Johannine Themes in the Rule of St. Benedict and their Meaning Today
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Les thèmes johanniques dans la règle de S. Benoît et leur actualité
Sprache des Originals:Französisch
Impressum:Saint John Publications
Übersetzer:Paul Quenon, Chrysostom Castel
Cistercian Studies 11/1 (1976), 11–23. Also published in: Monastic Studies 11 (Mount Saviour Monastery, Pine City, N.Y., Advent 1975), 57–71
The topic of the following reflections came to mind when I noticed that in the Rule of Saint Benedict there are more than sixty quotations from the synoptic gospels and about eighty from the Pauline writings. But the Gospel of John is quoted only five times, the Letters of John three times, and the Apocalypse just once. All of these explicit quotations are already found in the Rule of the Master [= RM]. Furthermore, among the principal quotations, the one of the “good shepherd” (27.8) serves only to introduce a much more explicit allusion to Luke 15 (“and having left the ninety-nine,” etc.). Another most important quotation on the obedience of Christ (John 6.38: “I have come not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me”—found twice, in 5.13 and 7.32, but according to de Vogüé a real commonplace in the tradition and cited four times in RM) is found in the paragraph on the third degree of humility alongside a parallel of Saint Paul: “He became obedient even unto death.” Seemingly, therefore, it indicates nothing specifically Johannine. And finally, the third salient passage which cites John concerns the discernment of spirits to be used in judging postulants: “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4.1). This could just as easily be replaced by a similar verse of Saint Paul.
How are we to explain such a striking lacuna? Is the spirit of Benedict that estranged from the fourth gospel? But all his quotations of John come, we repeat, from the Rule of the Master; and these Benedict most of the time abbreviates. In fact, the majority of the fifty-five Johannine quotations of RM are in the passages which Benedict omits. As for the Rule of the Master, with its rigidity and its meticulous and closed ascetical system, we can easily believe that it is somewhat removed from the Johannine spirit where the only law of Christian living is the love of God and of the brethren.
I would like to show, however, that this first approach, by statistics, is deceptive. It is deceptive above all because the system of the Master is closed and has a tendency to confine revelation and Scripture within itself; whereas the Benedictine Rule is completely open to all Scripture and always presupposes—and often demands—a knowledge of the whole of Scripture attained by integral reading of it (see, e.g. 9.8; 11.12; 42.4; 48.1,15; 53.9; 73.3)·
A rule of life is indeed something other than a patchwork of quotations from the gospel. We might rather compare it to a scenario which has no literary value of its own but which is a means of making the play come alive—and the play in our case is the gospel as lived, the life of discipleship, the imitation of Christ. We must even be careful not to compare the Rule with a law, for that would risk putting us back into the Old Testament; this is precisely the reproach which Protestants make against religious. It is rather an aid (given by the Spirit to the Church, and by the Church to the individual Christian) to make the disciple persevere in love, that is, in the seriousness of the free and total gift of himself. It is a trellis which obliges us to climb higher and to produce more fruit instead of sprawling along the ground.
This is particularly impressive when we open the austere rule of Pachomius, stripped as it is of all lyricism and almost without any spiritual stress. Alongside his rule, however, his letters and the fragments of his catechesis show us a completely different man: references to the Bible are numerous, and so are the examples of the “saints,” that is, the major figures of the Old and the New Testaments. The same holds for his successors, Theodore and Horsiesi. The Pachomian monastery which, if seen only in the light of his rule, appears to be a type of military barracks, is now transformed into a “holy koinonia” (community) animated by love and mutual upbuilding of the brethren. “One heart with your brother” (Pachomius, Catech.: Lefort, 2). “The commandment, Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Theodore (Catech.: Lefort, 62), “surpasses all commandments, and we must rely on the Lord to actually accomplish it.”
Unfortunately we possess no catechetical work of Benedict. Still, we cannot deny that for the entire catechetical part of his Rule he relies on the Master who, in his long introduction, has a strong tendency to use the exhortatory parts of the Bible to ornament his own Rule.
