Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 5, Obedience

Starting with Chapter 5 the Rule of St. Benedict starts turning to issues of humility, specifically with how to cultivate humility among the monks. The first step: obedience. This is going to be a hard word for many of us:
Chapter 5
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 can't imagine many of us wanting to sign up for this sort of thing. Who wants to be unhesitatingly obedient to authority?

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.

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8 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 5, Obedience”

  1. Your idea of interruptibility is helpful and insgihtful.In some way obedience is linked to and arises out of deep hearing. St. Benedict challenges us to consider what voice we hear, listen to, and follow. Without hearing there is no interrutibility.  

  2. I love the juxtapositions this little series set up. This one leaves me asking, "Where is (mostly moral) authority located, literally?" Paul's Areopagus speech shows just how literal that question can be. And isn't any Christian authority rooted in "the world" necessarily ironic? So, where--in what authority--does faith plant its roots? 

    BTW: Did you intentionally juxtapose the last post with this one?

  3. Nice post, and I apologize if I'm overposting long responses :) I find this blog really stimulating. 

    I think it is helpful to ask, “Obedience
    to whom, or what?” Being interruptible, in the sense of being willing to let
    people in need interrupt you and your agenda, seems great. Being interruptible,
    in the sense of letting the quest for money interrupt your pursuit of God’s love,
    seems bad. Or, to go back directly to obedience, obedience to just authority
    seems good, and obedience to unjust authority seems bad. Nothing fancy, but I
    find this basic question and distinction to be surprisingly helpful. It is in
    this context that a spiritual formation process that mortifies the will can be good,
    or it can be corrupting. People who are trafficked have to mortify their will,
    for example, but that form of spiritual formation seems degrading and profoundly
    evil. Some monastic, or monastic-inspired, communities more closely resemble
    human trafficking than they resemble just authority. (Take, for example, the
    Magdalene Laundries). Others actually seem just and holy.


    we’re on obedience, I’m fascinated by what we perceive when we consider
    scientific inquiry as a form of obedience to the ‘authority’ of observable and
    repeatable phenomena. While we are always tempted to impose our own ideas and
    models on the world, science seems to me to be, fundamentally, a reversal of that
    tendency: if the world isn’t lining up with our ideas, we ultimately submit to
    observable reality as the arbiter of truth. The question for scientists is
    never, “Which has authority, my will and my ideas, or the world?” It is,
    instead, “Have I aligned, or submitted, my ideas to the authority of the (naturalistically) observable world?”
    Or, in a sense, “Have I successfully submitted myself to the authority of the
    world, in obedience?” And like other forms of obedience, this kind of obedience
    can actually, surprisingly, result in us wielding power, or appearing to wield
    power. You don’t usually get promoted for being disobedient, in a monastery or
    anywhere else. And you don't get far as an engineer by insisting that your model is right, even when the world refuses to cooperate.

  4. I'm struck by how "obedience" from me is not really to superiors at all. It's to the "customers"--whether I am waiting tables, or working in a factory, or working as a teacher, or even when I was a preacher. The people I serve are what I am there for--if they have a need of me, then I am there for them, and I often find myself doing things according to their "instructions." This doesn't make me humble, but I do think it gives me some SMALL practice in mortifying my will. Sometimes in exhausting (but spiritually fruitful?) ways.

  5. There are some parallels with both the 12 step programs (who need obedience to the steps) and to the Moslem idea of submitting oneself totally to God.

  6. In a post-Millgram, post-Orwell world, it's very hard to read Benedict as his original readers may have done.  Perhaps another challenging question raised by Benedict's voice in contemporary society is, "Where are those who understand how to exercise power with integrity and wisdom?"  As I re-read in Lilith this morning, "The man (sic) who grounds his actions on another's cowardice, is essentially a coward himself."

  7. "Interruptibility".  What a great way to put it.

    Jesus, walking down the road hears Bartemaus call from the side of the road, or sees Zaccheus in the tree or senses the woman touching his robe.  And stops. And ministers. 

    He must have driven his schedulers nuts.

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