There are two major approaches to obedience within religious life: the monastic tradition and the apostolic tradition. It is important to realize that even though monastics and apostolics include obedience in their respective ways of life, and even if the tangible everyday results may often seem similar, or even the same, the basic theology, rationale and attitudinal direction are different.
Monastic obedience begins with a personal relationship, not an organizational structure. Monastic obedience is a relationship between the monastic and the monastic leader, and then extends to the relationship with all of the monastic community in mutual obedience. The object of monastic obedience is the seeking of God. The monastic leader is a "director of souls," not a work boss nor a manager nor a torturer. Rather, all that is done by the leader with each individual is meant to help the individual move forward in the seeking of God. When the superior commands, it is because the command is a tool for this monastic's search for God. It is not a matter of "we need it and, as a side benefit, your doing it also will help you find God." The seeking of God is not a byproduct of a command and an obedient response.
Monastic obedience involves a discerning by the monastic leader of the needs of the individual monastic. On the part of the monastic it involves a trust in the spiritual mastery and discernment of the leader. Of course, this can only happen if the leader knows the monastic, which is why the fifth step of humility is for the monastic to reveal his/her inner self to the monastic leader so that the leader knows where the monastic is on the journey to God.
When the monastic feels wronged in obedience or that the leader has not discerned correctly that person's place on the spiritual journey, the monastic is to go to the leader and discuss the matter. The leader must respond according to RB 2 as a director of souls, accommodating and adapting self to each one's character and intelligence. Thus the leader is to discern the command with the person to see if it truly fits into the monastic's journey. In this process, then, the leader must be open to the individual's journey and the monastic must trust the leader. If the final decision goes against the wishes of the monastic, the Rule then directs the monastic to trust and to identify with the Crucified Lord in obeying. The latter, however, should be a rare experience.
As we know, apostolic communities refer to their profession as "taking vows" or some similar phrase with the word vows in it. The basic vows are termed the "evangelical counsels" since they are derived from the teachings and commands of Jesus in the gospels. Obedience, however, is the most difficult vow to locate in the gospels as a precise command. There are no words of Jesus highlighting submission to another human being as a distinguishing trait of being a follower of Jesus. Yet in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was included as an evangelical counsel for the emerging apostolic communities because it was seen as the pervasive value of Jesus' life-Jesus' total obedience to God even unto death. Thus obedience as a vow identified the religious with Jesus and his life. This, of course, was not dissimilar to one of the aspects of monastic obedience.
But there were three other aspects of apostolic obedience which distinguished it from monastic obedience. First, obedience, like chastity and poverty, was a distinct vow which could be separate or connected with the other two vows. It was not dependent upon them. Monastic obedience, on the other hand, was not a vow, but an articulation of a way of life, a response to the monastic way of life-listening. Monastic obedience was inseparable from cenobitic monasticism because without it, self-will, which was the vice of the sarabaites and gyrovagues, could emerge and destroy the listening which led from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.
Secondly, apostolic obedience, like the other evangelical counsels, was meant to counteract the vices of the times in Europe: power, expensive lifestyles, opulence in buildings and art, treachery among rulers (including the popes), excessive sensuality, oppression of the poor. Thus religious life as a counter-movement renounced all of this through the evangelical counsels. Chastity counteracted sensuality; poverty counteracted wealth; and obedience counteracted power. On the other hand, the monastic equivalent of these vows was directed toward listening to God and the renunciation was aimed at self-will, not at the societal ills of medieval society.
Thirdly, apostolic obedience was functional. Augustine of Hippo, in his communities, saw obedience as a primary element of the community to bind the people together and to help society function. The functional aspect became more fully emphasized with the nineteenth-century religious congregations. Obedience was directed toward the apostolic work of the congregation since the congregation was founded for a specific work and it was through the work that the sanctification of the member would be achieved. Since monastic life was not apostolically oriented, obedience was not directed toward ministerial work nor was work the primary method of sanctification. It would seem that within the monastery, obedience was not even directed toward work unless the work assigned was part of the individual's path to God or part of the mutual obedience shared among the members of the monastery.
It seems that over the centuries, the notion of vows became accentuated within the monastic tradition. This was highlighted by canon law which classified all religious, whether apostolic or monastic, as having professed the evangelical counsels. Some monastic groups changed the traditional profession formula of the Rule to include an explicit statement of the evangelical counsels.
This attitude toward obedience changed from a search for God after both the monastic leader and the individual listened, to an attitude of functionalism. In other words, obedience was used to accomplish work or ministry. If a ministry required personnel, the leader assigned a person, even away from cenobitic living, whether the person wanted to do the work or not, wanted to leave or not, or even whether the person was qualified or not. Little attention was paid to the effect of the assignment on the personal journey of the monastic to God. The work itself, as in the apostolic tradition, would lead the person to God. Blind obedience to authoritarian commands suggested that merely because the person was obedient, the person was holy. The ancients, however, saw obedience as an expression and a step toward holiness, not the holiness.
Obedience became dissociated from the monastic journey because it lost its personal aspect. It was managerial and when this amounted to hardship it was justified because it permitted the monastic to identify with the Crucified Lord. Monastic leader and disciple became superior and subject, which led to a breakdown in the personal relationship between the monastic leader and the individual monastic to the detriment of the personal care of souls envisioned in RB 2.
Maturity, autonomy, and responsibility are some of the buzz words of our day. We no longer believe that childlike, blind, and non-responsible obedience is healthy and spiritually rewarding. We would not interpret the "ready step of obedience" in RB 5 to mean that we would be out watering sticks before the superior finished the command. Nor are we so willing to be sent unquestioningly to missions away from the monastery against our desire to live the cenobitic life. Thus have we lost the sense of obedience handed on to us from the Rule? I do not believe so. I do believe, however, that we have corrected a misconception of obedience which emerged gradually over the centuries and developed into authoritarianism, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which seems to be trying to reassert itself within the Church today.
