Abbot Philip serves at Christ in the Desert monastery in New Mexico. I’m often encouraged and enriched by his reflections. I’m sometimes deeply challenged by his male perspective and his sense of traditionalism. His reflections below on the nature of obedience — which bring so many issues for me as a woman — are nevertheless insightful and ultimately freeing for me.
“Sometimes people who are not monks find it difficult to understand any value to obedience. When I was a young monk, I had all kinds of questions about obedience and was not sure that I could ever obey wholeheartedly. Yes I always obeyed. When I came up for solemn vows, my abbot told me that the other solemnly professed (the Chapter) was not convinced that I would ever obey anyone. So we talked about obedience. At the end of the talk, the abbot assured me that I did always obey. He also told me, however, that I seemed to have to question things before I obeyed.In Chapter 5 of the Rule of Saint Benedict, it says that the first degree of humility is obedience without delay. As soon as the superior asks something, the monk immediately tries to do it. Well, that took a long time for me to understand. It is important to understand that the Rule of Benedict is a living document and describes a living community. Saint Benedict will say something in one place and then say something else in another place, and they don’t always fit together so very well in a way that satisfies rigorous logic. But the Rule is not about rigorous logic.
The ideal is obedience without delay. On the other hand, if the monk realizes that he probably cannot do what is asked, or is asked to do things that seem impossible to him, then he must speak to his superior and tell him that. This seems to contradict obedience without delay, but it is another aspect of obedience that must be taken into account.
For a monk, obedience is a living relationship with a human superior that eventually brings the monk a deep and abiding inner freedom. That is how it is supposed to work! And it can actually work that way, but only if the monk is willing embrace obedience and go through the suffering.
This same dynamic seems to be at work in the whole of the spiritual life. We must see the goal and then hand ourselves over to achieving the goal. The work ends up being the work of God but we have to keep on trying with the right intentions. The only intention worthwhile is doing God’s will with joy.
My personal reality is that I can often see what I should do and yet I find myself not doing it. Sometimes with prayer, I manage to carry out what I know I should do. Yet I find a deep resistance at times. It is not a resistance against grace. It is a resistance sometimes because I do not like to upset others. At other times it is a resistance because I am not sure what will happen if I do what I think that I ought to do. Over many, many years, slowly this resistance is wearing down so that now, in my older age, I find that more often than not, I am able to do what I should do, even though I still find strong inner resistance.
So experience is that grace truly does work together with nature. We have to want to be healed at the level of our humanity as well as want to do God’s will. Praying to God without dealing with our humanity is a way of denying God even as we pray to Him. Years ago there was a book entitled Holiness is Wholeness by a Catholic priest, Josef Goldbrunner. It was a short book and all I remember about it is that it made the point that human wholeness is intimately related to being holy.
The goal of doing God’s will is not human wholeness but union with God. Those who are completely broken humanly can still have union with God. On the other hand, union with God draws us to human wholeness because following Jesus engages every aspect of our humanity and insists on every aspect of our humanity developing in a given situation.
Of I sense the same reality in our monastic life. If a brother really strives to live the monastic life with all of his energies, slowly his humanity also develops and becomes whole in some way. A monk who takes our life seriously learns how to read, how to sing, how to be sensitive to others, how to do various craft projects, how to be with others in a gracious way, etc.
All of this brings us back to spirituality. Spirituality is not psychological development. On the other hand, an honest spirituality brings about deep psychological development, little by little. Monastic life is not about psychological development and yet, when well lived, monastic life brings about a healthy psychological development of the individual.
As always, I know that I have a long ways to go both in psychological development and in spiritual development. Yet I trust in the Lord that He will take me where He wants me.”–Abbot Philip, Christ in the Desert