Of course there is the case, surprising at first sight, “of our holy father Basil” (73.5) to whom Benedict refers us so explicitly. In the beginning of Basil’s work there is no distinction at all between the gospel and the rule: only the daring task of grasping the rule of Christian living within the very text of the gospel. In Basil’s Morals Johannine quotations abound.1 Nevertheless, these Rules were not written for monks but rather for devout parishes. Later on, when separate groups were formed, Basil never came to the point of formulating a rule (not even in his Longer Rules) comparable to that of Pachomius, of Cassian, of the Master, or of Saint Benedict.
Finally, the further the Rule of Benedict progresses the more the influence of Augustine is felt. The stress is on brotherly love; and in the second treatment on the abbot (ch. 64), the stress is on the love shown by the Good Shepherd, that is, on the need for the abbot to “profit his brethren rather than to preside over them,” “to strive rather to be loved than to be feared,” and “always to exalt mercy above judgment.” Although we cannot turn these into explicit quotes of Saint John, a whole Johannine atmosphere penetrates the Rule, especially toward the end.
To grasp better the spirit of Benedict, let us turn again to his last chapter, so decisive in itself. Here we find a total openness to the sources and to all of living tradition. He has written “this minimum rule for beginners” as “a beginning of this way of life,” from which one can hasten on (festinare) to follow the teachings of the “holy fathers.” Then one will have the whole of Scripture as an inexhaustible rule: “For what page or what utterance of divine authority from the Old and New Testament is not a most unerring rule for human life?” (73.3). And if, according to Benedict, there is a decadence in the monasticism of the sixth century, it is not the more ancient rules that he would want re-established to remedy the situation, but rather the lives of his great predecessors who put the gospel into practice. The rules of Basil and of Cassian, “what else are they but tools of virtue for right-living and obedient monks,” to achieve even today “that perfect way of life of the holy catholic fathers”?
When Benedict adapted his Rule to the spirit of Augustine and of Basil, and, through these two, already implicitly to the spirit of Saint John; when he also opened it to all of Scripture as a rule of life—and concretely that means opening it to the mystery of Christ—Benedict found himself necessarily confronted with the last and the most profound interpretation of this mystery: that of John.
To appreciate this encounter between Benedict and John’s gospel we must know how to read the Rule with lucidity. Benedict’s straightforward description of the daily practices of a monk is not truly understood except as the echo, the reflection, the reverberation of Christ himself who thereby becomes then the principal theme, directly and solely, such as the gospel presents him to us. It is Christ who represents the goal and stable element, stability itself. The monk, for his part, participates in this stability of Christ by his vow—the decision he takes once for all. But he can participate in this stability of Christ only by the daily effort of “running” (currere), “hastening” (festinare), σπεύδειν (eagerly hastening).
The formal openness of the Rule toward the whole of revelation permits us to make the following reversal: it is theology, or rather Christ, who is first; ascesis is secondary and serves him. This principle, if I am not mistaken, leads us still further: it requires not only that we not stop with the description of Christ traced out in the synoptics, nor with the moral exhortations of Saint Paul, but that we join up again with the Johannine image of Christ. It requires that we read the special charism of Benedict with lucidity, this charism so pronounced of the “watcher” in the night of this world, of that Isaiah call: “Watchman, what of the night?” (Is. 21.11), of that capacity desired by the Christ of the synoptic gospels for distinguishing the good spirits from the bad, and for reading the signs of the times—to go beyond even the synoptic Christ, therefore, in order to live with the Johannine Christ in that continual “krisis”—that judgment/division of light and darkness.
Before taking up several individual themes, let us show quite simply that this reversal of the importance of theology or Christ over ascesis is neither artificial nor does it do violence to the facts. It is particularly noticeable in the passages in which perfect obedience is described for us. From all the evidence we have, this perfect obedience does not try to be an ascetical feat of strength. Rather it draws all its force from the example of Christ. It is here that the quotation from Saint John twice intervenes: “I have come not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5.13; 7.32). Saint Basil says in his Latin rule (ch. 69): Cum definitum sit, mensuram oboedientiae usque ad mortem esse—“When it is defined, the measure of obedience is obedience unto death.” This is because God the Father asks his Son to accomplish those impossibilia, impossible things: to carry in himself everything which, for God, is impossible, abominable, revolting, that his Son die! And it is only this example of Christ which justifies that admirable chapter 68 of Benedict: “If a brother is commanded something impossible.” If he presents to his superior (according to the Rule) the reasons for his inability without desiring to be contradictory, that brother will be following the example of Christ in Gethsemani. And if his superior maintains his original command even after the brother’s presentation, that brother will follow Christ even to his cross. And while we are at it, why not immediately connect to this Christology the two other great articulations of the “spiritual art”: humility (humilitas), connecting this to the debasing of the Son even to the point of complete self-effacement; and reticence (traciturnitas), connecting this to the achievement of the Verbum caro factum—“Word made flesh,” to the swallowing up of the Word in the real though silent fulfillment of the Father’s will, to the attitude of the lamb “who was slain even from the beginning of the world,” led to the slaughter “not opening his mouth.”
The young monk who pronounces his vows surrenders himself to the Lord; he passes from anthropology (even though spiritual) to Christology: “Receive me, O Lord, according to your word and I shall live” (58.21).
Now let us illustrate this passing over to Christology by presenting in greater detail four themes which are as much at the heart of the Rule as of the fourth gospel. These are:
- Stability (stabilitas, menein): the “staying,” “remaining,” “abiding” of the Johannine writings.
- Discretion or krisis [judgment/division] of light and darkness.
- Obedience understood as an act of perfect love.
- The concretizing of authority: that of the Father in Christ, that of Christ in the abbot.
Each of these topics would require much development. I will attempt only a rough sketch, but one which would nevertheless bring out the ever present reality of these themes.
It is quite evident that the stability (stabilitas) of Benedict is the incarnation, the concretizing of an attitude and of a purely spiritual decision. We cannot fail to notice the juxtapositions: “stability or perseverance” (58.9), “stability, conversion of manners and obedience” (58.17), “if the guest-monk wishes to fix his stability” (61.5). Or, with an overtly Christological stress which aims not at an act, but at a state of Christ: “if he truly seeks God, if he is careful about the work of God [which here, perhaps, could be the entire life in the service of God: Vogüé: Commentaire], for obedience, for reproach” (58.7). The religious life is essentially an engagement for life; temporary vows cannot be understood or reconciled with this except as a deliberate preparatory step toward such an engagement. With religious life we enter into a Christ-like state. “They came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day; it was about the tenth hour” (John 1.39). So one stays in the monastery because one stays with Christ. And according to the first degree of humility, one stays fixed as Christ was under the gaze of the Father. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing, … for the Father loves the Son and shows him all things…” (John 5.19ff.). And Benedict says: “Above all let him flee forgetfulness and always be mindful of all that God has commanded” (7.10-11).
This then is a form of special incarnation for monasticism which safeguards its whole theological value, both the incarnational as well as the eschatological value of monastic life. We need not dwell upon the obvious value of this sign for today, when so many men, uprooted, are searching for stability with as much desire as in the time of the Barbarian invasions.
We could naturally assign monastic stability its place in the mystery of the forty days that Christ spent in the desert. We even have reason to do so, if one lays stress on temptation, vigilance and penance. But it seems to me no less appropriate, and indeed perhaps more appropriate, to envision the desert of the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse. For there, existence in solitude, and the stability of that existence, extends to the time of the entire Church and is its basic characteristic. It is not a matter of a philosophical ascesis, even though all the exterior forms of monasticism are found in India and among the Pythagoreans, not only the anachoresis (anchoritism) and the koinobion (community life), the monazein (solitary life) and the enkleismos (reclusion), but even the kathezesthai (to sit), which according to some corresponds to “stability.” Rather for John the incentive is entirely theological. The Pythagorean flees the world, whereas the Church of the Apocalypse receives in the desert “a place prepared by God, to be nourished there” during the time of tribulation apo prósôpou tou ópheôs, “away from the face of the dragon,” although the dragon tries to destroy her. It is fitting that this permanent situation of the Church should be represented visibly to all by the monastic life in its stability.
