Obedience: the Third Step of Humility

Benedict’s third step of humility (RB 7.34) is as brief as it is profound:

Tertius humiltatis gradus est ut quis pro Dei amore omni oboedientia se subdat maiori, imitans Dominum, de quo dicit apostolus, Factus oboediens usque ad mortem.

The third step of humility is, for the love of God, to submit to one’s superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord of whom the apostle says, ‘He became obedient even to death.’

Notice that he gives motive (love of God), concrete practice (obedient submission to a human superior) and example (the Lord himself). Monastic obedience is not about the exercise of power and control, it is about love and discipleship; but that love and discipleship cannot take just any form we like. All of us are called to obey God, but the vowed coenobite is required to give obedience to a human superior, a flawed human being who may fall far short of the ideal but who is believed to mediate the will of God to both the individual and the community. Obedience thus becomes an act of faith as well as love. Benedict is well aware of what he is asking. In giving Christ as the example to follow, he quotes Philippians 2.8. Our monastic obedience will lead us to the cross and to death as surely as it led him. That may sound rather wonderful in theory, but the glow tends to dim when put into practice!

In a way, what Benedict says here about the love of God may seem to undermine what he said earlier in RB 7.67 about progressing from fear to love, but it marks an important change from his primary source, the Rule of the Master, with its frankly rambling discourse, to the simplicity of Cassian. I think it also emphasizes that obedience, especially ‘to death,’ is impossible without love. St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast we celebrate today, understood that better than most. Attempts to kidnap her as a feminist icon avant la lettre or to promote her as a type of passive, Lydia Languish, spirituality demonstrate complete ignorance both of Thérèse herself and of the Carmelite world she inhabited. The Little Flower was steely enough to face down all opposition, speak freely and frankly, and yet, to obey. Her last days, spent in an agony of supposed abandonment and spiritual emptiness, were the fruit of a lifetime of obedience lived with a love and intensity those of us who are older and greyer can only marvel at. May she pray for us who lack her courage and insight.