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.”
With Chapter V, De oboedientia, our father Saint Benedict begins to set in place the three pillars of monastic life: obedience, silence, and humility. These are the means by which a man becomes a monk. Not by the tonsure does a man become a monk, nor by putting on the habit, nor by having read all the books ever written about monastic life. Obedience, silence, and humility are the means by which a man takes to heart and begins to practice in earnest the words of Our Lord: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it” (Matthew 16: 24-25). One comes to the monastery to follow Christ along the via crucis; to participate in his exinanitio, his self-emptying; to lay oneself with Him upon the cross and upon the altar; to follow him usque ad mortem; to hide oneself with Him in the obscurity and silence of the tabernacle.
Listen to Mother Mectilde on obedience. Mother Mectilde is writing to her friend, the Countess of Châteauvieux, and does not sugar-coat her doctrine for the great lady, who in spite of her piety and desire for perfection, comes across as a complicated and anxious person.
You know, as I have told you before, that disobedience pulled us out of the earthly paradise and deprived us of the grace of God. It is a matter of faith, my dear child, that we can neither return there nor recover the loss of God’s friendship, that is of His grace, save by obedience.
Here, Mother Mectilde is alluding to the doctrine of Saint Benedict in the Prologue of the Holy Rule: “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.”
Our Lord demands of certain souls so great a fidelity with regard to this virtue that He seems to make all their sanctification depend on it, and that apart from the practice of it, they are surrounded by shipwrecks and strange precipices.
The Countess aspired after perfection, but there was an anxiousness about her interior life. Mother Mectilde sought to simplify things for her; she set about reducing the multiplicity of means that the Countess employed in her desire for holiness, to one thing only. To obedience.
There is one means to move you along more quickly to holy perfection, and it is by this sincere obedience that makes you resemble Jesus Christ, who made Himself obedient even to the death of the cross. It is in obedience, then, that you must consummate your sacrifice.
Mother Mectilde speaks of the actual merit of one’s actions. For Madame de Châteauvieux, who, while living in the world, had already consecrated herself by vow to the Most Blessed Sacrament, every act undertaken in obedience became, by virtue of her vow, an act of the virtue of religion, that is an act of divine worship. This is the actual merit conferred by the vow of obedience.
Obedience will preserve you from the snares of the demon and from wicked illusions. Obedience will confer an actual merit on all your actions, even the most ordinary ones. Obedience will separate you from yourself in order to give you to Jesus Christ. Obedience sustains grace in your soul. Obedience will make you persevere and bring to completion your love for Jesus Christ. In a word, one who is truly obedient cannot perish, because obedience sanctifies us. The devil cannot deceive one who is truly obedient because obedience destroys everything in us that undergirds his unhappy empire.
Do you want to be brought to nothing quickly? Be perfectly obedient. In a word, do you want to be united to God? Be altogether converted to Him by obedience. See then the efficacy and the power of obedience: it banishes demons; it does impossible things. Sacred Scripture is full of its wonders.
In a Chapter talk from 1662, Mother Mectilde explains the exigencies of Benedictine obedience. She alludes to Hebrews 10:5-7:
Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith: Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldest not: but a body thou hast fitted to me: Holocausts for sin did not please thee. Then said I: Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God.
Mother Mectilde sees the obedience of Our Lord’s earthly life and death on the cross prolonged and continued in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The Sacred Host embodies the obedience of Christ. Mother Mectilde looks at the Host and, astonished, sees there an obedient God. Our own Dom Thomas Aquinas shared with me today an insight that he had into the “Eucharistic obedience” of Our Lord. He writes:
The thing that most struck me in today’s Chapter talk is that Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament is not simply obedient, but obedient without delay. We do not have to wait around for the Consecration to happen: it happens as soon as the priest says the words of institution. Our Lord . . . acts as if He is the obedient disciple fulfilling the bidding of the master.
The lex orandi of the Church proves this because the priest genuflects immediately upon saying the words. He does not wait for the elevation, for even that would be too late.
Mother Mectilde further describes the Holy Rule as something communicated from the Heart of Jesus to the heart of Saint Benedict.
Our Holy Rule speaks explicitly only of the vow of obedience. The other vows are contained in obedience. The whole substance of our Holy Rule consists in obedience, and this does not surprise me, since our blessed Father Saint Benedict was filled with the spirit of all the just, which is none other than [the spirit of] Jesus Christ Our Lord, the model of a perfect obedience, to which he vowed Himself at the very moment of His incarnation. Obedience is the state that He bore throughout His humanly divine life, and it is the state that He bears even now in His eucharistic life, where He has promised to be and to remain until the end of the ages. Oh! What love we must have for obedience at the sight of an obedient God! What fidelity to this holy virtue [must be ours], given that our Holy Rule, which lays it upon us so expressly, is nought but an effluence of the Heart of Jesus into that of our Father Saint Benedict.
For Mother Mectilde, the obedience of Jesus continued in the Most Holy Eucharist gives us the strength to obey and sanctifies our obedience. Holy Communion is the food of obedience.
It is the obedience of the same Jesus that sanctifies our [acts of] obedience and gives us the grace and strength to obey. I give you my word that, if you apply yourself faithfully to holy obedience according our holy rules, you will acquire all the virtues, because obedience gives the death blow to our self will. Misfortune! A truly obedient religious, in leaving this world, will hardly pass through purgatory, so much will obedience have pacified her soul and adorned her with all the virtues.
Mother Mectilde recognises the manipulations and subterfuges of souls who profess to want obedience, but then look for loopholes as way of getting out of doing what they have been told to do. She also unmasks the false piety of one who prefers lingering over his little devotions to simple, concrete acts of obedience.
One must attach oneself to obedience without looking for ways around it and, in God’s name, never ask for a dispensation from obedience with the pretext of undertaking something which to you seems to be more perfect. Believe me, your perfection is in obedience; I do not respond to you that it is in the things that you propose, because you they seem to be holy. An example: you would want to give yourself over to prayer when obedience bids you go to bed. I tell you that your prayer, however sublime it may be, is then but an illusion.
Ordinarily, it is things produced by our pride that pull us away from obedience to the things asked of us and make us singular; and there are contemplatives who are prideful as demons. Yes . . . I have seen souls lifted very high in eminent states of prayer who have fallen like stars from the heavens, and this for having forsaken obedience. It makes one tremble. Do not think that, because you have asked some permission from your superiors, you are not accountable before God. Quite the contrary, unless it be something for your health. In this case, I grant permissions with a big heart, but this doesn’t mean that anything goes. In God’s name, do not ask for exemptions. Know that the rules and observances of the monastic life are very holy. I may dispense you from fasts and abstinences, but not from obedience, because [even] for Our Lord [Himself] it is a vow. May He give you a share in His obedience. And pray to Him for me that He may grant me the grace of obedience before I die.