We often find that the biblical desert has a double face: intimacy with God, but intimacy in dereliction, in a place haunted by ghosts and demons. In the New Testament the two senses become inseparable. Listen to Berengaudus’ commentary on the Apocalypse: “Christ is a solitude, a desert… [because] Christ was deserted by his own: … he came unto his own and his own did not receive him… I have trodden the winepress alone. The woman therefore fled to the solitude, the desert, because the apostles and the other disciples, after abandoning the devil and abandoning all precautions, followed Christ” (P.L., 17, 877). In a similar way Rupert of Deutz says: “The woman flees to the desert precisely because having no possessions in this world means a trusting and tranquil solitude of mind” (P.L., 169, 1049c). The desert is immobility. The woman stays, remains (menei) without herself having to do any fighting; it is the earth which comes to her help. She is not concerned about her food; God provides it there. The desert is also a place of vision (Apoc. 17.3): John is carried off to the desert to see there the woman seated upon the beast and to be present at her judgment. The desert, rediscovered by Charles de Foucauld, is a basic symbol in the Bible, an idea not confined to the desert’s geographical aspect: “Your house will be left to you as a desert” (cf. Luke 13.35; Is. 64.11; Jer. 12.7; 22.5).
2. Discretion or Judgment of the Darkness
It is precisely here that the second Johannine aspect enters in: the combat, or more exactly the judgment (krisis) of darkness by the light. The spiritual combat is the most ancient and most traditional of monastic theological themes, from Antony and Pachomian sources, through Evagrius—here more than ever a disciple of Origen—then Jerome, the Macarian homilies, Cassian, and the Master. But all these combats are, in the first place, ascetical; they are efforts to recover the peace of God and of Christ. Even though the ascetic fights his battles as a disciple of Christ, thereby overcoming with Christ the “eight evil thoughts,” he but rarely emerges into that Johannine sphere where the whole being of the Word incarnate is ever “the light shining in the darkness” (cf. John 1.4). Nevertheless it is in this sphere that the vision of Benedict seems ultimately to be situated. The monk is sliced in two by that line of demarcation: “the love of God—the fear of gehenna.” His daily existence is a continuous effort to leap over that line. “Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overcome you” (John 12.35: Prol. 13): a curious Johannine quotation, where the light is not understood as that of the living Christ but as human mortal life. It is a continuous movement to “turn away from evil and do good,” a movement which conceals within itself a temptation, that of attributing the merit of the effort to oneself: “Those who fear the Lord do not become elated over their good observance, but… glorify the Lord… Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory… whosoever glories, let him glory in the Lord” (Prol. 29ff.). But these phrases of the Prologue ought to be compared with the great descent of chapter 7, in order to uncover their Christological import. For example, why not just confess (verbally) that one is “a worm and no man, the disgrace of men and the outcast of the people” (7.52), instead of also believing it with “the inmost affections of the heart”? That can make no sense except as conformity to the suffering Christ, to the light which penetrates to the very intimacy of the darkness, even to the point of redemptive identification with the darkness in order to dispel it from within.
The Christian himself always remains at the threshold of this mystery: on the one hand, he must go beyond pure asceticism in order to follow Christ; on the other hand, he is incapable of identifying himself with Christ and his work. He is hung in suspense, the ellipse of his conscience can never round itself out into a circle. The example of Saint Paul is very clear on this point. Crucified with Christ and bearing his wounds, Paul in no way usurped for himself the role of co-redeemcr: “was it Paul who was crucified for you?”
