I HAVE COME DOWN FROM HEAVEN NOT TO DO MY WILL BUT THE WILL OF HIM WHO SENT ME (John 6: 38). St. Benedict cites this text from the Gospel of St. John in the 5th Chapter of his Rule for Monks, On Obedience. This topic is of fundamental importance for St. Benedict who considers the practice of obedience to a Rule and an abbot to be a defining feature of cenobitic life. In the first chapter of his Rule he describes the kinds of monks in the following terms. " The first kind is that of cenobites, that is monastic, engaging in battle under a rule and an abbot." The name cenobite is a transliteration from the Greek term meaning common life, so that it is hardly surprising that our legislator in his same chapter on Obedience describes the fervent monks as preferring the will of another to his own.

Accordingly, such men as these, leaving immediately their own affairs and putting aside their self will (voluntatem propriam) with their hands quickly freed and leaving their task unfinished follow the voice of the one giving orders with their acts and with the prompt foot of obedience.

The translation of the expression voluntatem propriam as self will is significant. It is misleading to render it as "one's own will", as Fr. Terrence Kardong points out in a recent article in which he corrects his own earlier translation of this phrase. Self will is a misuse of one's free will in the service of some unworthy interest. It implies a stubborn adherence to a desire or opinion that is heedless of the good of others, and is opposed to the common good. Already nearly two centuries earlier than Benedict's treatment of this question St. Basil had stressed in the Longer Rules for his fraternities that it is essential not only for those who leave the world but for all Christians to obey what is decided for the common good. He states the matter in terms that leave no room for exception for anyone whose hope is in the Lord and in the world to come.

Just as to choose for oneself has been shown to be unfitting, so not to accept what has been allotted by others is condemned. Moreover if any man has an art, but his exercise of it does not please the brotherhood, let him readily cast it away and show that he has no attachment to anything in this world. Because to do the desires of one's mind is the mark of one that has no hope, according to the world of the apostle: but to be obedient in everything is worthjy of acceptation. (The Longer Rules XLI, The Ascetic Works of St. Basil, W.K.L. Clarke, 213).

On the other hand, the exercise of the faculty of choice, the will, in Latin, voluntas or liberum arbitrium, as St. Bernard prefers to term it, is the very organ by the proper use of which we recover that likeness to God that constitutes holiness and is a condition of salvation. When St. Benedict tells us in the Instruments of Good Works that we are "to hate voluntatem propriam" (Ch. 4.59) he certainly means self will and not simply "our own will", which is a possible translation of the words but does not convey the sense he intends. It is sufficiently misleading to render it as "one's own will", that some time after Fr. Terrence Kardong published this translation, he felt obliged to write an article in which he corrects his own version.[cf T.G. Kardong, "Self-will in Benedict's Rule,"Studia Monastica 42 (2000),319-46]. He considers St. Benedict's teaching to be distorted by any implication that the monk is to renounce the use of his own will and judgment altogether. The Rule of the Master, on the other hand, makes a great deal of the fact that practically all cultivation of one's own will is to be renounced by the cenobite. This gives a decidedly over-controlling character to the role of the abbot in his teaching. While Benedict takes many features from the Master, he pointedly assigns a more positive role to the active use of the will by the monk in his spiritual development. This position is much more compatible with the modern temper which rightly gives prominence to the duty of each person to take responsibility for his own life and development. Obedience is not an abdication of the use of the will but a free choice (liberum arbitrium) to submit to thc judgment and decision of another who represents Christ for him.

This is made evident in the way he treats the practice of obedience in Benedict's chapter on that topic. He gives as the primary motive force for obedience the love of Christ: Here are the opening lines of this chapter. "The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This befits those who consider nothing more dear to them than Christ because of the holy service they have professed..." Only after making the motivation that is the fruit of a free choice clear does he speak of "not living by own judgment" and "refusing obedience to his own desires and pleasures". He goes on then to add that the monk "walks according to the judgment and command of another, lives in a cenobium and desires to have an abbot rule over him".

