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Christian Obedience: Beyond the Basics

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Obedience has fallen on hard times. While the word is still used by Christians, it is rarely understood in a healthy manner. To most people it means surrendering all responsibility for actions and behavior. Either they believe that no one in their right mind should do this, or they embrace something like a cult, believing that giving up all responsibility is the only way for Christians to act.

But does true Christian obedience mean surrendering responsibility? We know from looking at the English word “obedience,” that it comes from the Latin obaudire, which means to listen well. Many languages do not have separate words for listening and obedience. Only as English speakers have lost touch with the roots of their language, have they gradually slipped into this separation and misunderstanding.

Let us look at the results of this misunderstanding and see if there is not another way to approach this whole subject.

I believe that the most obvious result of our culture’s misunderstanding of obedience is a breakdown in relationships. Because we may rightly fear such giving up of all personal responsibility, we have an unconscious aversion to getting close to almost anyone, knowing that rightly or wrongly, obedience is at the heart of relationships. We fear that our own God-given self will be threatened by others; that we will not be able to grow into our God-given gifts and potential if we live and work closely in contexts such as marriage, a family, a parish or a monastery. I believe this helps to explain the statistical explosion, even for otherwise-practicing Christians, of “live-in” relationships without commitment often accompanied by inhuman work schedules euphemistically referred to as “careers” or “professions.”

But is it true that committed relationships limit our growth and personalities? Are we deformed by sacrificing for the sake of others some of the ways we might use our gifts and talents? Is the choice to give up a pet dream, in order to make time for work to help support a family or community, necessarily deadening? Or on the other hand, is setting aside a career in order to have time to raise our children or care for our elders necessarily less self-fulfilling? Is putting ourselves under monastic obedience the end of our God-given personal growth and creativity?

I would say “No” to all of the above questions. As Christians, we believe that God calls every one of us into being, and by this creating call, wills us to live and work in a community of love. Any tasks we may perform, any words we may use, any attitudes we may hold, are sterile at best if we see ourselves “fulfilled” in isolation. As human beings, we are made by God to be capable of growing into our full potential only in communion with others. We know that this is critically true of infants, who will die from simple lack of human attention, even if they are given adequate food and shelter. It is true also of adults who believe they have reached a level of maturity where they no longer need others. Their self-chosen tasks, whether practical or artistic, can lead to ultimate insanity and death if this course of isolation is uncompromisingly pursued.

Yet how do we work out our salvation in communion with others? How do we avoid the pitfalls of isolation on the one hand, and abusive, destructive relationships on the other?

I believe that we begin by learning literally to repent and to obey. The English word “repent” in Scripture translates the Greek word metanoia, or “change one’s mind (or heart).” According to our faith, to grow into the fullness of being means an eternity of such change and growth from the fallen human nature we inherit into participation in the fullness of God’s own nature. This was the first call of Christ when He began to preach: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

In this Biblical sense, repentance and true obedience go hand in hand. We must “listen” in order to hear the word of repentance.

Perhaps, then, the best working definition of obedience for us today is “responsible listening.” Through the obedience of responsible listening, we begin to learn our limitations as well as our strengths and potential. However, listening does us no good if we do not respond appropriately. I would submit that true Christian obedience is a dialogue. All persons involved in obedience must listen and respond appropriately. A husband or wife who makes demands without seeing or listening to the needs of the other spouse or family members becomes a tyrant and abuser, rather than the head of the household. The same is true of a monastic superior. Members of a family, a monastery, or a parish should not exist only to fulfill or serve the needs, desires or whims of the person with some kind of “authority.” Christ Himself came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28), and we can have no greater authority than His.

Since my own experience of obedience has been gained within the monastery, I will write of that experience. From what I have learned however, it seems that the nature of obedience is the same both in monasteries and in families. I trust that what I write will also make sense to those who are not monastics. Those who through circumstances or choice are not members of either a family or a monastery may need to be more creative in discovering their own obedience, within a parish or other church family, at work or with neighbors. All of us need to learn to listen and respond with our heads and our hearts together.

