(To the readers: A Parenthetical Opening; of Mary; in which the writer once again tries to overcome her fear of a blank screen.*)
“Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so. Live by God’s commandments every day.” RB 4.62,63
Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery has been around for eleven years now—a drop in the eschatological bucket as far as the long stream of Benedictine history is concerned, but still kind of an accomplishment for us. In that time, one of the topics that has been most challenging for us to learn how to practice is the bugaboo of obedience. We’re not alone in this struggle just because we are a dispersed community. If you took a poll of our monastic kin in the more traditional monasteries, many if not most of them would say the same thing about their own lives.
Why is obedience so tough for us who claim that this kind of selfless listening-responding is the very thing we want? Can we attribute our interior skirmishes largely to that independent, I’ll-pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps-thank-you-very-much American side of us which is prone (or determined) to reserve just a little (or a lot) of our own tenacious bent to absolute self-sufficiency? Is it the legacy of a culture which tends to think of my good before (or even instead of) the common good? Is it any or all of the countless modern pathologies of personality that are regularly decried in news journals and spiritual periodicals? How about d) All of the above?
Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
A little browse through scripture and through history will show us that People Is People. Human beings have always struggled with giving over self-concern in favor of something larger than our own desires—at least ever since we discovered the wonders of commerce. In the religious context, that goes for our drive toward self-determination, too.
This month in Brigidland has provided us with several opportunities to reflect together on obedience.
· Our novices bravely tackled the topic of obedience head on. (God bless Kraig, Brenda and Wes for their honest and good natured faith seeking understanding.)
· The formation topic du jour for the beginners’ groups—that’s us, loved ones; cf. RB 73.8—was the abbess/abbot in the Rule. (Wrasslin’** with obedience is required whenever the subject of monastic leadership is raised.)
· And the longer readings in the breviary have been leading us on a trip down memory lane with the post-exilic Hebrews via their Deuteronomic chronicler. (Have you read that stuff recently? God had some bloody good reasons for laying down a few shalts and shalt nots.)
Some of us balk more than others at the mention of rules, boundaries or limitations. No news there. In addressing this squeamishness, it might help to consider how such guidelines as the Commandments and the Rule of Saint Benedict came about.
Neither of these texts was overlaid on the life of faith at the outset of the people’s journeys. The Commandments were given after the Hebrews had been led out of captivity. They were not a precondition for God’s rescuing them from their oppressors—“Live up to these standards and I might consider saving your hineys from those mean ol’ Egyptians.” Likewise, Benedict wrote his Rule after years of common, lived experience with his monasteries; he was not drawing a map of unexplored territory.
Thus it was and is and ever shall be in every generation. Even those of us who are most earnest about our spiritual lives are sometimes tempted to want to be thought of as holy—i.e., loving in all our ways—before we’ve truly gotten there. (It looks great on a résumé.) So we need help learning how to love God and neighbor and we also need occasional help remembering what we’ve already been taught about loving. In their essence, the Commandments and the Rule are not punishments for misbehaviors; they are gifts to help us on our way. They put limitations on the objects of our lesser loves, yes, but only so that we may be opened to Love itself. That is the sum total of Christian obedience.
If you are reading these words and you are not a sister or brother of Saint Brigid’s, thanks for your interest in obedience. I pray that God will bless you on your path. May you be an eager listener and a joyful follower of the Lord.
If you are a member of Saint Brigid’s, don’t tune out just yet. I have a homework assignment for you. See below.
(I assume here that we all have a firm grasp of obedience as response-ready listening, so I won’t rehearse that background.)
When we as a dispersed monastic community talk about obedience, it is easy to stop at considering it in relation to leadership—both how we can express obedience to persons with the task of guiding Saint Brigid’s (RB 5) and how we in our lives apart from community interaction participate in relationships which entail some form of that obedience (family, workplace, church, etc.).
I would like us to consider for a moment, however, our growth in mutual obedience. (RB 71) It is difficult to imagine how we can reasonably show our obedience (listening love) to one another if we don’t really know each other very well.
So here is your homework (I’m serious about this request, by the way. Consider it an exercise in obedience, RB 5-style.): Sometime in the next week (the clock starts ticking when you read these words), I would like you to reach out to another person in the community—via Facebook, email, phone, carrier pigeon or whatever means you choose. If you are more comfortable starting with someone you know, that’s just fine. The point is to be in touch.
Once you’ve done that, I would be more than delighted if you would take up this initiative as part of your regular monastic practice. Work your way out with other sisters and brothers—perhaps with the folks in your formation group, perhaps with someone whose name you have heard or seen in our directory but have never had contact. Knowing our folks as I do, I can promise that you will enjoy the experience. And in the process, we will become closer to each other as community and closer to Christ, the One in whose name we love.
Grace be with you,
*An homage to the Psalm headings and a shameless contrivance to help me get a few words onto the screen as kindling. If you have never paid much attention to these little ditties, they can be pretty intriguing. One of my favorites belongs to Psalm 60: “To the leader: according to the Lily of the Covenant. A Mik’tam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Ar’am-nā∙ha∙rā’im and with Ar’am-zō’bah, and when Jō’ab on his return killed twelve thousand Ē’dom-ītes in the Valley of Salt.” It’s a Hollywood script just waiting to happen, isn’t it?
** wrassle, verb: to grapple with, consider; often involving emotional, psychological and/or spiritual engagement, if not actual physical blows let forth upon any rogue who dares to challenge our impeccably held notions on whatever it is about which we’re feeling defensive at the moment. <Southern—to wrestle with.