St. Benedict

One source of the confusion that has accompanied the practice of monastic obedience is the fact that the psychology of the will and its relation to the passions, especially to concupiscence and to pride, was not clearly worked out. In fact, the word voluntas as used by the Rule of the Master is ambiguous. At times it refers to the faculty of human choice; but it is also employed to mean concupiscence. St. Benedict himself does not always avoid the confusion attendant upon this ambiguity of the term, though he certainly was aware of the problem and usually manages to avoid the serious problems arising from such confusion, in chapter 33.4 of his Rule, his radical language, when read in isolation from the rest of the Rule, can readily be misinterpreted. There he writes that the monks are to possess absolutely nothing that they call their own since "not even their bodies nor their wills are held under their own power." This is obviously true in the sense that the monk is held to get permission for his acts and is under obligation to serve God's plan and purposes in all his choices.

However, the monk, like every other Christian still retains the duty to interpret orders, to decide if they are in conformity with God's law and to make the free choice to carry out what is ordered. Moreover, obedience in practice tends to concern itself with duties in general and still leaves the individual free to make the many daily decisions necessary to carry out the functions of his charge. For example, the infirmarian is given charge of the sick under obedience but, except for following doctors orders and other occasional directives given by the abbot, he is left on his own to arrange the many details involved in caring for the sick. The same is true of every other assignment, such as novice-master, bakery manager, landscape gardener, porter and the rest. Thus there is much scope for initiative, dedication, ingenuity and fidelity in the manner of obeying. The generous and effective application to duty will always be a function of individual character, the measure of insight into one's gifts and limits, and, above all, the fervor of selfless love.

Obviously, then, obedience is not only a matter of renouncing one's self-will; it entails the engagement of one's whole heart and the employment of the mind and the natural endowments given by God to each in differing measure. There is much scope then for the personal creativity involved in the art of life in the practice of obedience in all fields of life, and that is no less true of monastic life. We find countless instances of such obedience in the lives of the saintly abbots and monks in the history of our Order. Not only in the case of those who became influential writers such as St. Bernard and William of St. Thierry, but also the capable men who administered the various offices of the hundreds of monastic communities through the centuries and in various parts of the world. At the same time as using their talents in the service of their communities and of the local Churches, they so obeyed as to grow in faith, in humility and gentleness so that many were sanctified by their way of living out their vow of obedience.

Obedience rightly understood and practiced, far from leading to a loss of personal freedom, is an instrument of liberty of spirit. As Jesus himself taught, obedience is a form of love, a deliberate self-surrender to another whose authority one honors. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments", he told his apostles. Nothing so contributes to inner liberty as acting from love of a worthy, virtuous person. We are so conditioned to think of love in terms of emotion and passion that we overlook the place of obedience in all true love. Intelligent, active and willing compliance with the express desire of another is at once an expression of love and a stimulus to love more on the part of the subject. At the same time, such obedience gives rise to appreciation and love on the part of the one obeyed.

Employed in this fashion, obedience is an essential and highly effective practice in the process of transformation of the Christian. It engages the individual at the deepest center of his conscious self, where those decisions are made which determine the quality and even the meaning of life. When this obedience is freely and deliberately given in faith to God's will as manifested through the commands of authority recognized as speaking for God, it serves to enhance love and thus contributes to restore the likeness to God which is the goal of the spiritual life. That means that when undertaken in the dynamic manner described here, such obedience contributes to the full development of the true self.

Obedience then, properly understood, is one of the major paradoxes of the Christian life. Just as Jesus had taught that he who loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will save it, so also he showed by his life that he who surrenders his self-will to the will of God in obedience, attains to union with God in the resurrection. The way to the fullness of life is not through independent self-assertion and the gratification of desires; on the contrary, it is the way of self-denial, of renunciation of self-will which is, according to Saints Basil and Benedict, the negative condition for obedience, and, the more positive engagement of the heart in carrying out the will of God in the specific way enjoined by his representative.

