Chapter 5: Obedience

1 The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, 2 which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. 3 Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, 4 they carry out the superior’s order as promptly as if the command came from God himself. 5 The Lord says of men like this: No sooner did he hear than he obeyed me (Ps 17[18]:45); 6 again, he tells teachers: Whoever listens to you, listens to me (Luke 10:16). 7 Such people as these immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, 8 and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions. 9 Almost at the same moment, then, as the master gives the instruction the disciple quickly puts it into practice in the fear of God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one.

10 It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life; 11 therefore, they are eager to take the narrow road of which the Lord says: Narrow is the road that leads to life (Matt 7:14). 12 They no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them. 13 Men of this resolve unquestionably conform to the saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38).

14 This very obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men only if compliance with what is commanded is not cringing or sluggish or half-hearted, but free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness. 15 For the obedience shown to superiors is given to God, as he himself said: Whoever listens to you, listens to me (Luke 10:16). 16 Furthermore, the disciples’ obedience must be given gladly, for God loves a cheerful giver (II Cor 9: 7). 17 If a disciple obeys grudgingly and grumbles, not only aloud but also in his heart, 18 then, even though he carries out the order, his action will not be accepted with favor by God, who sees that he is grumbling in his heart. 19 He will have no reward for service of this kind; on the contrary, he will incur punishment for grumbling, unless he changes for the better and makes amends.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Later, in Chapter 7 of the Rule, we find that “The first step of humility, then, is that a man keeps the fear of God always before his eyes (Ps 35[36]:20) and never forgets it.” If we think that the Master wrote these Chapters, which is probable, and that the Master had this clear contradiction, then we must wonder why Benedict took it over. Or, if Benedict is the Master as a mature monk, we still have the question of why he keeps these two different approaches. Perhaps it is our modern mind wanting too much consistency. In any case, what we have here is a chapter on obedience–seen as humility. Obedience is truly difficult today for all of us. A deep, inner understanding of what obedience can do in our spiritual life will help us embrace this teaching. Obedience teaches us that we don’t have to have the final say on most things–in fact, on nothing except that which is immoral, and most of us will not have to deal with a person like Hitler in our lives. Instead, practicing obedience helps us understand what it means to seek to do God’s will and not our own. Even when we think that the superior is stupid or wrong or stubborn, strong obedience gives us a wonderful grasp of what it means to seek God’s will and not ours. We must face the modern thinking that says that we should seek truth together and discern it together. There is obviously a lot to be said for this position. The difference is that often, in discernment, no one gives way to another person–and it is right in this difference that the Rule would have us accept the decision and judgment of another. And the Rule wants such a giving way to another person to be joyful, quick and free from any grumbling or even a reaction of unwillingness! What a strong community this builds when the monks or nuns are working toward this kind of obedience. It is not blind, but is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the seeking of God.