For a monastic, the obedience of responsible listening and responding appropriately begins before entering the monastery. A person may perceive a call from God. Such a perceived call should always lead to repentance and newness of life. But in the beginning, we never fully understand the direction to which God is calling us. In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus tells us that this is a blessing – if we could see the trials and difficulties ahead of us, we would never begin (Step 1:24).

In addition, he tells us that when we are seekers, we ourselves have vices and pride that need correction. Therefore we must “test, as it were, the superior,” before placing ourselves under obedience to him or her, so that we do not mistake a sick man for a doctor, or a sailor for the pilot of the ship (Step 4:6). For most of us, this means first visiting several monasteries to get a perspective on the life and on those who will be guiding us in it. We need to ask questions and think things through. We should be looking for a monastery where we will be supported in a lifetime of repentance. We also need to understand that those responsible for the life of the monastery will be asking questions and thinking things through with us as well.

It is not inappropriate to ask at least as many questions as we would ask before taking a new job. We should assume nothing in the beginning and seek advice from others as well as making our own observations. We should look at those who have been formed by the life of the monastery over a period of time. Are these people who can lead us by precept or example? We should talk with those outside who are familiar with the monastery; check its references, as it were, just as we can expect our own to be checked. We need to be able to trust and talk openly and freely with those who will be responsible for our souls. Does the person who will be our mentor listen to us and respond appropriately to our questions? Does he or she in turn ask questions to learn about us?

How we approach our entry into monastic life (or marriage) may lead to success or failure. We should realize that the commitment of a lifetime needs a well-built foundation. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we hear the Lord telling us that we should be “… like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.” (Luke 6:48) Later in that Gospel He speaks again about preparation: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 27-33)

It is interesting to see that in St. Luke, the ability to bear our own cross and renounce all that we have is equated with having the resources to begin a new endeavor. Indeed, this is at the heart of obedience. If we begin any undertaking, great or small, simply by reckoning up our own natural gifts and talents, or the possessions and wealth we may have acquired, we will not achieve anything great for the Lord. We must be willing to surrender all that we are and all that we have; to spend and be spent. Again in St. Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25)

In whatever we undertake, our first obedience must be to Christ. We need to ask His guidance through prayer and searching the Scriptures, taking His words to heart before we begin our journey. If we read and re-read the Old and New Testaments with prayer and try to understand words such as “obedience” from their context, rather than simply reading our own contemporary misunderstandings into the context, we may be surprised at what we find. The same will be true as we read the other Christian scriptures: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the classics of St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom and St. John Climacus, down through the writings of the saints for two thousand years into our own times. A good guide will question us about our reading and point out references we might well miss on our own as we lay our foundation in obedience.

We in monasteries who mentor women and men seeking to test their vocations must likewise cultivate honesty and awareness. We should not lead people on when we know our monastery cannot meet their needs. Perhaps we can help them find another monastery better equipped to handle their special gifts and talents as well as their limitations, or perhaps we should help them accept another direction in their life.

If we are in a position of authority, we need to be aware that not everyone is able to trust us and work with us. We are not God, and if we sense that a person does not respect us, and the authority we represent, we should not take them on. They cannot grow without the respect and trust in their mentors that alone lead to responsible obedience.

By the same token, respect and trust normally take time to develop. A quick “love at first sight” relationship may be superficial at best, and certainly needs to be tested. Both superiors and candidates (and couples in love) may be unaware that what seems to be openness and candor can hide unknown depths. Very few people are given the gift of complete self-knowledge. We are all wounded, and God knows that we can come to see our own fallen selves only gradually. The deeper the wounds and hurts, the longer will be the healing process. When major surgery is required for complete mending, the patient usually needs a long period of time to get in shape for the procedure. In my experience, the people with the deepest wounds may look the nicest on the surface: They may not even realize the extent of their inner damage and turmoil. They sense only a great need to keep up a pleasant exterior, and that absorbs all of their energy.

A truly healthy person in this fallen universe is not free of troubles and illness, but rather has the awareness necessary to use the medicines and therapies appropriate to his or her situation. A monastic superior should rarely, if ever, try to take away such medicines and therapies. It is true that a person ought not to continue the use of crutches after healing has taken place, but an outsider can rarely have the intuitive knowledge to discern when that moment has come. The best we can do is question and encourage – and accept that there will be some people whose illnesses are too severe to be handled with our monastery’s resources. God has other plans for them.

