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.”
For us, sons of Saint Benedict, obedience is the way that leads to God. Saint Benedict said this already in the Prologue:
Willingly receive and faithfully fulfil the admonition of thy loving Father, that thou mayest return by the labour of obedience to Him from Whom thou hadst departed through the sloth of disobedience.
For us obedience is not a matter of pragmatism: the abbot does not command and the monk does not obey because they want efficiency and results. Obedience is not a matter of mobilising the community in view of carrying out a mission successfully. Saint Benedict speaks in Chapter LXXI of the oboedientiae bonum, the boon of obedience, or the excellent thing that is obedience in itself. The act of obeying sets a man on course to God. Every act of obedience carries a monk forward towards God. A monk obeys because he wants to go to God; he obeys because he believes that obedience is the way that was opened before us by Christ, the trailblazer. In this regard, it is helpful to read Chapter V of the Holy Rule together with the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and the crown of all faith, who, to win his prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who now sits on the right of God’s throne. Take your standard from him, from his endurance, from the enmity the wicked bore him, and you will not grow faint, you will not find your souls unmanned. Your protest, your battle against sin, has not yet called for bloodshed; yet you have lost sight, already, of those words of comfort in which God addresses you as his sons; My son, do not undervalue the correction which the Lord sends thee, do not be unmanned when he reproves thy faults. It is where he loves that he bestows correction; there is no recognition for any child of his, without chastisement. Be patient, then, while correction lasts; God is treating you as his children. Was there ever a son whom his father did not correct? No, correction is the common lot of all; you must be bastards, not true sons, if you are left without it. We have known what it was to accept correction from earthly fathers, and with reverence; shall we not submit, far more willingly, to the Father of a world of spirits, and draw life from him? They, after all, only corrected us for a short while, at their own caprice; he does it for our good, to give us a share in that holiness which is his. For the time being, all correction is painful rather than pleasant; but afterwards, when it has done its work of discipline, it yields a harvest of good dispositions, to our great peace. Come then, stiffen the sinews of drooping hand, and flagging knee, and plant your footprints in a straight track, so that the man who goes lame may not stumble out of the path, but regain strength instead. (Hebrews 12:2–13)
The brother who delays his act of obedience deprives himself thereby of the grace that actuates the movement of his return to God. When a brother stops to analyse what is being asked of him, when he calls into question the motives of the abbot’s command, and the wisdom or lack of wisdom that lie behind it, that brother fails to understand that what makes an act of obedience good is not its immediate effect nor a certain desired result. This does not mean that a brother must suspend his faculty of reason and obey blindly; it does mean that a brother’s motivation for obedience is supernatural. What makes an act of obedience good is that is moves a man away from things that are past and towards God who makes all things new in Christ.
For all things are for your sakes; that the grace abounding through many, may abound in thanksgiving unto the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory. While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen, are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
The sacrament of obedience yields its fruit when leaving immediately one’s own occupations and forsaking one’s own will, with one’s hands disengaged, and leaving unfinished what one was about, with the speedy step of obedience one follows by ones deeds the voice of him who commands. Concretely, in our ordinary daily life, such an obedience responds not to the voice of the abbot, but to the sound of the bell. Instantaneous obedience to the sound of the bell is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, of the most profitable habits a monk can cultivate. There are brothers who dream of all sorts of ascetical feats but who, in the ordinary round of daily life, are incapable of a simple act of obedience to the sound of the bell. The bell rings and immediately one begins to think, “But I have just one more thing to do, one more detail to finish, one last correction to make, or one thing to wrap up.” While one is thinking thus, the grace of instantaneous obedience passes and one loses the opportunity of a little “death to self” by which one could have been drawn after Christ towards the Father.
A man living alone makes his way to God slowly and with the greatest difficulty. Often he will take one step forward and two steps backward because he has nothing but his own uncertain lights and his faulty reasoning to guide him. The monk who lives in the fraterna acies of the monastery goes forward swiftly and with great strides, not because he is doing great things, but because little things done out of obedience move him forward by grace. Every act of obedience prepares a monk for the final summons, that is, for the hour of his death. In that hour, no delay will be granted to do just one more thing. A monk’s death is the crowning act of obedience of his life. Ecce venio!