For many years, the word obedience served as a lightning rod to me. The concept connoted all that I disliked about being female: Powerlessness, submissiveness, conformance, passivity and…
And yet, feminism offered no viable solution. Fundamentally, feminists blamed men for whatever ailed us and seemed fixed on adopting the role of victim, seeking redress in legislation and our culture of euphemisms.
But then I became a Christian Catholic and a few years later, an Oblate of St. Benedict. And that word, like so many others in the vocabulary of faith became something I embraced; at times, admittedly with gritted teeth. I began to see why it is called the labor of obedience.
It’s work. Perhaps the toughest I’ve ever done. And continue to do, each and every day, more often than not, failing.
Like understanding what it actually means to be true to the vow I made when marrying my husband: Intentionally I vowed to “love, honor, and obey.”
But excructiating when he asks something of me that feels impossible. Those are the times I forget that obedience means to hear because my focus is what I think I cannot do or must have, hence frequently misunderstanding his request.
One of our Oblate commitments is praying the Liturgy of the Hours three times each day-in the morning, evening and night. A practice which introduces us to the psalms, or the “gymnasium of the soul.” From the turbulence of the fourth century, the words of St. Ambrose serve as balm for my and maybe your woke-battered twenty-first- century psyche, heart and soul.
History instructs us, the law teaches us, prophecy foretells, correction punishes, morality persuades; but the book of psalms goes further than all these. It is medicine for our spiritual health. Whoever reads it will find in it a medicine to cure the wounds caused by his own particular passions. Whoever studies it deeply will find it a kind of gymnasium open for all souls to use, where the different psalms are like different exercises set out before him. In that gymnasium, in that stadium of virtue, he can choose the exercises that will train him best to win the victor’s crown.If someone wants to study the deeds of our ancestors and imitate the best of them, he can find a single psalm that contains the whole of their history, a complete treasury of past memories in just one short reading.If someone wants to study the law and find out what gives it its force (it is the bond of love, for whoever loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law) let him read in the psalms how love led one man to undergo great dangers to wipe out the shame of his entire people; and this triumph of virtue will lead him to recognise the great things that love can do.And as for the power of prophecy – what can I say? Other prophets spoke in riddles. To the psalmist alone, it seems, God promised openly and clearly that the Lord Jesus would be born of his seed: I promise that your own son will succeed you on the throne.Thus in the book of psalms Jesus is not only born for us: he also accepts his saving passion, he dies, he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven, he sits at the Father’s right hand. The Psalmist announced what no other prophet had dared to say, that which was later preached by the Lord himself in the Gospel.
Benedict calls his rule one fit for ‘ordinary people.’ Perhaps what is most surprising to those new to the rule is what it does not include. Written during the end of the Roman Empire, Benedict’s rule is striking for its absence of physical mortifications which were so prevalent among monastics of the time. In fact, many commentators, emphasize the gentleness with which Benedict addresses the physical needs of his monks like sleep and hygiene. At a time when the body was considered merely a dead weight imprisoning the soul, Benedict’s attention to it and the other matters of daily life like pots and pans stop us in our tracks.
Serving to remind each one of us all that the smallest, the most trivial of acts can be holy.
we will it so.
The five hundred or so word prologue to Benedict’s seventy-three chapters or rules is among the most beautifully written letters to she who seeks God ever written. The prose is lyrical, the words animated and seem to saturate the heart from the very first word: Listen.
Perhaps I had been told that the Latin root of obey meant ‘give ear to’ but like so many words, the meaning of obey has been corrupted. Only after years of ‘doing it my way’ was I able to open myself to hear the beauty and more, the wisdom behind Benedict and all those who have sought the Truth.
LI S T E N carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
certain phrases of very familiar passages acquire muscle and seem to shout upon rereading. The power of Benedict’s words in this first paragraph does just that despite the numerous times we read these poetic words:
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
One cannot help but visualize a loving father leaning down to comfort, console and love his small child as the father prepares to instruct the child in the ways of wisdom.
St. Benedict ends the Prologue (read here for the Prolgue and Rule in entirety) with these words:
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).
For as we advance in the religious life and in faith,
our hearts expand (Italics mine)
and we run the way of God’s commandments
with unspeakable sweetness of love (Ps. 118:32).
Thus, never departing from His school,
but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching
we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13)
and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.