CHAPTER V. Of Obedience
22 Jan. 23 May. 22 Sept.
The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ, and who on account of the holy servitude which they have taken upon them, either for fear of hell or for the glory of life everlasting, as soon as anything is ordered by the superior, suffer no more delay in doing it than if it had been commanded by God Himself. It is of these that the Lord saith: “At the hearing of the ear he hath obeyed Me.” And again, to teachers He saith: “He that heareth you heareth Me.”
Such as these, therefore, leaving immediately their own occupations and forsaking their own will, with their hands disengaged, and leaving unfinished what they were about, with the speedy step of obedience follow by their deeds the voice of him who commands; and so as it were at the same instant the bidding of the master and the perfect fulfilment of the disciple are joined together in the swiftness of the fear of God by those who are moved with the desire of attaining eternal life. These, therefore, choose the narrow way, of which the Lord saith: “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life”; so that living not by their own will, nor obeying their own desires and pleasures, but walking according to the judgment and command of another, and dwelling in community, they desire to have an Abbot over them. Such as these without doubt fulfil that saying of the Lord: “I came not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.”
A monk discovers the plan of God for his life through obedience. Once a man has said the initial “Yes” that expresses his resolve to become a monk, all the rest becomes disarmingly simple. He has only to obey. How does Saint Benedict describe a monk”? He is, explains Saint Benedict, a man who chooses the narrow way, of which the Lord says: “How small is the gate, how narrow the road that leads on to life” (Matthew 7:14). The man who comes to be a monk is resolved, for love of Christ, to live not by his own will, nor according to his own desires and pleasures, but according to the judgment and command of another. He asks to dwell in community, that is, as a member of a body. He knows full well that a living and functioning body has a head; thus he desires to have an abbot over him. Note that Saint Benedict says that such a man desires to have an abbot over him; this is very different from putting up with an abbot, or admitting that, for the good organisation of the monastery an abbot is necessary. For the man who comes to be a monk, the relationship with the abbot is of an altogether different order; it is sacramental, for the abbot is a visible sign of the headship of Christ. Saint Benedict says that he “holds the place of Christ in the monastery” (Chapter II). Obedience without delay, then, is the ordinary means by which God unfolds His magnificent designs upon a man’s life in Christ. This may strike you as very theological and lofty; and it is, but is also very quotidian and down–to–earth. It follows the logic of the Incarnation. It obliges a man to submit to the headship of Christ, for love of Christ, even in little things.
Dear sons, it is not the big things in our monastic life that are hard: leaving one’s country, family, friends, and home. The grand gesture, even when it is costly and painful, is always exhilarating. Your family and friends, if they share your faith, will tell you that you are doing something heroic and beautiful. If they do not share your faith, they will tell you that you are doing something crazy or stupid, but there is, even in being thought crazy or stupid, the glow of a certain heroism. It is not the theory of monastic life that is hard to accept. The theory is luminous and compelling; the practice of it, however, in little things, is hard. The Apostle says concerning Christ: “And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). You too will learn obedience by the things which you suffer, the little things that affect your comfort, your preferences, and your use of time. Obedience begins when a man realises that, as a monk, he renounces, for love of Christ, doing what he wants to do, when he wants to do it, and in the way he wants to do. Obedience leaves nothing in a monk’s life untouched. No longer may I have what I want, when I want it, as I want it. The monk, for love of Christ, offers to God not a few dew–kissed fruits, chosen for their beauty, and picked at will; he offers the whole tree of his life: roots, trunk, branches, blossoms, leaves, and fruits. And if it should please God to fashion a cross of the wood of your tree, or to cast its branches into the fire to give warmth and light, know that, then, you will have begun to be like Christ in His obedience.
Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered: And being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation. (Hebrews 5:7–9)
With regard to obedience, as in all other things, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the regula monachorum, the rule of monks. The prophet Simeon spoke to the Mother of Jesus of the costliness of her obedience.
Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34–35)
Nothing will bring you closer to Mary than a simple, humble act of obedience. When you obey, and when you find obedience hard and costly, know without a doubt that Mary is at your side for, in that moment, she recognises her Son in you, and you in her Son. She recognises you as belonging to her; she will even walk a few steps before you, to clear the way for you and to assuage your fears. Saint Bernard says:
In following her you shall not go astray; by praying to her you shall not despair; in contemplating her you shall not go wrong. With her support you fall not; under her protection you fear not; under her guidance, you do not grow weary; if she is propitious to you, you will reach the port. (Second Homily on the Missus Est)
When I look closely at our Lady’s life in the Gospels, and meditate it in the rosary, I see that she practiced two kinds of obedience. The first was an active obedience to the revealed will of God; the second an obedience of submission to the events and circumstances willed or permitted by Divine Providence as her life, and the life of her Son, unfolded. Before the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin Mary lived in obedience to her parents Saints Joachim and Anna, in obedience to the commandments of God, and in obedience to the precepts of the Law. The Blessed Virgin Mary could say, even from her childhood, what we read in the book of the prophet Baruch:
We are happy, O Israel: because the things that are pleasing to God, are made known to us. (Baruch 4:4)
The fruits of obedience to “the things that are pleasing to God” are an inward security, a restful peace, and an abiding joy. When a soul is secure, at peace, and possessed of the profound joy that comes from pleasing God, there grows within her a capacity for listening to Him, and a readiness to consent to whatever He should ask. Thus was Our Lady prepared by the simple obedience of her childhood for the great act of obedience by which God wrought the salvation of the world: the Incarnation of the Son of God in her virginal womb.
And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. (Luke 1:38)
This first great act of obedience set the Blessed Virgin Mary on a life–long trajectory of obedience that would, in the end, unite her to the immolation of her Son, and cause her own heart to be pierced through with a sword of sorrow. After Our Lady gave her consent to the shining messenger from heaven, she was left to go forward by practicing an obedience of submission to the events and circumstances willed or permitted by Divine Providence day by day and even hour by hour. Thus did the Virgin Mother make her way with Saint Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem into Egypt, from Egypt to Nazareth, to Jerusalem, and again to Nazareth. Mary’s obedience was costly: the “Yes” that she offered to God over and over again cost her many tears, great sorrows, and bitter separations. It was by her obedience of submission to the designs of God, as these unfolded, that Mary made her way along the via crucis to take her place beside the Cross. It was in obedience to the word of her Son uttered from the Cross — “Woman, behold thy son” (John 19:26) — that Mary went to live with John, shared with John the indescribable joy of the Resurrection, with John ascended the Mount of Olives, and with him withdrew into the Cenacle, there to await the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.
When a novice is clothed in the scapular, it is the symbol of his being yoked to Christ in a life of obedience. There are, to be sure, days and seasons in the life of a novice when the scapular weighs heavily on his shoulders. There are also days and seasons when a novice struggles to remain yoked to Christ, and there are hours when he is tempted to cast off the yoke and all that it represents. On the day of his monastic profession, the young monk says to Our Lord, “In spite of the struggles, trusting in Thy grace, and knowing full well that I will not be spared temptations and suffering in the future, I resolve to remain yoked to Thee in obedience to the Father”. This is why Saint Benedict says that obedience “becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ”. Monastic obedience is a choice of love.
In a sense, monastic profession is the great expression of active obedience that sets a monk on course for the rest of life. The life of a monk, like that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is shaped by an active obedience to the will of God, made known concretely through the Rule and the commands of his abbot, and an obedience of submission to the events and circumstances willed or permitted by Divine Providence. The Solemn Consecration that follows the Simple Profession after three years seals a monk in “obedience unto death” (Philippians 2:8), fulfilling in his life that saying of the Lord: “I came not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me” (John 6:38).
Our Lady’s last recorded saying in the Gospel is not a suggestion, nor is it an exhortation; it is a positive command to obey :
Dicit mater ejus ministris: Quodcumque dixerit vobis, facite.
His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye. (John 2:5)
It seems to me that in saying these words, Our Lady was disclosing what she had learned through her obedience. The Blessed Virgin Mary, no less than her Son, learned obedience from the things she suffered (cf. Hebrews 5:8). By obeying, Our Lady discovered that God was indeed true to all his promises, and that obedience was the sure way, the only way, of entering into His magnificent designs.
He has looked graciously upon the lowliness of his handmaid. Behold, from this day forward all generations will count me blessed; because he who is mighty, he whose name is holy, has wrought for me his wonders. (Luke 1:48–49)
There are, in the life of every monk and, indeed, in the life of every man, hours when the magnificent designs of God are shrouded in darkness, when one sees no light, hears no comforting voice, and feels no consoling presence. In such hours a monk is saved by his obedience. By allowing himself to be led by another, by the other who holds the place of Christ in the monastery, his abbot, a monk can emerge from darkness, recover hope, and begin to see again, with eyes washed by many tears, that “to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Romans 8:28).