The Three ‘C’s: Choice, Control and Celebrity

Once upon a time, cultivation of the three ‘R’s — in other words, education — was seen as the passport to a happy and fulfilled life, especially for those born into what were then called ‘modest circumstances’. Nowadays we seem more concerned with the three ‘C’s: choice, control and celebrity. The first two have become a mantra for our politicians. ‘Give the people choice,’ they exclaim, as they urge us to choose which hospital will have the pleasure of (eventually) performing some necessary surgery on us. ‘Take back control,’ insist the Brexiteers, conjuring up the bogey of a Brussels bureaucrat intent on limiting our freedom. As for celebrity, one has only to glance at Instagram or some other Social Media platform to see how many seek fifteen seconds of fame or notoriety as though it were the highest good. By the time we are twenty-five, most of us know that choice is often more illusory than real unless we happen to be rich, that control is, in practice, a rather dubious concept, and as for celebrity — the moment for that has long passed. We are now ready to read chapter 5 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Obedience.

At first sight, the very concept of obedience seems destructive of individual freedom and aseity. It goes contrary to everything we believe about the value of choice, our desire for control, even our secret longing to stand out from the crowd (see above). Or does it? Benedict begins by noting that obedience without delay is as it should be for those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ. (RB 5.2) By beginning with the principal motivation for obedience, Benedict clears the way for everything that follows, piling up motive after motive and emphasizing throughout the importance of listening. (RB 5. 3–6. The word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin obaudire, to listen hard or carefully.) In the next few sentences he maps out how swiftly the monk’s obedience should be accomplished before delivering what we might call his knock-out blow, we choose the narrow way; we choose to live under obedience; we desire to have an abbot over us, thereby imitating him who said, ‘I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ (RB 5. 11–13, quoting John 6. 38) Obedience is chosen; it makes us like Christ.

We might have assumed that Benedict would leave matters there. After all, what more is to be said when obedience is freely chosen as a way of identifying with Christ our Lord? Well, Benedict is a realist and knows that obedience can be costly. Most of us obey grudgingly at times or in a way that is anything but an imitation of the Lord. So Benedict goes on to say that our obedience must be marked by a certain sweetness of disposition, a courage and cheerfulness that will make it acceptable in the Lord’s sight and not a burden on others. (cf RB 5. 14–19) Those who have served as monastic superior know how difficult it can be to ask a community member to do something one knows they will not like — rather like asking a teenager to tidy his room or go to bed at a ‘reasonable’ hour — so does Benedict!

Chapter 5 should not be read out of context. It is no accident that it follows chapter 4, On the Tools of Good Works, and precedes chapter 6, On Restraint in  Speech. It is part of the Benedictine programme, so to say, for becoming a true monk, one who has come to the perfect love of God. (Rb 7. 67) That is the goal of obedience as of every other practice or discipline in the monastery; and you don’t need me to tell you that in that love of God we find perfect freedom. We have chosen to place our lives under the control of God, and in so doing discover our true identity as ‘sons in the Son’. No human celebrity could ever equal that. And what is true of the monk is, mutatis mutandi, true of every Christian.

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A Windy Night

Last night the wind tugged and pulled at the monastery, sending shivery blasts through every little crack and crevice. It was a powerful reminder that, no matter how much we like to think we are in control, no matter how much technology we have at our disposal, there are many things we cannot control. We are left like Job, putting a finger to his lips when questioned by God. But that does not stop us wanting to know, wanting to control.

The desire to control is one we all experience, to greater or lesser degree. At its best, it encourages us to explore, explain, understand; at its worst, it makes us seek to dominate or destroy. During this month of November, when we pray so often for the dead and remember particularly those who died in war, it may be helpful to reflect on those areas of our own lives where there is either too much or too little control, knowing that the consequences of untrammelled desires can be deadly. It may help, too, to go through the Bible looking at the ways in which wind is used as an image of God’s action in our lives, above all, as an image of the Holy Spirit.

A windy night may teach us more than we ever dreamed possible.

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Living with Uncertainty

We crave certainty. We may like to think of ourselves as free spirits, ready to set off for outer Mongolia at the drop of a hat, but most of us, most of the time, prefer to know where we’ll sleep at night, where our next meal is coming from, that our legs and lungs will work predictably. Living with uncertainty is not, for most of us, a choice we would wish to make, yet most of our ‘certainties’ are nothing of the sort. We are, all of us, only a heartbeat away from eternity.

I think that is why Benedict urges us to ‘keep death daily before our eyes’. He is not being morbid or encouraging glumness. On the contrary, he wants us to recognize that every moment of life is a gift, even when hard or difficult. We are not in control, however much we like to think we are or want to be, so what is the point of worrying ourselves (literally) sick about things? It is not only riches but anxiety that chokes the growth of the Kingdom within us. With Lent just a few days away, perhaps we could start thinking about our Lenten resolutions as a way to recapture awareness of living daily by the mercy of God. That will involve more than giving up marmalade or some other delicacy. It will mean living with uncertainty.

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