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.
The obedience that Saint Benedict describes today can only be actualised in the Holy Ghost. The Apostle says that, “no man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Obedience is, in effect, a confession, not in words but in deeds, of the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ: “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Obedience without delay, says Saint Benedict, “becometh those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ.”
It is the Holy Ghost who sets in motion every act of obedience, without affecting a man’s exercise of free will. Saint Thomas explains this:
An action is attributed more to the principal agent than to the secondary, as when we say that the hammer does not make the box but the carpenter by using the hammer. But man’s will is moved to good by God, as it says above: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:14); therefore, an inward action of man is not to be attributed principally to man but to God: “It is God who of his good pleasure works in you both the will and the performance” (Phil 2:13). But if willing does not depend on the man willing or exertion on the man exerting himself, but on God moving man to this, it seems that man is not master of his own action, which pertains to freedom of will. But the answer is that God moves all things, but in diverse ways, inasmuch as each is moved in a manner befitting its nature. And so man is moved by God to will and to perform outwardly in a manner consistent with free will. Therefore, willing and performing depends on man as freely acting; but on God and not on man, as initial mover. (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 778-779)
We have then to pray the Holy Ghost to move us inwardly to acts of obedience. Some of you may know Cardinal Mercier’s prayer:
O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and accept all that You permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your Will.
By the grace of the Holy Ghost, even the smallest act of obedience becomes a response of love to the love of Christ. It is love that unites the soul to Christ, and Christ to the soul. A monk learns, often painfully and in ways costly to the “old man” in him, that every time he obeys, he is saying to Christ, “I have come to believe in Thy love for me. Therefore do I want to love Thee in return.” The currency by which a monk repays the love of Christ with love is obedience, an obedience activated by the Holy Ghost. It is possible for a man to obey for selfish motives rather than out of love for Christ. The brother who obeys because he craves human approval, or because he wants to be seen by others as an obedient monk, or because he fears the consequences of not obeying, such a brother is not obeying out of love of Christ. His obedience is, at best, an obedience driven by a mixture of self-love, vanity, fear, and some paltry dose of love of Christ. This, at least, is a beginning, and must not be discounted.
Over time, the Holy Ghost purifies the heart, so that a brother’s obedience is more and more driven by the love of Christ. How does one know if one’s obedience is moved by the Holy Ghost and driven by love? There are, I think, three signs of this. The first is that one’s obedience is marked by interior freedom. It is not a labour under constraint. Only the free man can sing, Paratum cor meum, Deus, paratum cor meum. “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready” (Psalm 56:8). The second sign is joy. Obedience under constraint and pressure always leaves a man feeling sad, or resentful, or angry. Obedience in the Holy Ghost is marked by joy, by good cheer, and by peace of heart. The third sign is detachment. The man who obeys out of love does not care whether or not his act of obedience is noticed or not noticed, praised or not praised, rewarded or not rewarded. Our Lord says, “Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
What comes between a soul and the action of the Holy Ghost? Why are some souls moved by the Holy Ghost and others not? There is no one answer, for the states and dispositions of souls are varied, and the obstacles that impede a soul’s response to the Holy Ghost are varied. Mother Mectilde gave a conference in which she addressed this question. You may not like her answer, but it is the right one.
You ask me what dispositions are necessary for receiving the Holy Spirit. You are in the truth, for nothing disposes a soul better for His coming than suffering. We could call it the quarter master of divine love. Perhaps you don’t know what this name means? When the King travels, he who goes ahead to prepare the lodgings for His Majesty has the title of quarter master. So I say that suffering prepares a soul wonderfully to be the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, because nothing can purify like it. And note that one cannot have purity without suffering. If God wants to be united to a soul by some extraordinary grace, it must be purified by previous suffering. You see the example of this in the holy souls of Purgatory. I’ve been making it my occupation these days, and I conclude, according to my little light, that it is impossible to possess the least degree of purity without suffering. It is even necessary to preserve it. […]
Suffer then, my dear Daughter, so long as it pleases God. It is the next disposition before divine union. If those holy souls are condemned to suffer such cruel punishments before they enjoy and rest in God, why won’t we purchase, through suffering, the same happiness God wants to communicate to us starting in this life? Just one moment of repose in God pays quite well for everything we have suffered. […]
Mother Mectilde is aware that not every soul is prepared to say, “Bring on the purifying suffering!” Mother Mectilde presents another way, a little way that is within the reach of little souls. This way is abandonment, total surrender to the action of God.
However, if you are not yet content with this disposition for receiving the Holy Spirit and your soul yearns for something sweeter and more intimate, I advise you to abandon yourself to His divine guidance to imprint them in you: He alone can dispose and prepare a soul for Himself.
But surrender yourself fully, seriously and completely, without wanting to find in yourself the necessary dispositions, nor do you want to put them in yourself and you will see that you will be filled with His fullness almost without knowing it.
Everything consists in letting Him act, while remaining abandoned to His power in a profound nothingness. Neither hardness of the heart nor the stopping of the ears prevent His divine operations. He is a sovereign who acts independently of the soul’s dispositions; it only has to give its consent. […]
One must not expect God to announce His action in the soul with the signs that accompanied the theophany on Mount Sinai: thunder, lightning, smoke and trumpet (Exodus 19:16). Mother Mectilde says:
But do not expect a great noise, for this is a spirit of peace. He is found only in peace, and His operation is so subtle and so delicate that the soul hardly notices it, unless the soul is extremely attentive. It is true that if He comes in very gently, He does not allow a lot of fuss and terrible reversals to happen, since He wants to be the Master. He burns everything to the ground, and if we do not allow Him, He withdraws. […]
Pray Him, I beseech you, that He will do in me all He wants to do: let Him destroy, let Him reduce to nothing, let Him do in everything His good pleasure. It must be ours to let Him. […] To God, in God, I leave you.
In a certain sense, one must say to one’s soul at the time of prayer, or at the beginning of one’s watch of adoration, “Soul, it is time for the Lord to act. Relinquish control. Abandon yourself to the action of God. You may feel nothing, but the action of God is higher and deeper than feelings. You may experience nothing, but your experience is not the measure of God’s work in you. You may come to the end of this your of prayer thinking that nothing has happened and that nothing is changed. None of this matters. Give thanks and go your way in peace.”