Monday, May 19, 2008

A Most Painful Death

Obedience is a reoccurring subject in the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a subject that causes a lot of people to cringe because it sets itself against our tendencies toward rugged, independent individualism. It’s an arrow shot straight at the heart of inordinate self will and self promotion – two agendas that quickly erode and destroy community. Unchecked zeal can be extremely dangerous, especially when it’s compelled by ambition that’s centered in selfish desires and motives.

Benedict may have initially written the Rule to cloistered monks but the strength and value of his words transcend monastic walls to reach us where we are. His first interests, as a good abbot and spiritual father, were the welfare of the souls in his care and in preserving the community life where the brothers remained until they died. Did he have a vision of future generations of monks and nuns that would be known as Benedictine’s?

I prefer to think that he did. He did, after all, have a lot of spiritual insight. I don’t know if he envisioned the tremendous impact that Benedictine’s would have on the Church and on the European continent over the centuries or that today there would be 25,000 Oblates of St. Benedict living, praying and working in the 21st Century world. The impact though is a matter of undeniable, recorded history - perhaps a text that should have the dust blown off its covers and revisited with fervent interest by our modern age.

The Rule is potent and full of potential for personal, spiritual development. Benedict continually points us toward our inevitable destiny – that one day we are going to die a physical death. Until that inevitable day, what we are living, how we are living, why we are living the way we are will all be used on that day as our own self-willed indelible testimony that will be used to determine where and how we will spent all of eternity.

“The third step of humility,” says St. Benedict, “is that a man submits to his superiors in all obedience for the love of God, imitating the Lord of whom the Apostle says: He became obedient even to death (Phil. 2:8).”[1]

Benedict wasn’t establishing some sort of religious dictatorship. Nor was he interested in developing some communal form of democratic society. He understood the God given place and point of spiritual authority and in the monastery this authority also acquired and exercised the responsibility of physical governance. The survival and success of the monastery depended upon the obedience of the individual members of the community. Individual members had to accept not only the responsibility of the abbot, they had to also accept their own callings as individual monks to live lives of continual conversion – lives ordered to the death of their own self will whenever that will was contrary to the will and life found in Christ.

It’s not at all difficult to understand the spiritual direction that Benedict gives to his disciple-monks. The direction is honestly pretty straight forward. In fact, Benedict refers to his spiritual direction as a “little rule written for beginners.”[2] What makes the Rule difficult to accept and live out is that most of us come to the Rule pre-conditioned by the secular and religious environments where we’ve lived all our lives. Gone are the days when infants were given by their parents to the monastery to rear and educate.

For us to accept the Rule at face value, for us to accept the wisdom and tutelage of St. Benedict, we often have to admit that a lot of our pre-conditioning needs undoing. We have to see ourselves as beginners despite what else we may think of ourselves, despite our past accomplishments, despite any rank, titles, or status we may have enjoyed. This is often a most painful death to us, one that is difficult to accept. It is, nonetheless, one of the rungs of this ladder of humility.

Incline my heart according to your will, O God.
Speed my steps along your path.

[1] RB 7:34
[2] RB 73:8