MAY 5, 2002, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER-

“Whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Luke 10:16). That Jesus gave much stress and prominence to obedience in his teaching is hardly surprising, for he was guided by his Father’s will in his own manner of life.  Yet, this willingness to submit to the Father did not come from any natural proclivity to he be dependent or passive. The little we know about his childhood as well as the years of ministry indicates that he was inclined to be quite independent and original both in his teaching and in his life style. Repeatedly he undertook initiatives that others found unconventional. This was the case already when he was twelve years old. By his responses to the teachers in the temple he evoked their astonishment; by the freedom of spirit he displayed upon being found by his parents and his reply to his mother’s question, he caused her to wonder. Thus when he went on to obey her and Joseph it was clearly by a free choice, not due to constraint. Even when he left his parents’ home and became the leader of a band of followers, and acquired a reputation as a well-known preacher and prophet, he continued to stress the importance for him of obedience. In the course of his teaching he more directly stated that it was submission to God the Father that motivated his words and his activities. He chose the most solemn moments of his public ministry as the time to commend obedience to his followers. At the Last Supper he explained that devoted carrying out of his directives was the sure sign of love. ‘If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I also have kept the commandments of my Father and remain in his love.’(John 15:10) 

Perhaps the most impressive instance of Jesus’ yielding his will to that of the Father in a loving obedience is his acceptance of the suffering and death that carried out the Father’s plan for him in view of our salvation. As he went out to face his enemies on the last night of his life he told his apostles: ‘In order that the wold might know that I love the Father and that I act as the Father has commanded me, get up and let us go forth.’

(John 14: 31) The obedience of which Jesus spoke and which he intends for his disciples to practice is a way of loving and of giving one’s life in the service of the Father and of his kingdom.

 Anyone who has read the Rule of St. Benedict carefully will be impressed by the prominent place he assigns to obedience. He uses the term ‘obedience’ twenty times in his legislation, and the verb ‘obey’ seven times. “Whoever listens to you, listens to me”(Luke 10:16), are words our Lord addressed to his chosen followers that Benedict cites in connection with the obedience the monk gives to his superiors. He gives the reason for recommending this virtue so insistently: ‘The basic road to progress for the humble person is through prompt obedience. This is characteristic of those who hold Christ more precious than all else.’ (Kardong, Terrence G., Benedict’s Rule: A Translation, [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press] 1996, ch. 5 ). 

A term closely allied to ‘obedience’ is ‘listen’, ‘hear carefully’. In Latin and English and  other modern languages there are distinct words for hearing and obeying. But the same word is used in Hebrew for listen and obey: ‘Shema’. Its basic sense is ‘hear’ but it also has, in certain derived forms, the meaning ‘obey’. For they are two aspects of the same human activity. Only the person who has learned to listen is capable of obedience; one cannot obey before hearing what is commanded or desired. It is by design then that St. Benedict places as the first word of his Rule a call to listen carefully: ‘ Obsculta, O fili’, that is to say, listen, O son’  

Listening comes before obeying in human actions. This is true whether we listen with the ears of the body or the interior ears of the heart and spirit, for God reveals many things to us only from within, through the silent voice that speaks from the depths of our being. Learning to listen, then, is essential for the monk; indeed, it is a condition that every true Christian must meet in order to fulfill the duties of faith. Already in the time of Moses God required his people to listen to his words attentively in view of carrying out his demands. But this duty of listening had as its intent also the purifying of the interior, as the prophet David realized and stated in Psalm 51. The same God who spoke to him through Nathan the prophet is alone able to ‘create a pure heart within me”.    

We must train our physical ears to learn to discriminate between various sounds in a variety of professions: in music, in cardiology, in psychiatry where the tone of voice, the choice of words, the silences often reveal deeper truths than the speaker is conscious of. The same holds true even more pressingly in the life of the spirit; in order to discriminate between the voice of nature, of the passions and of the spirit, we must undergo a rigorous training. Only then can we sharpen our inner faculty of hearing. Not everyone submits to this discipline with the result that some remain spiritually deaf; others are hard of hearing. St. John of Patmos realized this and so he calls out in his Apocalypse: ‘Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the Churches’ 2:7) For he knows there are some who have no ear with which to hear the words that God inspires. In order to acquire this ear of the Spirit that must first repent and submit to the discipline that will, under the action of grace, refashion the inner man. 

St. Benedict considered his Rule to be a way of entering upon that discipline. He states explicitly that it does not contain the whole of this discipline. 

