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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