This process of discernment at the start of a person’s monastic vocation is critical if obedience is to be freely given. If obedience is forced; if a person’s responses to what he or she hears are based on fear rather than freedom and love, a faulty foundation has been laid. A critical time always comes for such a person when the reason for this fear has been removed. Someone may eventually perceive, for example, that they could survive as a Christian in the world; that they will not be damned to hell if they leave the monastery. This is a common reason why many people suddenly leave the monastery even after many years, with little or no warning -- especially those who have outwardly appeared to be very “obedient,” always doing as they were told without questioning or complaining. If there had been more dialogue, if someone had known their thoughts and difficulties, if their obedience had literally been more “response-able,” they might have had the freedom to choose monastic life again on a solid basis when their fear left them.

St. Benedict, a Sixth Century monastic guide who lived in the West yet drew on the wisdom of the Eastern Desert Fathers, sets out some definite guidelines for obedience within the monastery, once the discernment has been made that a person should enter and test their vocation. He states that the abbot or superior shall do nothing without taking counsel (The Rule, Chapter 3). He further states that if the superior asks someone to take on a task, if that person believes the task to be beyond their capabilities, they should say so, with all respect and courtesy (The Rule, Chapter 68). This is absolutely necessary for responsible obedience. We may know something our superior does not know, and if we withhold this knowledge, then the failure of our task lies with us, not with those who have asked us to perform it. On the other hand, others may see strengths and potentials within us that we cannot see ourselves. Very often, after hearing the objections of a monastic, a superior may nevertheless encourage the person to try a difficult task. If we trust our superior, we may well discover gifts we had not realized we had. And even if the task is beyond our best efforts, we (and our superior) will have learned something, both about the task and about our own limitations. Thus obedience can also lead to true humility, the greatest gift of Christian life.

Especially at the beginning of our monastic life, before we “know the ropes,” in addition to voicing our doubts and objections, we need to ask further questions about our obedience. Does the person giving us our task (who may not be the superior of the monastery) want us to go ahead on our own, finding and using the appropriate tools and procedures? Or does she want us to work under her direction, using the procedures and tools she recommends? If we want to learn the ways of the monastery and learn to work with our sisters, we should be ready to accept either approach. As adults, we should realize that obedience is not a power struggle between two persons, but rather a dialogue by which the will of God is discerned in things both small and great.

On the side of those in authority, those who direct or give tasks to others in the monastery must make sure that the resources of time and tools are available. Miracles can and do happen when monastics obey impossible requests out of humility, love and trust. Nevertheless, we must be sure we would be willing to follow a direction ourselves before we give it to others. If we have not proved that we can be obedient, how can we even know how to ask such obedience of others? In such an atmosphere of understanding and trust, all those living within the monastery, superiors and others, will find themselves challenged to grow beyond their self-imposed limitations and grow into the fullness of their God-given potential.

It should be obvious in this setting that a superior cannot claim to voice the will of God and speak in the Holy Spirit if she herself is unwilling to listen. She may need to make an unpopular decision, but when she believes that is necessary, she must be very certain that she is basing the decision on more than her own knowledge. The greater the decision, the greater will be her need for counsel. And if the decision will affect the ongoing life of the monastery, then she needs to hear the thoughts and feelings of every person in it, including the most recent arrival. (Cf. The Rule, St. Benedict, chapter 3)

While her own obedience does mean that she is to make the final decisions within the monastery, if she does not make them in an appropriate way, responding to situations and people first with listening and prayer, those decisions will be to her condemnation. She needs to remember that the monastery is not hers, but God’s, and that the salvation and welfare of her sisters is her priority, not her own needs and wishes. She needs to maintain a healthy balance between the needs of the sisters, both as individuals and as a group, and the work necessary to maintain the functioning of the monastery. She and her sisters also need to remember that her own needs must be cared for, however, or she will not be able to be fully present for her sisters.

In a monastery, as in a family, a parish or other church organization, wonderful, blessed things can happen when each and every person listens and responds appropriately to what is asked of them. Truly God is in the midst of such a place and there are no limits to what can be done in love for His glory and for the salvation of all mankind.

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