30 Jan Benedict’s Narrow Path
Tonight, our weekly wisdom group will meditate on Benedict’s teaching and Joan Chittister’s commentary on three of the earliest chapters in The Rule of Benedict. The topics of the three chapters are obedience, restraint of speech and humility. I wonder what the response will be. I have received an email from one person who cannot come that the chapter on obedience was troubling. I understand. Obedience is not a concept to which most of us warm. I don’t know her story, but I can imagine. Obedience for women in our culture has often meant abuse. Obedience in my own experience has also left some wounds and has not always served my spiritual growth. My guess is that restraint of speech and humility might also trigger resistances from many good and decent people.
Yet, I feel strangely attracted by all three teachings. As I experiment with Benedict’s Rule, personally and in my role as a pastor, it is clear that my application will not be literal, and neither will it be coercive. I am not in a monastery. I can step away or ignore The Rule any time I choose. Neither am I setting myself up as an abbot of our community. I do not demand obedience in my church, nor in my personal life, thought occasionally I might choose to put a grandchild into time-out if the circumstances require. If I or others seek to follow demanding spiritual practices in our community, we do so voluntarily and without the pressure of manipulation. All true spiritual paths and teachers avoid manipulation and coercion, but not challenge. The question I am asking as we meditate on this ancient spiritual source is, “Is there light for my path here?”
Henri Nouwen, among others, has pointed out the connection between obedience and listening. The Latin word from which obedience descends means “listening”. Where do we turn for wisdom? To what voices do we turn for guidance as we navigate our lives? Do we listen to others? Do we ever let go of our will and follow the lead of another? Do we win every argument? Do we dominate every relationship? In the words of Joan Chittister, do we become a majority of one? In the words of a soft drink commercial, do we obey our thirst? The insight of Benedict and many other spiritual teachers of worth is that all of us listen somewhere, to someone. All of us obey something. The crowd. Our appetites. Our ego. Others close to us whom we trust. Spiritual traditions or teachers. Perhaps Benedict’s teaching, then, is not as radical as we first thought.
I have my voices that I trust. Foremost, in my life, the voice I have been drawn to and have turned to over and over is the voice of Jesus as comes to us in the Gospels. Benedict in the chapter on obedience quotes Jesus’ observation that it is the narrow road that leads to life. Jesus’ counsel is to be wary of the road that is wide and easy. He sees it as leading to our destruction. We might do well to ask ourselves where we are swimming along with the tide of the culture and where we are standing in lonely opposition to it.
How do we distinguish between the voice of God and our own voice? If I honestly observe my own life, there have been times when I claimed to be listening to God and I wasn’t. Sometimes my intentions were good, but my emotional life was too noisy for me to hear through it to God. If we look at history, it becomes painfully clear how flawed human hearing of the divine has been. The majority of Christians in 1930’s Germany thought that God was speaking through the Nazi movement. Abraham Lincoln observed that Christians in the south and in the north believed that God was on their side. He concluded that at least one side must be wrong, perhaps both. Maybe God was not on either side, but asking us to learn to transcend our puny perspectives and loyalties.
This is where obedience as a voluntary practice might carry virtue for us in our pursuit of God. Can we learn to be in community with others whose vision or perspectives are different from ours? Our capacity for tolerating the distress which comes from being in community with people who don’t line up with everything we think has withered. Must our view always be accepted as right by the group? If not, do we take our marbles and make off to the next group where we hope that everyone will agree with us? Is this the narrow road of which Jesus spoke? I certainly am not counseling people to join a church in which you would be miserably unhappy. There are churches, I assure you, that I would never choose to visit much less join. I am observing that there is no church community in which you will be blessedly happy in every moment, just as there is no relationship in which you will experience no hurt or disagreement. Can we listen to other humans, especially when we find ourselves in conflict? Can we say that we are sorry? Can we agree not to win every argument? Isn’t this a form of the practice of obedience?
The other two chapters, on restraint of speech and humility, are related to this one on obedience. I will not dive into reflection on them here, but simply remark on how limited regular silence is for most of us. What might the cultivation of periods of regular silence contribute to our growth? How might a deepening recognition of God in our lives lead naturally to the growth of humility within? Both of these virtues are about expanding our vision of our lives, about orienting us more intentionally to the depth dimensions of our lives, locating ourselves within the Whole. As Joan Chittister writes in her commentary about Benedict’s call to the restraint of speech, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing that the universe is saying. The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.” Jesus said, “Let those with ears to hear, listen.” Obedience, restraint of speech and humility may very well have something worthwhile for us to listen to today as we try to open ourselves more fully to God.