For many years, the word obedience served as lightning rod to me. The concept connoted all that I disliked about being female: Powerlessness, submissiveness, conformance, passivity and the like. Feminism offered no solution other than to blame men for whatever ailed me and adopt the role of victim…seeking comfort in 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. And 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.
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, the “gymnasium of the soul.” From the turbulence of the fourth century, the words of St. Ambrose serve as balm for our battered twenty-first- century psyches, hearts and souls.
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.
We lay Oblates read through the brief Rule of Benedict three times each year.
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. Writing 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, sleep, hygiene. At a time when the body was considered merely a dead weight which imprisons the soul, Benedict’s attention to it and the other material of daily life like pots and pans stop us in our tracks. These mundane things and activities are holy…or can be?
The labor of obedience.
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 became 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.
As with so many works which point us to wisdom and therefore, Christ, 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.