meaning in his life (Chittister, Wisdom 139). The medieval notion of sin was curvatos en se or "curved in upon oneself" (D. Earle, Email, May 2004). This “curving in” is the sin of pride, considered the worst of the seven deadly sins because it takes one's capacity for union with God and turns into obsession with oneself (Vest 81).
We are called to be humble, to recognize our limitations and weaknesses, and to allow others to help us grow. We listen to the voice of God in others. Humility also keeps us from being judgmental of others’ weaknesses (de Waal, Seeking 47). Monastics choose to place themselves under the authority of a prior or prioress, so that they "no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites." (RB 5) They accept the guidance of someone who will help them stay on the right road. The Rule alone is not enough (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 58).
On the other hand, obedience does not negate the requirement of personal responsibility. We have to listen to our consciences – the internal authority that discerns between right and wrong actions (Chittister, Wisdom 138). When I was in the Air Force, I attended a training course for junior officers. One of the topics we discussed was the idea that while we were required to obey our superiors, we also had a responsibility to question, and get the guidance of a higher authority if necessary, if an order seemed to go against what we believed was morally correct. We are still responsible for what we do. Those who were involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners are accountable for their actions. They, and we, cannot use the excuse of "just following orders" (as the sister of one accused soldier asserts) to justify wrong actions.
Chapter 68 of the Rule addresses when one is assigned an “impossible task.” When a person disagrees with a task or request, he is to “choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to the prioress or abbot” why he cannot perform the task. The Rule allows for discussion and disagreement, but if the request still stands, we must “in love obey.” Sometimes we have to trust that the people we have entrusted as leaders have the “big picture” in view. Sometimes we have to be pushed beyond our comfort level in order to grow (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 173-4).
How does obedience differ from “compliance”? A person can be forced to comply with an order or requirement. A person can be compliant and still be a detriment to the community by constantly complaining. In contrast, obedience means that one willingly exercises free choice in carrying out an order or fulfilling a request. (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 59) To me, that implies that there is a measure of trust and respect in obedience that is lacking in compliance.
So, while I hope I have built a clear case for obedience up to this point – I also believe there is a time to be disobedient. However, the decision to disobey must not be taken lightly. There is often a high cost for disobedience, whether in legal consequences or in expulsion from an organization. And there is also the chance one could be wrong in the conclusions that were made leading to the act of disobedience. This decision, like other discernment decisions, should be made after prayer and consultation with trusted others to ensure that the decision is being made for the right reasons. I am reminded of the civil rights movement and the practice of “civil disobedience,” used to peacefully contest unjust laws. The soldier who became the “whistleblower” and reported the abuse of Iraqi prisoners apparently disobeyed his immediate superiors. But in both cases, the people involved were trying to be obedient to a higher authority.
We also use holy listening to listen to our bodies. In our culture, we tend to either be disconnected from our flesh, or we obsess over perfecting it. Mary Earle, writing about living with illness, says when we are ill we become more conscious of the inner workings of our bodies. The body “turns out to be a rich and varied text, full of layers of meaning.” When we read our bodies and tend to them we can become more aware of the intimate presence of Christ, “in whom all things (including every cell of our bodies) hold together” (M. Earle 8-9).
Monastic or not, we are all called to live in community. The Rule trains people to live in community. Within the community is sanctification through community values and virtues, mutual support, and examples of life lived well. Life in community provides its members the opportunity to hear the voice of God in one another, see the face of God in one another, and experience both patience and power. Members of a community have the opportunity to obey Christ’s command to serve one another (Chittister, Wisdom 140).
Chapter 71 of the Rule addresses the idea of mutual obedience. Benedict does not say we should only obey those in leadership positions; he also requires that we be obedient to one another, and especially to our elders. We are to respect one another and listen to one another. When there are misunderstandings, the Rule requires contrition, forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than defensiveness, justification or excuses (Chittister, Rule of Benedict 176-7). As our Church wrestles with difficult questions regarding human sexuality, its members would do well to listen intently to one another and to follow the Rule’s teachings on dealing with conflict.
Chittister, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.
Chittister, Joan. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.
de Waal, Esther. Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1997.
de Waal, Esther. Seeking God. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984.
Earle, Doug. Personal Email. 14 May 2004.
Earle, Doug. Sermon: Sixth Sunday of Easter. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. San Antonio, 16 May 2004.
Earle, Mary. Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2003.
Vest, Norvene. Desiring Life. Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000.