Ch. 73. 3. For what page or even what word of the divinely inspired Old and New Testaments is not a completely reliable guidepost for human life? 4. Or what book of the holy Catholic Fathers does not teach us how to reach our Creator by the direct route? 5. And then there are the Conferences of the Fathers and their Institutes and Lives, along with the Rule of our holy Father Basil. 6. What else are they for monks who live upright and obedient lives but tools of virtue? . . . 8. Therefore, if you long to attain the heavenly homeland, with Christ’s assistance carry out this modest Rule for beginners that we have sketched out. 9. Only then will you arrive with God’s protection at the higher peaks of doctrine and virtue that we have pointed out. Amen. [Kardong, Terrence G., Benedict’s Rule: A Translation, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1996] 

In this text, Benedict summarizes the results of living according to his Rule in terms of uprightness and obedience. It is a discipline that makes one pleasing to God. But he is keenly aware that the monastic life offers something beyond this moral aim. He refers to the inner sweetness that results from the experience of God and in his Prologue speaks of a transformation of the emotions. What is heard at first in fear ends in the freedom of the sons of God and so is an experience of sweetness: “When you have done this, my eyes will be on you and my ears will attend to your prayers; before you even invoke me, I will say: ‘Here I am!’ ” (Ps 34:14–16; Isaias 58:9; 65:24). 19. What could be sweeter, dearest brothers, than this voice of the Lord, who invites us? 20. Look, the Lord in his devotion to us shows us the way to life. (Kardong, Prologue).  There are a couple of significant implications in this brief citation in which Benedict quotes the prophet Isaiah. Here he depicts God himself as listening to the prayer of his faithful. He is so attentive to those who call upon him that even before they call out to him he is present and awaiting their cry. The other point to be noted is Benedict’s comment which emphasizes the experience of God’s care for us as a sweetness. He is convinced that the monk who lives according to his Rule will come to know God’s love through experience of his mercy and care.  

Much in the Rule is understated so that only by a meditative reading and with meditation that is based on experience of living it will the reader be able to discover the more hidden intent of the author. St. Bernard, who sought rather to describe in expanded detail and explain the spiritual significance of monastic experience is much more explicit than was the Patriarch of western monks. He spells out in various contexts what Benedict passes over quickly and only hints at in brief allusions. That was Bernard’s charism. It found its highest expression in his Sermons on the Canticle. In commenting on the verse: ‘The King has introduced me into his wine cellars’ (Canticle 1:3) he observes that  

In order to situate them in order I will give to the first wine cellar the name of discipline; to the second, that of nature, and to the third that of grace. In the first one learns to conduct oneself as lower in all things in accord with the norm of ethical behavior…. And so in this first wine cellar the first thing to do is to tame the insolence of pride with the yoke of discipline. This must continue until the rebellious will, broken by the frequent and severe commands of the superiors, is humbled and healed, so that it recovers by obedience the natural gifts that pride had snatched away [Sermones Sobre Los Cantares, 23.6, (Madrid: B.A.C. , 1955) II.147].  

The role of discipline, then, in St. Bernard’s thought is fundamental in the spiritual life and it is applied through listening and obeying. It leads in the first place to the pacification of the will so that one desires only what is in conformity with God’s law. Only through such a life of discipline accepted and lived out from the heart can we hope to progress into the cellar where the best wine is kept and when unity of spirit results.  This discipline has been handed down to us in the form of our Cistercian usages. Since 1969 with the Statute on Unity and Pluralism each community has the particular responsibility to determine the more detailed provisions of the Cistercian way of life. That includes such matters as the arrangements for the divine Office, the rules that assure an effective practice of silence, arranging for appropriate means of communication, and the specific forms assumed by formation.  

There are certain provisions made that may prove temporarily useful but which, at a later period are clearly not helpful in arriving at the goal set before us of attaining to purity of heart and union with God in a life of constant prayer. When such is the case, changing to practices that better contribute to our goals becomes a matter of integrity and fidelity to our Cistercian charism and the way of life that gives expression to it.  In the near future I hope to present some such changes and implement them as being significant helps to establishing as genuine a contemplative life style as we can manage here. Meantime I would ask that the points I have already made be well followed. As we undertake such a program and strive day by day to be faithful to our purpose in being here in this diocese and this country, let us keep in mind our larger goal. We are able to fulfill our call only by devoting our self to God’s service, the common good and the sanctification of those who come to us to seek God whether as guests or as members of the community. And may the Lord give fruitfulness to our efforts so that we and those we form carry out the task assigned us by the Church and the Order, to the glory of God and the building up of his kingdom.

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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