It is precisely in this gap that the Benedictine vocation lodges itself. “Watch and pray” for yourselves and for the world, but watch and pray with me in Gethsemani, I who am myself in the darkest temptation.
3. Obedience as Perfect Love
We have already spoken of the incomparable role of obedience. It now remains to study the synthesis between authority and love operative within obedience. For Benedict, this union corresponds on the exterior, historical plane to the synthesis which he establishes between the Rule of the Master and Augustine. But more interiorly it is a Christological synthesis. This becomes clear only in the course of the Rule’s unfolding. In the beginning, obedience to the abbot—to that master who opens the first verse of the Prologue—appears as an absolute, and indivisible. Its correct understanding is presupposed. In effect Benedict does nothing but sum up and continue the long monastic tradition on the relationship of the pater pneumatikos or spiritual father (symbol and representative of Christ) and that of the disciple, who receives through his spiritual father the commands of the Lord. In this primitive design the two aspects are indissolubly united; and they remain united, all the more so, as the cenobitic life excludes in practice an escape upwards toward the eremitical life: obedience to the spiritual father, to the abbot, is not merely a pedagogical measure and for that reason limited in time, but possesses an absolute value, unsurpassable in itself.
These two aspects of obedience, authority and love, are inseparable, and both have their ultimate foundation in Christ. For on the one hand, the abbot could not demand an absolute obedience if he was not authorized by Christ (“for he is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery”). He represents Christ through his function as teacher and pastor, and he is held to represent him by giving an example of the Word incarnate: “he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” (2.2,12). On the other hand, the obedience which is due him is no less Christological since it must be absolute, without reserve, practiced out of love for Christ (“this is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ”: 5.2), and practiced in imitation of Christ (“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”: 5.13), hence in imitation of Christ who was obedient to God his Father (“for the obedience given to superiors is given to God”: 5.15).
Christ is manifested then in the master as well as in the disciple. He himself is, in fact, inseparably both the Logos, the lawgiver, and also the humble Servant. In the fundamental monastic relationship, Christ is dramatically represented in his existence in all its dimensions: that is, both in his divine sovereignty and in his self-abasement to the last place (the sixth and seventh degrees of humility). The one is not found without the other. And it is the glory and the sublime naïveté of monasticism and of its lived theology to remain just there: at this dramatic or rather sacramental representation of the person and actions of Christ, without any desire to go beyond this into some further reflection—which ultimately only leads to an impasse.
One theoretical question which can pose itself here is this: “How can the abbot in his commands represent the Son, since the humble Christ was obedient to God the Father and not to himself?” Monasticism can only answer with the words of Christ: “Whoever sees me sees the Father.” “My teaching is not my own, but his who sent me.” And the respect of the Son with regard to the Father is translated for the abbot into a very emphatic fear of the Lord. With the mandate he has received and the charge of souls which he has assumed, he himself is under a more strict obedience than anyone else. By no means can he do whatever he wants, “by an arbitrary use of his power” (63.2).
In so far as Christ makes present the Father, the abbot is held to be the one who tests the humility of his subjects in order to guide them into the spirit of total abnegation—such is the unanimous tradition of monasticism from the beginning. But in so far as Christ himself is humbled by the Father, the abbot must understand that he performs here not a work of pure justice but one of love. This becomes clear above all in the second treatment of the abbot in chapter 64: “let him strive rather to be loved than to be feared” (64.15). The Son obeyed the Father only in mutual love, even though during his passion this love was no longer felt. The whole dynamism of monasticism is situated in this Christological rapport—which moreover reappears integrally in Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and which is at the heart of Saint John’s testimony. If Saint Benedict has safeguarded and handed down the main inspiration of ancient monasticism to the whole of Western civilization, he has in the same stroke safeguarded and handed down the marrow of Johannine theology.
