Chapter 5I can't imagine many of us wanting to sign up for this sort of thing. Who wants to be unhesitatingly obedient to authority?
1The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience...7Such people as these immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, 8and 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. 9Almost 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...14This 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...16...the disciples' obedience must be given gladly.
I struggle with this as I'm an inherently rebellious person. I'm cheerful and affable at work, but I don't like authority figures and tend to ignore or break rules. How I ended up as a Department Chair is something of a mystery.
Still, I find value in Benedict's directives about obedience. Two thoughts.
First, what strikes me about Benedict's description of obedience is its vision of being interruptable. When the request is made the monk "immediately puts aside their own concerns" and lays down "whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished." As I've written about before, I think this vision of interruptibility is key to being hospitable and available to others. That is, we don't need to imagine these requests as coming from an authority figure. These can be requests from anyone at all, a child, a spouse, a co-worker, a person on the street. And yes, even a boss. Being interruptable is being available and welcoming of others.
Second, it's important to note that Benedict's call for obedience isn't an end in itself. He's not trying to create a group of slaves. The call to obedience is a spiritual formation practice aimed at cultivating humility through the mortification of the will.
Again this might be hard to stomach for many of us, but Benedict is pointing to a very real problem. We are often prideful, vain, stubborn, selfish, self-indulgent and narcissistic. Most of us readily admit this about ourselves, and we know firsthand the spiritual and relational damage it causes.
But here's the question: What are we doing about it? What are we doing, concretely and behaviorally, to mortify (kill off) our pride, vanity, stubbornness, selfishness, self-indulgences, and narcissism?
Such questions help us see, a wee bit, what Benedict is after in Chapter 5 of The Rule. Obedience isn't about obedience. It's about pride, vanity, and narcissism. Obedience is a concrete spiritual practice aimed at combating these impulses in our lives.
So this raises a question: If we aren't practicing monastic obedience, and I'm not suggesting that you should, where are we getting some equivalent formation? Where are we learning to mortify our will today?
Beyond hospitality, maybe practicing interruptibility can be of help here as well.