Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

The Virtue of Obedience

by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB


"[The monk] shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: 'I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.'" Rule of St. Benedict  7.32

As virtues go, even a cursory read of the holy Rule of St. Benedictwill make evident that obedience is essential to Benedictine life and spirituality, a characteristically monastic discipline to which he devotes a whole chapter in his Rule  (RB 5).

Some scholars of the Rule  are convinced that obedience is Benedict's number one virtue, bar none. But that's not an easy sell among today's younger generation of American monastics who were raised in a more egalitarian ethos.

Starting with my own, very middle-aged generation, who were still young children during the post-Vietnam/Watergate era of the early '70s, each successive generation since has demonstrated a more open, more accepting-of-differences attitude toward others, which is a grace. But, along with that grace, these generations have become ever more distrusting of powerful institutions, which, according to various polls taken by demographers, have proven themselves to these younger adults as not worthy of trust.

The Church is one of those institutions - which is understandable given the ethical scandals uncovered in the past couple decades, which for many remain unsatisfactorily addressed. All of this attitudinal change has made some of the younger adults within monastic communities a little less comfortable, perhaps, that obedience is regarded as so crucial to monastic life, or even, I would claim, to Christian life in general.

Some of this dis-ease stems from a narrow understanding of obedience gleaned from society's popular culture, where obedience is alleged to be a limitation to one's personal freedom. Let me suggest that monastic obedience - or truly Christian obedience - is an expression of freedom, rather than its constraint. Monastic obedience is not about bending one's will to that of another simply for the sake of order.

Properly understood, Benedictine obedience is a spiritual discipline, mentioned in Benedict's list of "tools for good works" (RB 4) where monks are urged to "renounce yourself in order to follow (imitate) Christ," and to "hate the urgings of self-will." Thus having the nature of a "virtue" - a habitual disposition that opposes vice precisely because it expresses Godly love - obedience is given as a free "gift-of-self" for the sake of what is good or best for another.  

The second step of the "ladder of humility" described in RB 7 requires that the monk "love not his own will, nor take pleasure in the satisfaction of his own desires." This verse appears just before the one I quote in the header, which, along with this verse, sets the context for truly virtuous obedience, the quality of obedience St. Benedict touts as his supreme monastic attribute.

So bending one's will is, first of all, about imitating Jesus Christ, the exemplar of virtue par excellence for the monk, and for any Christian. To listen carefully to the directives of legitimate authority and act out of humble obedience becomes a way to imitate Christ, who let go of his own preference for things in favor of his Father's will - seen most clearly in Jesus' prayerful exchange with his Abba (Father) in the garden of Gethsemane. To surrender our own preferences for those of legitimate authority (the abbot, the prior, or God, which is the case for obeying one's conscience) is an act that makes us "like Christ!"

To become more Christ-like is precisely the purpose of any vocation in the Church. To be free to love requires that we bend our will to serving the good of others: the brother or sister, neighbor and stranger, and especially the least among us, as well as the community. To do this conscientiously as a way of imitating Christ makes it an act that unites one to Christ, and ennobles our obedience with the spirit of Christ's own obedience.

To imitate Christ is to act like God, and to realize one's truth as likeness to God - actualizing our authentic selves - because that's what the Creator had in mind for each one of us from the beginning, since God intended even before the world came to be that each human person would be God's image and likeness dwelling in the world. This is the very basis of authentic humility!

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.