Obedience is, without doubt, more meritorious than any austerity. And what greater austerity can be thought of than that of keeping one’s will constantly submissive and obedient?
—Saint Catherine of Bologna
There is a story about the Desert Fathers where four monks visit the Abbot Pambo. Each of them in turn tells him in private the virtues of the others. One fasted severely; another did not possess the smallest thing; one glowed with the most fervent charity; and another lived in the practice of obedience for twenty years. When the Abbot had heard these things, he said: “The virtue of this last is greatest of all, for the rest followed their own will, but he has made himself the servant of another’s will.”
This story illustrates the heart of monastic obedience—a giving of one’s will to God through the monastic father or mother. Obedience is about self-denial and learning to do God’s will and not your own.
When we read about monks or nuns and what they have to say about the virtue of obedience, their words can be very beautiful and inspiring but how it all relates to Christians outside of the monastery is not always obvious.
There can sometimes be harmful confusion about obedience when those seeking spiritual direction (or even those giving it) try and imitate the level of obedience and manner of relationship which belongs in a monastery. This was explained in a past article about spiritual direction.
So what is the purpose of obedience and what can the rest of us learn from the practice of obedience in monasteries?
Daniel J. Ward, O.S.B. explains, “Monastic obedience is not a carrying out of an order, but a total giving of self to God through a monastic community. Such giving sometimes does involve pain and hurt because the individual cannot ‘march merely to his/her own beat.’ But then neither can a spouse in a marriage or a child in a family. Obedience within the monastery today rests upon the idea that the cenobium, the community, is a society of persons who, through mutual love, sanctify each other. Obedience is the Yes of community living.”
If we obeyed and were faithful to our own vocations and duties, the Church (and the world) would be in a wonderful state. Far too often though, we Christians want to live our Christianity according to our own ideas. We may be doing good things but that doesn’t mean we are fulfilling our first obligations and submitting our will to God.
One of the monks at Holy Resurrection Monastery became a monk after retirement when he was in his fifties. He lived a full, busy, and in many ways successful life prior to becoming a monk. Father Basil is in his seventies now and for all the years I have known the monks, if he wasn’t in church then I knew he had to be really sick. Day in and day out he keeps a set schedule. You can set your clock to him arriving in the chapel early to light the candles and get things ready for the service.
I asked him how he made the transition from his previous life to being a monk who needs to be obedient to the Abbot, the daily schedule, and rules of monastic life. Fr. Basil explained, “I don’t have an exciting answer, the truth is that my life has always been like this. I’ve always had to be obedient in one way or another. I’ve always kept a schedule, and worked from a young age. The same thing goes for being in the monastery. It’s just me doing my job. That’s what obedience is about, simply fulfilling your duties to your vocation.” It sounds nice and simple when he puts it that way. Yes, simple…but not easy.
Father Basil further explained that the same idea goes for one’s prayer life. He said, “You have to schedule ‘to do.’ Schedule and do what you planned on and keep the routine. That’s it, it’s that simple. Make prayer a priority and be obedient to your rule.”
At the monastery there is a definite rhythm to life—daily, weekly, monthly, yearly—all flowing from the Church’s liturgical cycle. There can be found great freedom in the structure and routine but it isn’t as easy for everyone as it seems to be for Father Basil. I know for myself personally, keeping a rule and routine is hard. I know its value and necessity, especially with a large family, but I don’t like it. It is a battle against my own will to keep any kind of structure; I find it boring and monotonous. Learning to go with the flow and faithfully and happily keep the schedule can be a definite struggle.
Once, while on retreat with my daughter, I saw monastic obedience in action and was left with a deep impression. My daughter and I were visiting Holy Theophany Monastery. Everyone in the monastery sat down for breakfast after Matins. Once we were finished, Mother Anastasia went through the list of jobs that needed to be done and told everyone which responsibilities they had. Everyone simply accepted the work they were given and went and did it (Mother had an impressively firm but kind way of being in charge). In my case, I was told to go back to bed for an hour before taking care of my assigned job. The thought of protesting didn’t cross my mind. Keeping to the monastic schedule for the rest of the week-long retreat impressed me too. The obedience to the routine, monastic rules, and Abbess were all for a good reason, not an end in themselves but a means to free everyone to pray, worship, and care for one another by efficiently and carefully taking care of daily needs. I remind myself of this when I get annoyed by the mundane but necessary rhythm of family life and even the liturgical calendar of the Church which we follow closely.
Right now we have a newborn in our house, the entire family gets turned topsy-turvy in order to take care of the new baby’s needs. We each practice obedience in serving her, me by attending to her cry in the middle of the night, my husband by his daily work that provides for our needs, the kids by pitching in extra to allow me the time to tend to the new baby. We each have daily opportunities to serve God through others, every time we deny ourselves and fight our own self-will we are practicing obedience.
If you are Christian you must serve someone. That someone else may be your spouse, children, siblings, elderly parents, religious community etc. It will be obedience to your vocation and to where you are in life right now that will be the main means of working out your salvation. Obedience to others needs, to a group of people, to an idea larger and greater than you, this is what the Church needs of Christians, and this is how we can serve God and neighbor.
If we look at the state of our communities (families, monasteries, the local church, and the Church at large) we can see there is a real lack of Christians saying “Yes” day in and day out to community living. Divorce, the breaking down of families, the shrinking of religious orders, the crisis of faith in the Church, this is where the whole Church can learn from the virtue of obedience and it’s practice among faithful Christians. Too often we only want what we can get out of community life and are not ready to sacrifice our own will and desires for the good of the community and we are not willing to obey Church teaching. We live in a world where children are not wanted, marriages fall apart, and any kind of community rarely lasts. What seems like common sense or as Father Basil said, “simply fulfilling your duties to your vocation” is simple but not easy and will make the difference in not only your salvation but the lives and salvation of the entire Church.