In the manner of exercising authority in our present-day the superior is expected to communicate his reasons for imposing some task or duty under obedience. This way of proceeding is an expression of respect for the other and at the same time calls forth his fuller cooperation both of mind and spirit. Whenever possible the issuing of an obedience should be undertaken not only with the practical aim of getting some necessary task done or position filled, but with a view to the spiritual good of the person who is to obey. Thus the superior will take care to avoid even the appearance of any arbitrary use of authority, and take pains to explain not only what is expected to be done but how and why that particular charge is given.

But life does not always admit of what is evidently in keeping with the seemingly reasonable. There are any number of causes that can make a particular course of action appear to be quite contrary to reason or common sense to the subject and yet, for motives that the superior finds convincing, be the proper decision to make. St. Benedict evidently had encountered such situations himself more than once. He makes his own the Rule of the Master when he dealt with the case where the monk feels that too much is asked of him or when he feels treated slightingly or even unjustly. But it is precisely in such a situation that the virtue of obedience finds fullest scope and leads to the greatest spiritual profit. For this is the kind of obedience practiced by Christ himself in his passion.

The fourth degree of humility is when for the sake of obedience one embraces patience with a quiet conscience things that are hard and contrary or even imposed with insults, and does not grow weary in his endurance or cease to obey.

Later in his life, after longer experience as abbot, Benedict returns to this topic and devotes a whole chapter to treating it in words of his own. Evidently he had discovered that this kind of situation was of great moment in the monastic life. It could prove to be a most serious temptation against one's vocation but also a major opportunity for spiritual advancement if properly negotiated.. His words here are evidently based on some cases that had proved to be quite challenging and unpleasant both for himself and for the monks concerned on the different occasions when they arose. His text reads in part as follows.


If some heavy or impossible things are enjoined on some brother, let him receive with all meekness and obedience the order of the one in command. But if its weight seems altogether to surpass the measure of his strength he is to present his reasons for the impossibility to the superior with patience and at an opportune time, while avoiding all pride, resistance and contradiction. If, even after this suggestion, the superior should persist in his command, let the subject know that it is in his interest and let him obey out of charity trusting in the help of God.

This type of obedience certainly requires a fresh and deeply engaging commitment in faith to God's Providence. It can also prove to be the only way a person will in fact be purified and transformed in the deeper recesses of the heart. So long as we remain in charge of our choices or only open our self to those situations that accord with our way of seeing and reasoning, we remain inevitably limited in our spiritual horizons. The Infinite God himself must become the horizon of our inner life. Total transformation requires that we go beyond our reason and rely on God's promises. This process can assume many different forms, such as the dark night of the senses and later of the soul; but often it comes upon people through events of life, including the requirements of fidelity to duty, and or to vows, whether religious or marital, in circumstances where reason can readily justify an alternative course to submission from the heart and the act of obedience.

Karl Rahner has shown how such dutiful fidelity under adverse circumstances is the form that a transcendent, mystical experience of God assumes in the lives of many who, however, do not think of themselves as mystics. He refers to this kind of knowledge of God as the mysticism of everyday life. The Little Flower certainly understood this kind of union with God's will and made it her particular way of transformation with what complete success we all know. Motivated by a loving faith she attained to the heights of divine union through her obedience in all the ordinary situations of everyday existence. Love and heroic faith, not remarkable or striking events, are the ingredients of true holiness of life and lead to that fulfillment of the person which is the honor of God and of man. Expressed in a different style and language, and using a vocabulary deriving from another culture, St. Benedict teaches a way that also emphasizes the ordinary, and the central role of obedience. May we travel that path in fidelity to this teaching which sums up the Gospel of Jesus and may we thus attain to life everlasting in the kingdom of the Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

[abbey crest]

Abbey of the Genesee

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