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Thursday, May 23, 2024
Chapter 5

The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they carry out the orders of the prioress or abbot as promptly as if the command came directly from God. The Holy One says of people like this: "No sooner did they hear than they obeyed me (Ps 18:45);" again, God tells teachers: "Whoever listens to you, listens to me (Lk 10:16)." Such people as these immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, 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. Almost at the same moment, then, as the teacher gives the instruction the disciple quickly puts it into practice out of reverence for God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one.

There is an urgency in the Rule of Benedict. The hallmark of obedience for Benedict, in fact, is immediacy. Monasticism is a process, true, but it is lived out in a million little ways day after day. Most of all, perhaps, it is lived out in obedience, the ability to hear the voice of God in one another, in the members of the community, both old and young; in the person we married all of whose aphorisms we know by now, in underlings and children, in old parents and boring in-laws. This voice of God in the demands of community life is not something to be dallied with, or contended with or speculated about or debated.

The necessary question, of course, is how is it that a Rule that purports to deal with the spiritual life can possibly put so much stock in the human dimensions of community. Obedience to God is imperative, yes, but so much emphasis on obedience to a prioress or abbot, to leaders whose mundane lives are as limited as our own, almost seems to make a mockery of the very concept. If this is a life centered in the call of God, then why so much attention to the human?

The answer, of course, is that the human is the only place we can really be sure that God is. It is so easy to love the God we do not see but it is so much more sanctifying to serve the God we learn to see in others.

The self-giving of real obedience is very clear to Benedict. When we follow the voice of the ones who call us to higher service, we put down our own concerns, allow ourselves to be led by the sights of another, treat our own best interests with a relaxed grasp. We empty ourselves out so that the presence of God can come in, tangible and present and divinely human.

It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life; therefore, they are eager to take the narrow road of which God says: "Narrow is the road that leads to life (Mt 7:14)." 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 a prioress or abbot over them. Monastics of this resolve unquestionably conform to the saying of Christ: "I have come not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me (Jn 6:38)."

Two ideas permeate the Rule of Benedict: love and wisdom. Love is the motive; wisdom is the goal and the way. Two great loves, love of God and love of the other, impel us to look outside ourselves and learn from those outside of ourselves where we really are in life. When we love something besides ourselves and when we listen to someone besides ourselves we have glimmers of growth to guide us.

That's why the Rule alone is not enough. The Rule is a luminaria, a lighted path, a clear direction. The presence of a prioress and abbot, of spiritual guides and spiritual giants in our lives, the living interpreters of a living spirituality and Way of Life, holds us up during the hard times in life. These living, breathing, loving vessels of the best in the spiritual life act as antidotes to our confusions and selfishness and pain when we are least able to make clear decisions. They act as corrections on the self when we of all people would be least satisfied with ourselves. They become the compasses when we are veering off course, not because we do not want to see but because our sight is blinded now by age or stress or fatigue. They become the track when our hearts stray or our lives hurt.

What Benedict is saying, obviously, is that there is no going through life alone. Each of us needs a wisdom figure to walk the way with us as well as a Rule to route us. The Rule is clearly not enough.

"Why do you need teachers?" the visitor asked a disciple.

"Because," the disciple answered, "if water must be heated it needs a vessel between the fire and itself."

Abbots and prioresses, good leaders and teachers, fine parents and mentors, tender husbands and gentle wives, good friends and quality administrators, who listen to us as much as we listen to them, are there to help us bear the heat of life that shapes us, not to escape it.