Obedience Is a Blessing

Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
Thursday, September 14, 2023

"Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot, but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God." 
Rule of St. Benedict (71.1-2)

In the past, I have directed a retreat for the Sisters of the Divine Redeemer at their motherhouse in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. This small religious household is made up mostly of elderly sisters in retirement, some of them infirm with age, with a number of younger sisters who take care of them and administer the property. They are blessed to have a retired priest as their full-time chaplain; he was able to take a week of vacation while I directed the sisters' retreat. 

I was truly blessed and deeply moved to see "how they love one another" and to observe how the younger sisters seem to compete with one another in tending to the immediate needs of the more elderly and infirm sisters. It reminds me of what St. Benedict says about the good zeal of monks in RB 72: "They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior, competing in obedience to one another." 

In the sisters' refectory, I found myself almost transfixed during meals, which that week they took in silence, as I watched how they ministered to one another, acutely aware of what each sister's particular needs were. When a napkin or utensil was inadvertently dropped by an infirm sister, it never remained on the floor more than a second or two before another sister raced, without fuss, to pick it up.

Dishes got cleared away by whomever was finished eating first, so their elder sisters didn't have to carry their dishes and utensils to the dish carts themselves. Younger sisters pushed wheelchairs to get the infirm to the conferences on time, they assisted the older sisters with their prayer books in the chapel, and they brought holy communion to the infirm sisters where they sat so they didn't have to queue up with their walkers or wheelchairs. 

The conferences I presented were on the topic of Christian hospitality. Usually, we think of hospitality as the care we give to guests - receiving them as Christ, as St. Benedict says we ought to (RB 53.1). But, for St. Benedict, hospitality begins at home; that is, it starts in the community by being practiced by the members of the community receiving each other as Christ. Community is a powerful word that means to be together as one body. It means to participate in a shared life together. When we treat one another as Christ, we are "making real" the fact that we are one body, in Christ

With care and concern, responding to one another's needs, we practice what Chapter 71 of the holy Rule is entitled: "mutual obedience." By "obey," Benedict means to listen carefully and respond to the needs of one another, or to respond to "the demands of charity" as manifested in the present moment - the here and now. When we are attentive to the needs of others - no matter how small they may be - we lose sight of ourselves and the egoistic-self dies a little death. This dying is rising - the Paschal Mystery - and it is precisely in this manner of dying-and-rising through obedience to the needs of the brother or the sister that we go to God.