CHAPTER V. Of Obedience
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.
Our father Saint Benedict would have our obedience be “acceptable to God” and “sweet to men”. Acceptabilis Deo et dulcis hominibus. The language that Saint Benedict uses here pertains to the offering of a sacrificial gift. Saint Paul writes:
But I have all, and abound: I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things you sent, an odour of sweetness, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18)
Obedience is a precious gift; as such it is necessarily costly. The gift of obedience cannot be bought at a discount, if it is to be “an odour of sweetness, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” There are some who think that they can get by in monastic life with a cheap obedience or a merely pragmatic obedience. Such souls are content when the abbot asks little of them, and when they can satisfy what little the abbot asks by giving the bare minimum or, even, by giving mere lip-service.
The brother who obeys because he doesn’t want to appear bad in the eyes of the abbot or the other brethren offers something tainted to God. The brother who drags his feet in carrying out what is asked, effectively drags his sacrifice through the dust before presenting it to God. The brother who acts materially, but withholds the inward obedience that springs from the heart, offers a cold sacrifice. Such a brother goes through the motions outwardly, but his heart is not moved inwardly. The brother who murmurs or who presents a series of objections to the superior saps his obedience of joy. He makes his obedience something bitter.
Saint Benedict invites his monks to obey cheerfully. Saint Thomas says that joy is a fruit of charity; a man’s joy is proportionate to his charity. If you would have much joy in your obedience, love God much. If you would be joyful always, love God always. If you would live in joy, live in charity, that is, in the love of God. In Chapter LXVIII, “If a Brother Be Commanded to Do Impossible Things,” Saint Benedict says, Et ex caritate, confidens de adiutorio Dei, oboediat, “Let [the brother] obey out of love, trusting in the assistance of God.” The brother who obeys out of love, trusting in the assistance of God, will reap the fruit of joy and share it with his brethren. The brother who, on the other hand, obeys out of compulsion, relying on his own resources, will fall into sadness, and spread sadness in the community.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of good cheer and glad–heartedness among us. There is a rich Christian vocabulary of joy: alacritas, gaudium, laetitia, iucunditas, and hilaritas, and even eutrapelia. Nothing pulls a community down like a brother with a long face and a mournful demeanour. A little merriment—eutrapelia or playfulness—is not contrary to the gravitas of the tenth and eleventh degrees of humility in Chapter VII. On the contrary, eutrapelia allows a man to relax and enables him to persevere our monastic observances over the long haul.
The brother who enters upon his monastic journey grimly, with a fretful and anxious earnestness, will not persevere in the cloister, or if he does, he will become, over time, the sort of monk who goes about wrapped in a shroud of gloom. This kind of pervasive dulling sadness is a vice; Evagrius, and Saint John Cassian, and Saint Thomas Aquinas identify it as such. The vice of sadness, also called acedia, turns our observances into drudgery.
What is a monk to do when he feels that a kind of sadness is tightening its hold on him? Saint Thomas proposes five things by which a man may begin to get some relief from sadness. The first of these is to grant oneself some kind of wholesome pleasure! Yes, pleasure! Saint Thomas says that pleasure is “a kind of repose of the appetite in a suitable good.” In other words, give yourself some little treat. After making an effort, reward yourself in some way. Pleasure, wisely chosen and enjoyed rightly, is not the enemy of a monk; it may effectively become his friend and ally.
The second remedy for sadness is weeping. Yes, weeping! Allow yourself to have a good cry from time to time. Tears are the means by which sorrow is washed out of the heart. The monk who never weeps will, at the end of the day, be sadder than the monk who allows himself to shed tears.
The third remedy for sadness is the sympathy of friends. No one of us will persevere in the monastic life without the support of friends within the cloister. Saint Thomas says that, “sorrow is mitigated by a sympathizing friend.” Never be afraid of admitting that you need a little companionship, a little conversation, a little sympathy. The monk who can acknowledge these things will be happier than the monk who trudges along, isolating himself from the affection of his fathers and brothers.
The fourth remedy for sadness is—and this is very much Saint Thomas—the contemplation of truth. Read a book that, by giving light to your mind, will delight your heart, and lift up your drooping spirit. Look at something beautiful. Be grateful for something good. Above all, open the Gospels and read until the presence of Jesus dispels your sadness and restores your joy. Saint Aelred, in a most memorable passage, describes lectio divina as a remedy for sadness:
Brothers, however cast down we may be by harassment or heartache, the consolations of Scripture will lift us up again. . . . I tell you, brothers, no misfortune can touch us, no situation so galling or distressing can arise that does not, as soon as Holy Writ seizes hold of us, either fade into nothingness or become bearable. This is the field where Isaac walked in the evening meditating, and where Rebecca came hurrying towards him and soothed with her gentle charm the grief that had befallen him. How often, good Jesus, does day incline to evening, how often does the daylight of some slight consolation fade before the black night of an intolerable grief? Everything turns to ashes in my mouth; wherever I look, I see a load of cares. If someone speaks to me, I barely hear; if someone knocks, I scarcely notice; my heart is turned to stone, my tongue sticks fast, my tear-ducts are dry. What then? Into the field I go to meditate. I reread the holy book; I note down my thoughts; and suddenly Rebecca comes running towards me and with her light, which is your grace, good Jesus, dispels the gloom, puts melancholy to flight, disintegrates my hardness. Soon sighs give way to tears, accompanied in their turn by heavenly joy. Unhappy are those who, when oppressed in spirit, do not walk into this field and find that joy. (De oneribus 27)
The fifth remedy for sadness is to ask permission for a lie-in or a good nap, or to take a comfortable bath. Saint Thomas says that, “since every pleasure assuages sorrow, sorrow is assuaged by such like bodily remedies.” It is good and right to make use of these natural pleasures as a means of refreshment and of relief from melancholy.
Monks are bound to fight against sadness and pursue the things that make for joy. In contrast to the vice of sadness, or acedia, the joy that is the fruit of love allows us to go forward together “with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love” (Prologue). It builds up the community and fosters that most Benedictine quality of obedience: alacritas.
Alacritas (alacrity) is, according to Lewis and Short, eagerness, promptness, joy, gladness. The brother who obeys alacriter, that is with a spring in his step and a song in his heart, has entered into the particular grace of Psalm 118, the long litany in praise of obedience to the law of God. The psalmist says: In via testimoniorum tuorum delectatus sum, sicut in omnibus divitiis, which Monsignor Knox ingeniously translates, “Blithely as one that has found great possessions, I follow thy decrees” (Psalm 118:14). Joy increases the capacity of a monk to give and to give freely; joy also increases the capacity of monk to receive all that Our Lord has promised. “Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).