Of Obedience (II)

23 Jan. 24 May. 23 Sept.
But this very obedience will then only be acceptable to God and sweet to men, if what is commanded be done not fearfully, tardily, nor coldly, nor with murmuring, nor with an answer shewing unwillingness; for the obedience which is given to superiors is given to God, since He Himself hath said: “He that heareth you, heareth Me.” And it ought to be given by disciples with a good will, because “God loveth a cheerful giver.” For if the disciple obey with ill-will, and murmur not only with his lips but even in his heart, although he fulfil the command, yet it will not be accepted by God, Who regardeth the heart of the murmurer. And for such an action he shall gain no reward; nay, rather, he shall incur the punishment due to murmurers, unless he amend and make satisfaction.

Saint Benedict describes the obedience he would see in his sons: an obedience acceptable to God and sweet to men. When obedience is acceptable to God it becomes a sacrificial offering (θυσία), according the word of Saint Paul:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service. (Romans 12:1)

When obedience is sweet to men, it corresponds to this other word of the Apostle:

I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation in which you are called, with all humility and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity, careful to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3).

• Saint Benedict the enumerates the things that make one’s obedience defective. A defective obedience is a blemished offering; it is neither pleasing to God, nor is it sweet to men.

To you, priests, that care so little for my renown. Ask you what care was lacking, when the bread you offer at my altar is defiled, ask you what despite you have done me, when you write down the Lord’s table a thing of little moment? What, no harm done, when victim you offer in sacrifice is blind? No harm done, when it is lame or diseased? Pray you, says the Lord of hosts, make such a gift to the governor yonder, will he be content? Will he make favourites of you? Ay, says the Lord of hosts, the guilt is yours. To the divine presence betake you, and sue for pardon; which of you finds favour with him? (Malachias 1:7–9)

If a brother obeys because he fears the abbot or his brethren, or because he cannot bear to lose face, his obedience is defective. One’s obedience is defective when it is cold–hearted and calculated. One’s obedience is defective when it is accompanied by grumbling and resistance. One’s obedience is defective when it is reluctant or hesitant. Mere material obedience —the robotic execution of what is commanded– is deadly. The loss of the spirit of obedience saps a monastery of its joy. The Divine Office becomes formalistic and routine. Relations with the abbot and with the brethren become cold. There are annoyances and resentments at every turn. Who would want to live in such a cloister? The loss of the spirit of obedience indicates that a community is in decline and that its days are surely numbered.

• Saint Benedict insists on the sacrificial character of monastic obedience; it is an offering to God in the spirit of faith, like the sacrifice of Abel, and an act of the virtue of religion. “Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings” (Genesis 4:4). And again we read, “It was in faith that Abel offered a sacrifice richer than Cain’s, and was proved thereby to be justified, since God recognized his offering; through that offering of his he still speaks in death” (Hebrews 11:4).

• It is a great loss when one fails to associate obedience with the virtue of religion. The virtue of religion informs all of Benedictine life; it motivates a monk’s obedience and makes of it a sacrifice offered to God. Over forty–five years ago, my dear Father Master spoke to me of the virtue of religion, as explained by Saint Thomas (Summa II:2, q. 81), and I have never forgotten what he said. He taught me that Benedictine life is a constant exercise of the virtue of religion. This way of looking at obedience flies in the face of the pragmatism that has so invaded much of religious life today. Pragmatism is an offshoot of the quasi–heresy of Americanism. It measures all things in terms of immediate efficacy and visible results. It robs obedience of the very thing that makes it an act of the virtue of religion. By his obedience, a monk is united to God, according to the luminous teaching of Saint Augustine:

A true sacrifice is every work which is done that we may be united to God in holy fellowship, and which has a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. And therefore even the mercy we show to men, if it is not shown for God’s sake, is not a sacrifice. For, though made or offered by man, sacrifice is a divine thing, as those who called it sacrifice meant to indicate. Thus man himself, consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is a sacrifice in so far as he dies to the world that he may live to God. (The City of God, Book X, Chapter 6)

• Saint Benedict holds that the obedience given to superiors is given to God, since He Himself hath said: “He that heareth you, heareth Me”. Attend closely to this: if an act of obedience is given to God, it has, as Saint Augustine says, “a reference to that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed”. It is not merely a pragmatic convention adopted in order to make things run smoothly and profitably; it is an act of the virtue of religion. It is the loss of this religious sense of obedience that empties it of its true meaning.

• Benedictine obedience is not lethargic. What distinguishes Benedictine obedience is alacritas (English: alacrity). Alacrity is eagerness, enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and a quick disposition to generosity. Obedience, says Saint Benedict. “ought to be given by disciples with a good will, because “God loveth a cheerful giver”. One must practice obeying with good cheer; it does not come naturally. Human nature tends, rather, to lethargy. One must, at times, make a real effort to put a spring into one’s step and a smile on one’s face. With practice, alacrity becomes easier and, in the end, it becomes habitual. It becomes a virtue. There is a beautiful rabbinical saying, worthy of the Desert Fathers, and well–suited to Saint Benedict’s teaching on obedience: “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a deer, and courageous as a lion to the will of your Father in heaven”.

• Nothing spoils obedience as much as murmuring. Murmuring causes a monk to drag his feet; it insinuates bitterness and discontent everywhere. A half-hearted obedience, an obedience that does things grudgingly, is not an offering acceptable to God. One cannot go to the altar of the sacrifice murmuring on the way. Every act of obedience is a kind of going in to the altar of God. The liturgy teaches us to say, “I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth.” (Psalm 42:4).


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