The brethren must render the service of obedience not only to the Abbot, but they must thus also obey one another, knowing that they shall go to God by this path of obedience. Hence, granted the command of the Abbot and of the Superiors who are appointed by him (to which we do not permit private commands to be preferred), in other respects let the younger brethren obey their elders with all charity and zeal. But if anyone is found to be obstinate, let him [sic] be punished.
And if a brother [sic] be punished in any way by the Abbot or by any of his Superiors for even a slight reason or if he perceive that the temper of any of his Superiors is but slightly ruffled or excited against him in the least, let him without delay cast himself down on the ground at his feet making satisfaction, until the agitation is quieted by a blessing. If anyone scorn to do this, either let him undergo corporal punishment, or, if he be obstinate, let him be expelled from the monastery.
If my young daughter wants to help me with the cooking, what is my response? Not enough time? What do I say to a nephew jumping in puddles? Is this a chance to join him in some fun? The way into God, the way to live into the expression of divinity, is the way of relationship and communion. If we remain unresponsive to the invitations for connection and intimacy in life, then the God-life remains unexpressed and our living is unfulfilled. The ‘path of obedience’ remains untrodden.
One half of obedience is the art of hearing with our heart the ‘heartbeat’ of divinity as it sounds in us and all. The other half is responding to this ‘heartbeat’. Evert act of obedience to the love-life of God in the world manifests this love-life, this heartbeat, in the world. Obedience is where the rubber of our Christian discipleship meets the road.
But what do I do if the request from a loved one or a community member is unreasonable? What do I do if my partner, in a fit of frustration and pride, refuses to do the loving thing? What do I do if my community leader makes what I think is an unrealistic request?
Obedience is not about allowing self to be a doormat. Obedience is not about staying in a violent, abusive relationship. Sometimes self-love trumps the commitment we may have to another. The key is to know which potential act of love is a real act of love. This can be tough, especially if we have a limited inner experience of real love. Living life contemplatively is all about providing the space for the experience of this real (divine) love to happen.
Meditation is a vital part of providing and sustaining this contemplative space. It helps us to shape our lives in conformity to this space. The more room for this space in our lives, the more our lives become prayer.
Mutual obedience in love, ideally, is about revering and responding together from our deeper selves. The deeper self is that place of authenticity in God that a contemplative life grounds us in. This kind of mutual obedience is not about relating to each other predominantly from egocentric patterns of fear, insecurity, and manipulation.
In the ‘real world’ of human relating, however, the ideal is illusive. What could our response be to our struggling partner, the demanding community member? Perhaps we might react from our own egocentric habits and patterns. There is, after all, the threat of being used, of being taken for granted. A lifetime’s experience of unjust relating can rear its head.
The blessing in obedience is often found in practicing a going beyond our own sense of things to risk being a participant in a broader context: a world of spontaneous kindness and other focused attention. If we have a focused stability on the deep love-life that is self and God in union within us, we can grow in acting from this love, even when the other is not. Sometimes loving someone as they are here and now is a far better thing than promoting what we might consider the ‘higher good’ or the ‘just thing’. We may, of course, need to re-consider if the ways we are attempting to love are contributing to the entrenchment of another’s egocentric agenda.
A commitment to mutual obedience can show us that we are not the be all and end all, in and of ourselves. Our perceptions can be limited. What is going on in me if I am not listening to the other, not engaging them in dialogue? Why am I trying to ‘drag someone to what I think is right?’
This chapter of the Rule also speaks of a sensitivity of perception that can happen in relating. Sometimes here in the house we sense that the way we relate to each other has changed. We may be able to ‘pin it down’ to an event, a moment of relating. At other times it’s not so straight forward. Someone, for a while at least, maybe showing in body language and tone of voice that they are struggling with someone else. This often passes, hopefully because the other has somehow worked through their difficulty. At other times the struggle may build to a point of eruption and/or discussion. Living together while committed to each other helps us to experience the difference between changes that resolve with minimal fuss and ones that need to be talked out. This is all part of maturing in relationship.
For Benedict the respect for a community leader and the community elders must always be first. Any perception of a change in the way of relating that pulls against this respect must be dealt with straight away. Here, in this circumstance at least, Benedict leaves no room for a mysterious tension to resolve itself. Today we seem to have largely lost this respect for leadership and age. There seems to be little reverence for the gift of wisdom that age can bring, and little tolerance for a leader growing into their role.
The Rule here shows us that in listening and responding to each other there is always active the mystery of going to God – even when what is going on in us can make this listening and responding too difficult. If we can attend gently to this interior challenge, and with support, we can notice in us what gets in the way of obedience to love – even when the other is far from this love themselves. Obedience is cultivated as we attend and respond to what is happening within us.
With grace obedience can become the way we love ourselves and each other with God and into God. If we can love first, before presumption and judgement, some of the mystery, uniqueness, hurt, and blindness of us and our neighbour, then we become a loving presence –for ourselves, our partner, our children, our community member, the stranger. Most of the time this is enough.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mathew 22:36-40)