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A School for the Lord’s Service: on Obedience Among Ourselves

“Let the brethren also be obedient among themselves, bearing in mind that by this way of obedience they will be journeying Godwards.”

Chapter LXXI, the Rule of Saint Benedict

Benedict says a great deal about the responsibility of the monk to be obedient to the abbot. This is not kind of grudging obedience or even subservience, but a practice of listening to a spiritual father for his wisdom. Obedience is a way of diligently attending to the word of God that the monk may learn to be God’s servant in both prayer and daily labor. Ora et labora goes the old Benedictine phrase - “work and prayer.” Both require obedience. In order to pray as a member of a community, the individual monk must submit to the demands of the praying community. In order to serve the needs of the community, the individual monk must take his turn doing dishes, carry out the responsibilities delegated to him, but do so in humility.

Benedict also speaks of another kind of obedience, not the obedience due to the abbot, but the obedience the monks hold “among themselves,” which Benedict says is the way to journeying Godwards. There are levels of authorities in place: provosts, deans, a cellarer, and one assigned to care for the sick and elderly. In addition, the junior monks are to be obedient to the older monks with “vigilant charity.” If a junior monk believes that in any way he might have been contentious, or angered an older monk, he is to throw himself before the feet of the elder, that the feeling in the elder might be healed. The elder is then to give the younger a blessing. This may seem terribly old fashioned (I assure you, it is not), but corporal punishment is prescribed as a corrective. Even in monasteries today, this corrective is either symbolically given or literally. Benedict is a realist. He knows that pride often arises from the flesh, and that it therefore must be corrected in the flesh.

What might this bring to bear on our parish life?

We live in a time in which seniority is of little value. I know of a number of priests who have crossed the threshold into their sixties and can no longer find a calling appropriate to their experience and wisdom, because search committees want a young man with a young family. They rightly complain that our praise of youth results in lack of wisdom. This is, to say the least, quite widespread. As a parish priest, I have been able to see the opposite of this kind of thinking and practice. When I was first ordained, I served under a priest in his late sixties. He was universally adored. There was no doubt who was at the helm of the parish. Having been a naval officer early in life, he ran the parish with great precision. Even the clocks were timed to sync with the naval observatory in Washington. He was a spiritual father. Younger people sought his wisdom and insight. It was clear that he loved the people of the parish deeply. This gave an example, especially to the older men in the parish, who saw it as their job to reach out to younger men as mentors, both in their professional lives as well as in their spiritual lives.

I know of a bishop in Canada who has taken this call very seriously. He has committed himself to becoming a father to the people of his diocese, especially his clergy. He knows them all very well, and spends time with them like a grandfather. In turn, the parishes of that diocese are marked by a certain reverence for older members. These sacred and familial relationships are essential to the church’s thriving. Our praise of eternal youth, what one scholar calls the juvenilization of the American church, has not served us well. Benedict echoes the wisdom of the New Testament: “You who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” (1 Peter 5:5 ESV) I have learned, as I am still a young priest, that the elders of our parish have an incredible wealth of wisdom to share.

A year or so ago, two young men in the parish, recently married, asked one of our vestry members to share her wisdom on life and marriage with them. I was quite gratified to see this organically happen. This particular member was delighted! I encourage you to do the same: seek the advice and counsel of those who have the advantage of years. There is very little value in being contentious at the end of the day. Much better to be vigilant in charity, always thinking of others as better than ourselves.

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