An attitude change has been taking place within the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Since almost the beginning of the Church, especially due to the Greek influence, life has been viewed dualistically. This dualism affected early monasticism as evidence in the neo-Platonism of John Cassian, who was a conduit to the West of the teachings of the Desert Fathers and a great influence on Benedict. Neo-Platonism had a mistrust of matter, of the world and of the body, especially its sexuality. Hierarchical structures and attitudes which held that some realities were good and others bad, and that some things were "better than, higher than holier than" others found their basis in dualism.
The God of dualism, as Sister Barbara Fiand has pointed out in Living the Vision (NY: Crossroad 1990), is a patriarchal ruler, different from a parent in his wrath and remoteness (though called Father), exacting love, holding obedience as primary. . . . The God of dualism is a "mighty fortress," a "bulwark," Lord of lords, King of kings. Only consecrated ministers (men) can approach his sanctuary, and consecrated fingers touch him. His love for us is an issue of faith. He sends suffering as chastisement for "our own good" and because he loves us.
The spirituality of dualism views our body as distinct from our soul, in fact, as the soul's prison. Acts of humility and self-abnegation, as well as overall punishment of the body, are encouraged or at least suggested.
Since the Second Vatican Council, however, a different vision of the world has been emerging, one in which God's reign (basileia) is present, love is the emphasis, the world is good, and mystery and ambiguity do exist. This vision of the world was reflected in the spirituality of Benedictine mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Mechtilde of Magdeburg.
This changing vision must be reflected in attitudes of both the leader of the community and the members.
First, it seems to me that the leader must take seriously RB 2 which describes the monastic leader as a director of souls, not a manager of institutions. Thus the leader as Christ in the monastery realizes that authority is what its Latin root means: augere-to empower, build up, edify. As Christ, the leader is teacher, but teacher because he/she listens to the Lord's instructions. The teaching and the commands resulting there from are like the leaven of divine justice. Obedience is not a good itself but rather a means toward realizing conformity with the divine will. The accent of obedience actually falls not so much on the individual monastic's act of obeying as on the conformity of the leader's command with the Lord's instruction.
Second, the leader must realize that obedience is personal, involving a personal relationship between the leader and the monastic. It is a leadership of discipleship. This necessitates a knowing, caring, and loving of each member. This is especially true for abbots because males often find it difficult to know, care and love in a personal way. Nevertheless, the guidance of persons, individually and collectively, has been entrusted to the monastic leader, whether male or female.
Third, leaders need to learn from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that leadership is often exercised by use of a story and a question. The gift of a leader is to be able to ask the question, not necessarily to give the answer. Each person's journey to God is slightly different and Benedict recognizes this when he states that the monastic leader must adapt "to each one's character and intelligence." The monastic leader cannot have all the answers but can help focus the disciple on the path.
Fourth, the dialogue established between RB 68 and RB 2 needs to be respected. The monastic, as an adult, discerns the will of God through lectio, common prayer and work, the three pillars of monastic life. This must be respected and taken into account by the monastic leader when the monastic comes to discuss his/her life or some decision of the leader.
Adult obedience is the response of giving up self-centeredness. A person can only give up self-centeredness if one is mature enough to understand the decision and then to decide consciously to move from self-centeredness to God-centeredness through obedience to the monastic leader and the community.
It is important to remember that Benedict does not follow the Rule of the Master in transferring all responsibility of the monastic to the leader. RB drops those lines from RM which indicate that it is the leader who accepts responsibility for actions which the individual does in obedience. There is no substitution of wills in RB. Therefore Benedictine monastic obedience requires certain elements.
First, there is the responsibility of the monastic to seek God through listening. The monastic must discern his/her way to God and recognize that the monastic leader is a guide to assist on the journey.
Second, the monastic carries primary responsibility when asking for permissions. Merely because the leader gives a permission does not justify the matter. For example, if a monastic asks permission to fly to Europe on a vacation and receives the requisite permission, the monastic has observed neither monastic obedience nor monastic poverty merely because he/she sought the requisite permission. RB emphasizes that it is the inner spirit which counts not the outward observance.
Third, monastic obedience is not merely obedience to the monastic leader, but also obedience to the community. It seems that in our day, this aspect of obedience is primary. The individual must be responsive to the cenobitic life in its common prayer, chapter meetings, mealtimes, retreat, common gatherings, work and mutual support. It is not enough to seek from the monastic leader exemptions from the cenobitic aspects of life, not to hold oneself excused because of work. The obedient monastic is the person who is honest and acts with good intentions toward the common life of the monastery and observes that common life.
Fourth, for obedience to be a discernment to seek God, the monastic must be capable of sharing his/her journey with the monastic leader. If the leader must make decisions about a monastic in a vacuum, it is often because the monastic does not share his/her journey to God with the leader. This could be because the monastic has not arrived at an adult stage of self-image and communication. It also could be because the leader is not capable of listening to a person with the ear of his/her heart.
Fifth, the members of the community must realize that the leader of the community must make certain decisions and be responsible for them. An insistence that each member of the community partake in every decision affecting the community transforms obedience into consensus. Obedience presupposes trust. If trust is lacking within a community, the foundational relationship of a Benedictine monastery-namely living under a Rule and an abbot-has been lost. At the root of monastic obedience must be a trust, a trust toward the leader and a trust among the members of the community. Both are important and must be respected and balanced within the monastery.
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.