Benedict’s Rule: Obedience

Chapter 5 in Benedict’s Rule describes “unhesitating obedience” (5:1)

This is the mark of our humility, for anything other than immediate response is a sign that our ego is still in control to some degree.  The false self is still our point of reference when we say, “Let me think about that and decide whether or not to do it.”  In Christian discipleship there is no “middle man.”

But Benedict is quick to point out that obedience is not first of all an action.  It is an attitude—the attitude of listening.  He quotes Psalm 18:44, “no sooner did he hear than he obeyed me.”  Action apart from discernment is not obedience, it is speculation.  In the case of life together in the monastery, Benedict says that obedience is carrying out the orders of the Abbot.  But the point is the same—you have to have the “orders” before you know what to do.

A good Abbot would never tell another monk to do “everything” or “something” (just for the sake of being active).  Obedience is not simply being busy, or doing every good thing we can think of.  Obedience is always related to our gifts, graces, state of life, and actual circumstances.  A good Abbot never “tossed out” orders indiscriminently; neither does God.

That is why the heart of Benedict’s monastic communities was prayer.  It is in prayer where we receive our “marching orders” (as E. Stanley Jones put it).  The Abbot was no more exempt from this than any of the other monks.  Solitude and silence created the sacred space for each monk to “pray without ceasing.” And the heart of monastic life was the opus dei—the “work of God” (worship) through common prayer—seven times a day.

Benedict’s belief was simply that a prayer-devoted individual living in a prayer-saturated environment would know what to do—and he or she would do it immediately.

When I was a pastor, people would sometimes say, “I would do the will of God if I only knew what it is.”  On the pastoral side, I always treated that statement with tenderness, because it reflects an open heart.  But later, I have come to see that it is a statement which often reflects a life deficient in private or common prayer—or both.  It is a reflection of someone who is not sufficiently reading Scripture (individually or in community).  Praying and reading do not “guarantee” we will always know God’s will, but they do dispose our hearts to hear—and when we are listening, we are more likely to hear something.

This is the monastic spirit, and the spirit of any form of discipleship—listening—with the intention to enact what we hear.  That’s obedience, and it is the view which has given rise to this blog site and the way of life it commends.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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