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Benedictine spirituality: the third vow, obedience

Thursday February 25 2016

We saw the significant role listening plays in fulfilling the vow of stability,Benedict's first vow: God calls us to listen to his voice in this place and in the midst of these commitments. In addition, we cannot embrace Benedict's second vow, conversion of life, without listening to God’s leading. Listening is also at the center of third vow, the vow of obedience.

We may think that a monk or a nun has a commitment to obedience that is totally different than ours because they are called to obey the instructions of the head of their monastery. What lies behind their obedience to the abbess or abbot is a very simple understanding of the call of all Christians to obey God.

Esther de Waal writes that that obedience is about listening, responding, and acting on what we hear. Obedience, she believes,

is no more than listening to God – and listening is after all the way in which the Rule opens. Listen is the very first word of the Rule: listening in its fullest sense, listening with every fibre of my being; listening in all the ways in which God is trying to reach me. This will not only be in words (though a dialogue with God through the scriptures, through daily reading, and particularly through the psalms, is very central to Benedictine life). But also listening through the people whose lives touch mine; through the things I touch and handle; through moments of grace. Do I really take this as seriously as I should? Do I not in fact so often take for granted God’s amazing generosity?

Elizabeth Canham also stresses the connection between listening and obedience: “The kind of listening Benedict calls for is a deep hearing that moves beyond understanding with the mind to a willingness for the heart to be moved. Because ear and heart are inextricably connected, obedience to God’s call follows.” She also observes, “We do not readily embrace obedience, and we often expend a great deal of energy in attempts to avoid doing what is required of us. Obedience is hard work (Saint Benedict calls it labor), for it demands of us a searching honesty about our willfulness and challenges our claims of independence.”

What does this kind of obedience look like in practice? It includes faithfulness to commitments and thankfulness for God’s generosity. It may involve hearing God’s call in small things, such as making a phone call to someone experiencing a loss or apologizing for something relatively trivial but potentially hurtful. Obedience may involve a significant life change, such as moving across the country to take a new job or caring for a relative in a costly way.

When we talk about obedience, we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on our own efforts to obey. We are being transformed into Christ’s image, and it is Christ in us – through the Holy Spirit – whowill enable us to obey. Listening to God for guidance, resting in the power of the Spirit, relying on God to help us obey as Christ did will all be essential as we strive to fulfill the vow of obedience.

For those of us who inhabit the twenty-first century, the vow of obedience may be the most foreign of the Benedictine vows. We can understand God’s call to stability, to look for God here in the midst of ourcommitments. We can understand God’s call to conversion of life because we generally embrace growth towards wholeness. But obedience calls for a kind of submission that may feel foreign to the “Me Generation”and to the generations that follow.

Esther de Waal points out that all three of Benedict’s vows help us to be human but also help us to orient our lives away from ourselves,

away from that subtle temptation of self-fascination and self-discovery. They challenge any spirituality from becoming yet one more expression of the contemporary obsession with the self, with self-awareness, with self-fulfilment. Instead they point me to Christ. Christ the Rock on which I build, Christ the Way I follow, Christ the Word I hear. If I am to put Christ at the center, as St. Benedict would have me to, that then displaces me from the centre.

De Waal goes on to say that even in the context of the Christian faith, we so often put ourselves at the center, focusing on our own obedience and faithfulness, how well we are serving God, whether or not we are being “good,” how much we are attempting to please God. If we truly begin to put Christ’s love at the center, then we can live in a receptive stance, ready to receive love as well as guidance about what to do.As we long for significance and meaning, Benedict’s priorities can help us see that true significance and meaning come from putting Christ at the center, rather than keeping ourselves there.

The Benedictine viewpoint sees listening and obedience as a part of an interplay between God and humans. This kind of obedience does not involve effort or strain on our part to be good or to do the right thing. Obedience flows out of communication and relationship. Even more significantly, obedience is the fruit of receiving God’s love.

 

This is the seventh post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life 

Next week focuses on the role of hospitality, service and work in Benedictine spirituality. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

 

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For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.



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