Obedience – Part I

Obedience in our contemporary Western world sounds archaic, outdated, undemocratic even. Why should we obey anyone else other than ourselves?
Obedience in our contemporary Western world sounds archaic, outdated, undemocratic even. Why should we obey anyone else other than ourselves? “To thine own self be true”. In a society where freedom and in particular freedom of the individual, is held up as the highest good, obedience and submission can seem like dirty words.

It’s interesting to look at the etymology of the word obedience in Latin, oboedire:  ob = towards; oedire = “to hear”, meaning “to hear or listen towards”. This can be interpreted as listening or hearing towards something other or external to the self, listening or hearing away from the self. This can be quite challenging in a culture where the self is seen as the central reference point, where individualism and the freedom to ‘be yourself’ are the values par excellence.

The Rule of St Benedict refers to obedience in several points and on several levels, and its importance is highlighted in the Rule’s commitment to the three vows of stability, conversion and obedience. The Rule is an extremely practical document, more of a manual on relationship and a ‘how-to’ live in community that brings us closer to God than a theoretical, abstract treatise. But this document was written for monastics in the 6th century in a completely different cultural, social and political context- could it possibly still speak to us today especially on the contentious term of obedience?

Perhaps only in trying to live it can the true value of obedience within a spiritual context be discovered. Meditatio House, a lay community trying to live the Rule of St Benedict in a contemporary and relevant way, has been the place for me where I have made this discovery. Coming to live in a community like Meditatio House, we can be surprised that there is a certain way of doing things which must more or less be conformed to. Individualism is challenged in a very practical way when living in community. For example we may disagree with or find difficult to accept the  certain level of cleanliness to be maintained in the house, or that we must always negotiate days off and time away, or find that the three times a day meditation is too much; or even more banally that the house doesn’t always have our favourite cereal.

If we complain about why we can’t do things our own way as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, we can miss the whole point of having a communal standard in the house that has to be lived up to: which is, to take us away from the focus on ourselves, to take us away from the habit of always trying to make the environment around us conform to our expectations and desires. It is a vision of community that involves a training in moving away from the self, a training in being less self-regarding and self-indulgent. The experience of living in community is a discipline in transcending ourselves in the detailed routine of everyday life through both ora (prayer) and labora (work). It is acesis, or training in a very hands-on way, reflecting the Rule’s radically incarnational and practical nature. We try to live the rule, rather than just theorise about it.

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