Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Holy Obedience

Obedience, for the sake of being obedient, is a mean taskmaster. It is a whip, a sour scourge, of negativism that carves and scars us. Its ugliness drives others away from us. Obedience, performed for the sake of being obedient, easily sets itself up as a lord that is constantly computing the score of our lives and uses our score as the measuring device that we acquire and use to measure the lives of others around us.

Benedict, in the middle of his chapter on obedience[1], tells us that it is love that impels us to pursue everlasting life.[2] Obedience, born in the bed of love, is a pleasant friend in our lives that causes us to seek and to see truth, the Ultimate Truth. This is truth that challenges and prods. It isn’t complacent and will not, as long as we are honest with it and ourselves, allow us to be or remain complacent.

“The truth I love in loving my brother cannot be something merely philosophical and abstract. It must be at the same time supernatural and concrete, practical and alive. And I mean these words in no metaphorical sense. The truth I must love in my brother is God himself, living in him. And I can only discern and follow that mysterious life by the action of the same Holy Spirit living and acting in the depths of my own heart.”[3] Love can never, will never, cause us harm or injure another.[4]

Obedience, as a manifestation of love, has the capability of totally altering our lives. Born of love it fosters humility. “The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.”[5]

It is, at least for me, this far removed from the origins of monasticism, this far removed from the origins of Christianity as well, important to follow the stream back to its source. Otherwise it’s difficult to see the clearest and purest waters of its origin. I will, as long as I fail to see and drink from the original source, wrestle and argue with something as integral as the type of obedience we find in Christ’s model instilled in those whom he originally called and commissioned as well as in the monastic model where one listens and obeys without delay or hesitation.

This sort of obedience is practically unheard of in modern culture and the world of faith is not exempt. It is imperative that we overcome the temptation to gross individualism despite our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. “The extreme difficulties that lie in the way of those who seek interior freedom and purity of love soon teach them that they cannot advance by themselves, and the Spirit of God gives them a desire for the simplest means of overcoming their own selfishness and blindness of judgment. And this is obedience to the judgment and guidance of another.”[6]

Merton gives us even more insight into obedience when he says, “The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative that is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He obeys the attractions of an interior voice but will not listen to other men.”[7] I don’t think Merton is telling us that listening to an interior voice or paying attention to visions is entirely wrong. God does use these genres to lead us along the avenue of life. We do, however, need to be careful and exercise caution where these are concerned or we might find ourselves stepping into potholes that impede us on our journey to Christ-likeness.

Herein rests the importance of the judgment and guidance of another. The Rule becomes a valuable guide. Listening to others who have been on the pathway longer than we have makes good sense. Living in harmony with others who are endeavoring to follow Benedict becomes a lifestyle. Obedience, performed in love rather than in subservience, becomes a holy quality in our lives.


[1] RB 5
[2] RB 5:10
[3] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, p.7
[4] 1 Corinthians 13
[5] RB 5:1-2
[6] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 193
[7] ibid, p. 194