In the present world the suggestion of obedience is met with incomprehension. That one should submit one’s entire will to another individual is not only a social error, but an anti-social horror. Obedience is a blasphemy in a world of individual freedom, and yet all the wise ones tell us it is only through obedience that innocence is recovered and retained. Obedience can only be rediscovered through discipline and commitment. Therefore Benedict sets obedience as one of the three vows for his monks. In his chapter on receiving brethren he writes, “The one who is to be accepted into the community must promise in the presence of all; stability, conversion of life and obedience.”
Like all natural gifts, obedience has to be practiced to be made perfect. This perfection requires a structure, a good teacher, and hard work. To practice obedience one has to get into the habit of obeying instantly. Benedict commends those who, “at once leave whatever they are engaged on, abandon their own will, and with hands set free by leaving unfinished what they are doing, with the quick feet of obedience follow by action the voice of him who gives the order.” In practical terms it means, “as soon as the signal for the Divine Office is heard, the brethren must leave whatever they have been engaged in doing and hasten with all speed.” There is evidence from medieval manuscripts that the monks stopped their copying even in the middle of a word to get up and attend prayers.
Benedict’s obedience is military in its strictness. He agrees with St Paul that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in high places.” From his call to arms in the Prologue, Benedict links the monk’s vow of obedience to his status as a soldier of Christ. Like a general of Byzantium standing against the invading Hun Benedict says, “my words are addressed to you, who by giving up your own will, are taking up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience in order to do battle in the service of the Lord Christ, the True King.”
Obedience is a weapon against evil because through obedience the selfish will is broken, and a crack in Satan’s battlements appears. This is why to obey the superior in the monastery is the first step in obedience to Christ. “The first step in humility,” says Benedict, “is prompt obedience…immediately when something has been commanded by a superior, it is for them [the monks] as a divine command and they cannot allow any delay in its execution…for the obedience that is shown to superiors is shown to God; for he said himself, ‘He who listens to you listens to me.’ “ Since obedience is the first and most valuable weapon in the war, Benedict’s monks “do not live according to their own wills, nor obey their own desires and pleasures, but behaving in accordance with the rule and judgement of another, they live in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot ruling over them.”
The monk or nun in their monastery are like soldiers camped on the front line. They are trained in obedience and ready for action against the enemy. Benedict contrasts this with the rebellious monks called Sarabaites. In chapter one he describes them, “they have not been tested by a rule, as gold is tested in a furnace, nor been taught by experience, but are like soft lead. They keep faith with this world by their actions. These people have no shepherd, they shut themselves up in their own sheepfolds, not those of the Lord; and their law consists in yielding to their desires: what they like or choose they call holy, and they reckon illicit whatever displeases them.”
Benedict’s words describe not only cantankerous monks, but every sort of Do-it-Yourself Christian. Benedict is clear that home-made churches are wrong. They are ‘sheepfolds of their own making.’ The same attitude applies to any Christian who thinks he can interpret the Bible or decide on moral questions without any higher authority. If left to ourselves we will inevitably choose what seems right to us, but as the writer of Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man which leads only to destruction.”
Benedict’s diatribe against Sarabaites chokes the natural desire to chase after individual ‘freedom’. The search for freedom is good, but too often it leaves us jaded and enslaved by a cohort of elusive desires. By contrast, anyone who submits to a higher discipline soon discovers a new kind of freedom.
Freedom through obedience is well illustrated by the genius and discipline of music. A talented pianist must practise from childhood if he wishes to play a masterpiece like Rachmaninov’s third concerto. For years the novice does his scales, attends his music lessons, and obediently plays a series of dull and uncongenial pieces. He obeys his teacher and the master who composed the score. At times the practice is routine, at other times it is impossibly difficult. He feels like giving up. He argues with his teacher; but if he perseveres, one day he steps on stage and plays the Rachmaninov concerto with utter confidence, panache and exhilarating freedom. Furthermore, he makes the whole thing look easy. His genius has been set free and the result is an astounding act of inspiration, beauty and power. In hindsight, he has not only soared with power and life as he played the concerto, but the final perfection has made every moment of drudgery enjoyable as well. At that moment of freedom he has become all that he was created to be, and the beauty, power and climax of the piece is woven from each moment of discipline, hard work and obedience that took him to that achievement.
- this post is an edited version of a chapter from St Benedict and St Therese – The Little Rule and the Little Way