And I think—despite the tumultuous objections of the modern mentality—that only a firm upholding of its original theological intuition offers monasticism a chance of survival. In this area there are endless objections: Is not the divine mystery of Calvary unique? How can it be perpetuated through a kind of human technique of humiliation which runs the risk of turning into an “oppression” of the worst sort? In any case, there is a need for some palliatives, some measures of precaution, some loop-holes. And finally, has not Christ given himself over to his Church, his very self in his redemptive act and not merely in his merits—post factum? Is not the Church invited to participate in his own action also?2
4. The Concretizing of Authority
In the symbol of obedience a whole trinitarian theology is implied. The Rule, we repeat, is not a theological treatise. If we did not possess several pages of a diary which Ignatius had forgotten to burn, who would have guessed his deeply trinitarian mysticism with only his Constitutions to go by? For Benedict, Christ is at the same time not only himself—Saviour, Judge, Logos—but also the representative of the Father. He makes the Father tangible, visible; in seeing the Son we have access to the Father’s heart. Christ is, moreover, the spiritual man, the Presence of the Pneuma (Spirit) in the world. In the Rule of Benedict the Holy Spirit appears at the end of the degrees of humility (7.70) and in the description of that love in the comparative degree, of that “greater” love, which is the indication of the divine presence: “thus each one of his own will may offer God with joy of the Holy Spirit something more than the measure required of him” (49.6).
For us, therefore, the mystery of the Trinity is concentrated in Christ. Any treatise on the Trinity detached from Christology collapses into sterile abstractions. In Christ, moreover, as is evident in John’s Gospel (where we recognize the close relations with the sapiential books), the whole of the Old Testament is condensed (to say nothing of the New). Without any hesitation both the Rule of the Master and the Rule of Benedict put the words of the psalter on the lips of Christ (see the Prologue). Christ is at the same time the Word as well as Wisdom, but a Word-made-flesh and a Wisdom which made itself the folly of the cross.
There is one final conclusion to make here, a Christological and particularly a Johannine one. In the Rule of the Master the ladder of the twelve degrees of humility, expressly described as Jacob’s ladder, leads the experienced monk from earth to paradise, as described at great length in its final part. Benedict omits this finale, and even omits paradise, in order to end up simply with that charity which “once perfected casts out all fear” (1 John 4.18). “And all those precepts which formerly the monk had observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, … no longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ” (7.68ff.)—an astonishing passage in a Rule which recalls so often the “fear of the Lord.” It is a matter here of “being made flesh” to the ultimate degree: of a realized eschatology.
We must also reinterpret the Rule of Benedict from the point of view of the Divine Office, which holds the central place in the monastic schedule. In no way does the Divine Office fall back into being the “word” of the Old Testament, not yet incarnate. On the contrary, it is the presence of the Word incarnate in his Church; and in her praise of God, the Church enters into the redemptive act itself. The community submits to the rule of the Lord, abandons itself, gives itself up entirely to obeying the impulses of the living Christ. The Mass is situated at the center of the Office, but this center radiates out to all its parts, which thereby become its vehicles of transmission; just as the great eucharistic discourse and the final priestly prayer of Jesus in John’s Gospel are but the blossoming forth and disclosing of the eucharistic mystery in words. And this blossoming forth, this disclosure, is not just an externalizing, but is on the contrary the revelation (for intimate friends) of the hidden dimensions of the sacrament. Thus in all directions the Benedictine Office can sweep through the inexhaustible dimensions of the mystery: Verbum caro, the Word as flesh.
In short, it seems to me that any Benedictine theology must join itself again to its sources and dig into them deeply, not only the literary or patristic sources but especially the biblical sources which nourished it. It should discard everything in theological and spiritual tradition (I am not talking about the Rule!) which takes whatever is non-temporal and timeless, or rather belongs to all ages, and narrows it down or fixes it at a particular historical level. Everything in tradition can serve our purpose, but we must not stop anywhere along the line, not even at the beautiful (perhaps too beautiful) literature of the twelfth century. For today, it is not so much a matter of the love of learning or the desire for God, but rather the love for Christ humbled even to the cross as well as obedience to God. Or, if you wish, it is a question of the desire for obedience! Going beyond the barricades and anathemas of modern psychology and sociology, it is a matter of re-establishing quite simply the Christological proportions and relationships, in short, of re-establishing the rule of the gospel, ὁ νόμος τοῦ χριστοῦ, the law of Christ (Gal. 6.2)—which the Second Vatican Council asserts is the unique rule of all religious orders: “As the ultimate norm of the religious life should be the following of Christ as proposed in the Gospel, this is to be regarded as the supreme rule by all institutes” (Perf. Car., 2a).
