An Unfashionable Virtue: Obedience

Yesterday and today we have been reading St Benedict’s fifth chapter, on obedience. Its fine phrases have often been quoted on this blog, and I have spent most of my adult life trying to put it into practice. We vow our obedience in the monastery. At the heart of that vow is a perpetual listening to God that, far from narrowing our world, opens us up to endless possibilities. It is, we believe, a virtue to be obedient. But is is an unfashionable virtue. In the west we value our independence of thought and action and regard choosing to live by another’s judgement and authority (cf RB 5.12) as somehow immature. Even among Catholics you will find those who seem to know better than the Church!

I think part of the problem may lie in our inability to make the connection between our own obedience and Christ’s obedience to the Father. Canon Law protects us from the enormities of ‘blind obedience’ or any lazy attempt to shrug off personal responsibility by claiming ‘I was only doing what I was told.’ That is not obedience, although it is often mistaken for obedience. No, real obedience is hard work and exposes us to risk. It will change us, and most of us do not like being changed. Moreover, we cannot be sure we are always right any more because we are not the sole masters of our fate. God has a way of upsetting things. Even so, we can misunderstand; we can get it wrong. What we can’t do is play safe, refuse to act, refuse to listen. I have sometimes wondered whether, during those last few days before his Crucifixion, Christ did not ask himself whether he was doing the right thing, whether he had understood aright what the Father wanted. In Gethsemane those questions came to the fore and could only be answered with ‘Let your will, not mine, be done.’

Very few of us ever seem to reach the point where, heart and soul, we can say, ‘Let your will, not mine be done.’ We try, yes we try. We make huge sacrifices, bear terrible things as uncomplainingly as possible, but it is only with our last breath that we can be sure that our obedience is complete. That is one reason why we pray daily for the grace of a good death. Not necessarily a good death as many understand it, a death free fom pain and surrounded by those who love us, but a death that truly completes our life, that allows us to say, ‘I have heard, and I have obeyed.’

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5 thoughts on “An Unfashionable Virtue: Obedience”

  1. Should I say awesome about this writing? But it is.

    Obedience is difficult. It challenges our concept of independence and puts us at risk. Love for God makes us want to please God but often obedience is a bridge too far.
    I’ll keep thinking about your words, thanks.

    • Thank you. My object in writing is always to try to make others think. That may sound grandiose, but I hope it isn’t. The subjects I blog about are ones I’ve been thinking about myself, often very uncomfortably. Share my discomfort!

  2. I find the good death idea very difficult. Obedience even to accepting pain/fear and death is a lot to accept. I worry that faced with terrible suffering that I might lose rational calm acceptance and become bitter. I have seen good friends suffer in silence/great dignity but others crumble into despair when facing illness and death. I prayed for them all and pray for myself that I might have the courage to remain obedient and not to question if it is the right way.
    I will bury a family member on Friday who suffered greatly with dementia – a particularly “cruel” end to a life. It has added a particular poignancy to your blog today for me. Thanks for the challenging concepts and I hope I do share in some way your discomfort.

    • We will pray with you on Friday. I think we all have a problem imagining ‘what ifs’ but grace is given to us when we need it, not in advance. Even though I know my own sarcoma cannot be cured, I still have difficulty wondering whether I’ll make a good death or not. I hope so. I pray so. I rely enormously on the prayers of others. Don’t be afraid to do so yourself when the time comes, which I hope will be a long time off!

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