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.”
Why does Saint Benedict so insist on obedience without delay? Is it not the act of obedience that counts and not the timing of it? A delay in obeying «takes the bloom off the rose». (If you are not familiar with this expression, it means that something is no longer new, fresh, or lovely.) For Saint Benedict, obedience is an expression of love, and love brooks no delay. A delayed obedience lacks the freshness and fragrance that mark a thing done with the spontaneity of love. Thus does Saint Benedict say with regard to prompt obedience, Haec convenit his qui nihil sibi a Christo carius aliquid existimant, “This becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ.”
Foot-dragging, lolly-gagging, hesitation, and procrastination have no place in Benedictine life. The son of Saint Benedict springs into action as soon as a command is given him. This he does because every command of the abbot (or of another superior) provides him with an opportunity to show his love for Christ. Blessed Abbot Marmion shows clearly that, for a Benedictine monk, obedience is a kind of sacrament, a holy communion by which Christ gives Himself to the monk, and by which the monk is united to Christ. A certain elder asked his disciple, «Why do you obey with such joy?» The disciple replied, «Forgive me, Father, but if I obey with such joy, it is because obedience gives me Christ.»
Every act of obedience is a going forth to meet the Bridegroom Christ in response to the cry that reaches our ears in the night of faith, Ecce sponsus venit, exite obviam ei, «Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him” (Matthew 25:6). It is faith that gives meaning to a monk’s prompt obedience. The command of the abbot may be defective in some way. Abbots may be susceptible of making mistakes of judgement, of commanding hastily and imprudently, or of lacking all the knowledge required to assess a given situation rightly. These defects in no way diminish the supernatural value of a monks obedience. Praestet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui, «Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail».
Blessed Abbot Marmion points out that, in the more modern Institutes of religious life, obedience is presented pragmatically, that is, as a means to the efficient execution of certain goals in the apostolate. Although this apostolically driven pragmatism was already present in germ in the expansion of the mendicant orders of the 13th century, it attains its highest development with the program of the Catholic Reformation that began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563).
It is evident that this pragmatic conception of obedience produced glorious results in the prodigious missionary expansion of the Church—think of Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552)—and in the development of effective strategies for the reconquest of souls for Catholic Truth—think of Saint Peter Canisius (1521–1597).
A similar concept of obedience animated the many Institutes founded in the wake of the French Revolution for the recatholicisation of France and of neighbouring nations affected by the revolutionary animus. These Institutes, of both men and women, dedicated themselves, often with real genius and unquestionable generosity, to works of education, formation of priests, care of the poor, and parochial missions. The French anti-clerical laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the expulsion of many such Institutes from France. Paradoxically, the French expulsion of religious resulted in an expansion of their apostolic endeavours, a boon for the whole Church.
We monks do not exist for any particular task, work, or mission. We exist, as Saint Benedict says in Chapter LVIII, to seek God truly, to give ourselves to Him in obedience, to find Him in humiliations, and to sing the praise of His glory in the Opus Dei.
Let a senior, one who is skilled in gaining souls, be appointed over [the novice] to watch him with the utmost care, and to see whether he is truly seeking God, and is fervent in the Work of God, in obedience and in humiliations. (Chapter LVIII)
For us, Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, all that Saint Benedict sets forth in Chapter LVIII is ordered to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and derives from it. We seek Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament, and we find Him hidden there. The Sacred Host is the revelation of the humility and obedience of God made man. Christ, who conceals Himself in the Sacred Host, so unites us to Himself in Holy Communion that we are drawn after Him into an obedience that is humiliating and self-emptying. The Sacred Host is, at the same time, the sacramental condensation of the whole liturgy of heaven. The Sacred Host is, as Mother Caterina Lavizzari was fond of saying, Gesù Ostia è il nostro Paradiso in terra, «Jesus-Host is our Paradise on earth».
Obedience gives us Christ in a manner analogous to Holy Communion. Christ offers himself to the monk under the humble and ordinary species of what he is asked to do. Christ hides himself in obedience as He hides Himself in the Host. This requires as much faith of the abbot who commands, or of the monk whom the abbot has authorised to command, as it does of the monk who obeys.