In Ascetical Works, tr. Wagner, Fathers of the Church, 9 (New York, 1950), pp. 71-205. See J. Gribomont, “Les Règles Morales de saint Basile et le Nouveau Testament,” Studia Patristica, II (Berlin, 1957), 416ff.↩
I foresee a fundamental practical objection: the image of the fatherhood of the abbot cannot be restored. The evolution of the history of freedom (Freiheitsgeschichte) is irreversible.
1) It begins in the middle ages: the superior is instituted for the good of the community.
2) It continues on, of course, through the Enlightenment and Rousseau.
3) Today, it is competence which decides anything:
\– the competence of the individual specialist,
\– (eventually) that of the college, or of a council (consilium: “Let him call together the whole community”: ch. 3),
\– or only that of the community “seniors.”
The problem arises in the same manner for the Jesuits and the Secular Institutes (these especially!). It is a question of knowing how an obedience that is total and theologically whole can be reconciled with personal responsibility arising partially from the competence of the individual.
1. Full obedience (whether in religious life or in a secular institute) cannot be partial, nor refer only to the spiritual life, excluding whatever concerns work, professional services, etc.
On the other hand, obedience cannot be mechanical, nor can it throw all responsibility onto the superior as in certain ancient rules. There are certainly roots of responsibility in the secular domain with its own proper laws—which the superior should respect up to a certain point. He also is involved! But there are limits. For example: the scandal which may be provoked, the damage caused to the Order, to the local community, the detriment done to the individual.
Now comes the problem of the greater good, of the absolute value of obedience.
Christian obedience (by the following of Christ) is consequently the absolute good.
a) There is in it, to be sure, the relative good of education in obedience, renunciation. To teach how one is to do difficult and repugnant things is still the abbot’s role as educator, teacher, paideutès (or the role of the master of novices, or the spiritual father).
b) But, beyond that, there is the absolute and unconditional good of obedience. That is what ultimately saved the world; not the active apostolate. No limit can be imposed (a priori) upon the attitude which it demands: namely, readiness, availability. If we limit that, we are no longer walking in the way of Christ. The religious life is no longer the sacrament which makes present the redemptive act in its pure essence, but rather becomes some anthropological endeavor in which external efficiency is the criterion.
2. How can all this be reconciled?
\– Prudence in interior, spiritual matters: a turning to the spiritual father, to the experience of a spiritual master (cf. the discussion on the abbatial office).
Obedience is not possible without a real trust (just as the Son had trusted his heavenly Father), otherwise we cannot be led toward “more difficult things,” that is, things humanly impossible: this can be necessary from the spiritual point of view.
The monk who is learning obedience must at some point lose the desire to control each situation, he must lose his footing, get beyond his depth… (Augustine’s stare super se, be stood on his head). And for that, an objectively founded trust in the spiritual competence of his director is necessary; both need a certain amount of natural and supernatural intelligence. Where there is no culture whatever of heart and head (esprit), the religious life becomes impossible.
\– Prudence in temporal matters: open consultation with the person concerned or with other competent persons. But once the situation becomes clear, the superior ought to command and not merely advise… i.e., he ought to have the courage to apply the old saying: “Whoever hears you hears me.”
c) The whole religious life ought to be centered in the conscious awareness of living out the mystery of Christ (which is the mystery of the Trinity translated into the mystery of the Church). Monks have the obligation of presenting the mystery of Christ concretely to the consciousness of all those who are liable to forget it.↩