Dear Friends in Christ,
An important aspect of the monastic way, but really a part of every living and loving community, family and relationships, is obedience. Saint Benedict, the sixth century author of the “Holy Rule,” or way of life, that we Benedictines embrace, considers obedience as a value and a good, not merely an “obligation” or “duty,” that simply keeps the monastery afloat or from falling into chaos.
Saint Benedict intends obedience to be a positive value, a good, meant to promote harmony, increase love and patience, something that is willingly and joyfully sought. Obedience in the monastic tradition is always to be understood as a stage in the ascent to the fullness of love for God and neighbor, and ultimately sharing with God and the angels and saints in Heaven for eternity. This immediately implies that obedience on earth is a means and not an end in itself.
In the Benedictine tradition, the abbot is to be obeyed, but also the other monks, however quirky they may be, which essentially means “listening to one another.” That is the heart of Saint Benedict’s idea of obedience. In fact, the words “obedience” has its root in the same word for, “listening,” two concepts that go hand in hand.
“Serve one another through love,” Saint Paul tells the Church in Galatia (Galatians 5:13), a valid counsel still, something we can all take up, by truly listening to one another, even anticipating one another in what he or she might need. Too often while supposedly listening to another I already have my remarks prepared while he or she is still speaking. What if we gave them the chance to say all they needed to say, and then reply out of love and concern? This has been called “responding,” rather than “reacting” to another.”
Normally in our daily existence this doesn’t imply long discourses or dialogues with others. If it did, we might get little done in the course of the day, and even get fired from our jobs, miss the commuter train, be rammed from behind when the light turns green, and things like that.
What is being asked of us is to look to the needs of the other, of the community, without necessarily even talking to them, but fulfilling our jobs well, which many monastic traditions calls the “obedience” of the monk, that is, the work given to the monk or nun to accomplish each day. Be it cook, cleaner, greeter, correspondent, gardener, driver, whatever we are asked or expected to do, there are plenty of chances to serve each other out of love of Christ.
Often the work the monk does is hidden, as in, for example, keeping a room or corridor clean and presentable, and maybe those using that space never see or know who precisely has done the cleaning there. But the assigned task, or maybe not even assigned, done in love, is an important thing to have been completed. This kind of approach to life is applicable in any walk of life, in or outside the monastery.
Monks and laity alike are meant to look at the self-giving and obedient approach of Jesus Christ to the will of the Father as the model for our behavior. We may readily admit our failure to give ourselves completely in love, but we must never give up trying. “See how they love one another,” is how the early Christian disciples were described by others, and that should be our model as well. If we strive to be obedient and listen to God’s gentle voice, we will more likely do all things out of love. No matter what our lifestyle is, we must not just speak the words, but put our words into actions, deeds, that demonstrate we are living the love of God, or as it is sometimes expressed: “walk the talk”!
Obedience in the monastery, family, workplace, school, isn’t meant as something negative, but more about freely and joyfully giving and sharing the love that has first been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Whoever truly seeks God seeks love, leading to peace, (“pax” in Latin), an important Benedictine motto and something so needed in our world today.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB