On Obedience (2)

But this very obedience will be acceptable to God and pleasing to all only if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling, or objection. For the obedience given to Superiors is given to God, since He Himself has said, “He who hears you, hears Me” (Luke 10:16). And the disciples should offer their obedience with a good will, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfill the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring. And, far from gaining a reward for such work as this, he will incur the punishment due to murmurers, unless he amend and make satisfaction.

Today’s reading, which ends the chapter on obedience follows up on what was said yesterday, and so I will not repeat my previous comments.

The smell of Lent is in the air. In a few weeks we will be entering head first into that great liturgical period which is Lent – Quadragesima, but for now the Liturgy begins to prepare us for what is to come with Septuagesima. As of tomorrow the Mass will have noticible differences: violet vestments; no Gloria; the Alleluia will cease – in its place we will find the Tract. After this period of an exuberant joyfulness we suddenly pass the threshold to a different disposition, one more recollected, almost somber. It is as though the Liturgy wishes to tell us “yes, what came before was joyful, but it is not the source of our joy; our joy will come after this period of going down into the tomb.” And so, as if to say good-bye to this past period of joy, First Vespers of Septuagesima ends in a unique way:

V. Benedicámus Dómino, allelúia, allelúia.
R. Deo grátias, allelúia, allelúia.

Before certain reforms of the traditional Roman rite, one would hear at the end of the Mass during penitential seasons not the usual Ite Missa est, but the Benedicamus Domino. One can only wonder why this was changed. Returning to the Alleluia, I have read that in some places it was customary for a ceremonial burial of the Alleluia. This is a custom which I think can be easily done at home and which one can involve the children in; it is one I hope to start with my own one day.

This period of Septuagesima is one of the many reasons why I love the traditional Roman rite. It is a season of preparation that the Church of Rome most likely picked up from the Greeks, who already had this prepatory period for Lent. One does not simply fall into Lent; no, one is given time to prepare for it, to make the necessary adjustments for living the Great Fast. Sadly, this period was removed from the modern liturgical calendar.

I find it providential that today’s reading should fall on the eve of Septuagesima. We have been reading about obedience and we are now about to enter a liturgical period related to obedience, i.e., the Son’s obedience to the Father. The New Adam, the obedient son; unlike the First Adam, by whose disobedience Death entered into the world. Disobeying the will of God merits death (“the wages of sin is death”), not because the Lord is a tyrant, but because He is Life, and to sin is to reject Life. This First Vesper’s antiphon for the Magnificat reminds us of the reality of the consequences of disobedience:

The Lord said unto Adam: * Of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, thou shalt not eat; in the hour that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.

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On Obedience (1)

The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ; who, because of the holy service they have professed, and the fear of hell, and the glory of life everlasting, as soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior, receive it as a divine command and cannot suffer any delay in executing it. Of these the Lord says, “As soon as he heard, he obeyed Me” (Ps. 17[18]:45). And again to teachers He says, “He who hears you, hears Me” (Luke 10:16).

Such as these, therefore, immediately leaving their own affairs and forsaking their own will, dropping the work they were engaged on and leaving it unfinished, with the ready step of obedience follow up with their deeds the voice of him who commands. And so as it were at the same moment the master’s command is given and the disciple’s work is completed, the two things being speedily accomplished together in the swiftness of the fear of God by those who are moved with the desire of attaining life everlasting. That desire is their motive for choosing the narrow way, of which the Lord says, “Narrow is the way that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14), so that, not living according to their own choice nor obeying their own desires and pleasures but walking by another’s judgment and command, they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them. Assuredly such as these are living up to that maxim of the Lord in which He says, “I have come not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).

I oft say jokingly that if there’s a themesong in Hell, then it’s Old Blue Eye’s  “My Way” (I’m not knocking Sinatra – I really like his music). The last verse of the song really hits home on this:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.

Doing it my way, following my own will. Isn’t it exactly that against which our holy father warns us? When I follow my own will, instead of acting in conformity to the will of God, then I am making an idol of myself – I fall into a sort of solipsim, where it is my voice that echoes from the burning bush saying “I AM”.

Humility is integral to the Benedictine life (the Rule will talk about it at length later on, enumerating “12 steps”). For there to be humility, one must know how to obey, and knowing how to obey means knowing how to renounce one’s own will. The one who obeys is the one who is vigilant, who is listening. Saint Benedict does not gives us natural motives for obedience (though there are, and one can use reason to discover them); rather, to him, obedience is to be founded on the supernatural. We are to be obedient because Christ was obedient, even unto death on the cross. Our Lord emptied Himself to do the will of the Father – are we greater than He? We are Christians; as disciples we are not greater than our master, and so we must follow in the path that HE has shown us.

Perhaps we don’t follow God’s will for us because we don’t know what it is. Or do we? “If only God would give me a concrete sign; something that says “I want you to do this”, then I would follow His will.” We’d like that wouldn’t we, everything all written down conveniently in a book without any hassel. Maybe we don’t follow His will for us because it’s not exactly in accord with ours; maybe it’s nothing extraordinary to our eyes.

For many years after returning to the Church the idea of “God’s will for me” assumed such worrying proportions that it consumed a lot of my prayers. I was worried that if I could not do what He has planned for me then my life would be a waste; that there was a very specific, predetermined path for my salvation, and that if I didn’t find it then all was lost.  Delusions of a nervous mind, or suggestions of the Evil One (maybe a mixture of both) – whatever it was, it was nocive to my spiritual life as well as to my psychological well-being. Our heavenly Father, Father of Mercies, does not want this frantic, morbid worrying. He is not some spiteful God who takes pleasure in the suffering of His creatures, especially in that of His children. His designs for us are hidden, and yet they are not hidden. One needs just listen. He wants us to be holy; He has given us His Son and His Spirit. The goal is set – to participate in the life of the Godhead. How? By following His will set out in His commandments and in the precepts of the Church. They are our guides in each moment of our life. I imagine (because it is congenial to me) that God wills me to be a great engineer who will impact many lives for good; my concrete situation is different: I am a waiter, doing menial tasks. “Surely Lord, it can’t be this? I’ve messed up somewhere, right? I mean, what a waste of potential! All those years studying; all that money in tuition. This is just a small detour, or a bump in the road, right? You want me to realize my potential, right?” “No. You are where you are, where you are meant to be working out your salvation at this very moment. Do not confuse your desires for My will. Do not confuse the ways of the world for My ways.”

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Sanctification through work? Sorry St. Josemaria Escriva, but monks beat you to that some centuries ago!

A lay oblate can translate this chapter easily into one’s own life. One can’t escape obedience in life (though the degrees of it may differ). At work, do I carry out the tasks that are assigned to me, or am I constantly second-guessing my superiors? Do I listen and obey (with the caveat that one is not obliged to follow immoral orders) promptly, or do I grumble and do the task half-heartedly? What about at home? How do I teach my children about obedience?