CHAPTER LXXI. That the Brethren be obedient one to the other
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Not only is the excellence of obedience to be shewn by all to the Abbot, but the brethren must also obey one another, knowing that by this path of obedience they shall come unto God. The commands, then, of the Abbot or the Superiors appointed by him (to which we allow no private orders to be preferred) having the first place, let all the younger brethren obey their elders with all charity and vigilance. And should any one be found refractory, let him be corrected. But if a brother be rebuked by the Abbot, or any of his Superiors, for the slightest cause, or if he perceive that the mind of any Superior is even slightly angered or moved against him, however little, let him at once, without delay, cast himself on the ground at his feet, and there remain doing penance until that feeling be appeased, and he giveth him the blessing. If any one should disdain to do this, let him either be subjected to corporal chastisement, or, if he remain obdurate, let him be expelled from the Monastery.
Saint Benedict here calls obedience a boon. The word “boon” means something that is helpful or beneficial; it can mean an advantage, that is, a good thing: Oboedientiae bonum non solum abbati exhibendum est ab omnibus, sed etiam sibi invicem ita oboediant fratres, scientes per hanc oboedientiae viam se ituros ad Deum. When the young Father Joseph Marmion left his work as a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin for the abbey of Maredsous, he said that wanted, above all else, to have the boon of obedience in his life.
A monk is blessed with opportunities for obedience from before sunrise until after dark, and this every day of his life. Saint Benedict says in Chapter V: “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ.” Even a monk’s hours of sleep are an act of obedience. The fundamental obedience of the monk is to the order and rhythm of the day; he is to practice the injunction of Chapter XLIII literally: “At the hour of Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let every one, leaving whatever he had in hand, hasten to the Oratory with all speed, and yet with seriousness, so that no occasion he given for levity”. Similarly, a rigorous punctuality in coming to work, meals, conferences, and recreations, is an expression of obedience.”Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come” (Canticle 2:10). The motor of such obedience is the love of Christ. “I obey out of love for Christ, believing that every act of obedience, even the smallest, unites me more closely to Him. I will seek him whom my soul loveth (Canticle 3:2).
All of these opportunities for obedience are set in the context of obedience to the abbot, of which Saint Benedict speaks in Chapter VII: “The third degree of humility is, that a man for the love of God submit himself to his superior in all obedience; imitating the Lord, of Whom the apostle saith: “He was made obedient even unto death”. In the right ordering of obedience, the commands of the abbot and of the superiors appointed by him, each in his own area of responsibility, hold the first place. In today’s chapter, however, Saint Benedict invites his monk to yet another expression of obedience: obedience to one another. So highly does Saint Benedict value this obedience that he calls it “the path by which one shall come unto God”. The word “obedience” derives from the two Latin words ob and audire, mean to put oneself before another in order to hearken to him, to give another one’s full and ready attention, to listen to instruction with a view to carrying it out.
Certain familial and professional antecedents can make this obedience more challenging. The brother, for instance, who is the firstborn in his family will have grown up accustomed to being in charge. Similarly, one who has exercised the teaching profession will need always to rein back his impulse to hold forth, to expound on things, to enlighten those around him with the dazzling brightness of his learning. Saint Benedict would have each monk listen to his brother with a readiness to learn from him, to change, to defer to his wishes. This kind of obedience is the undoing of attachment to one’s own suppositions, views, and opinions. As such, it frees a man to follow Christ in true poverty of spirit.
Then Jesus said to his disciples: Amen, I say to you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And when they had heard this, the disciples wondered very much, saying: Who then can be saved? And Jesus beholding, said to them: With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:23–26)
There is one more thing in this Chapter that must not be overlooked; it is the practice of kneeling before the abbot, or before the superiors appointed by him, or even before a brother to ask pardon for an offense. This is to be done spontaneously and without delay. The abbot responds with a blessing and, thus, things are set aright, clearing the way for a new beginning, a fresh start. The Apostle describes the impetus given by obedience out of love for Christ:
Not that I have already won the prize, already reached fulfilment. I only press on, in hope of winning the mastery, as Christ Jesus has won the mastery over me. No, brethren, I do not claim to have the mastery already, but this at least I do; forgetting what I have left behind, intent on what lies before me, I press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus.(Philippians 3:12–14)