The toughest of the three monastic vows, obedience is not about hazing others into conformity, nor infantilizing grown adults, nor abdicating personal responsibility, but about discovering the freedom to be fully alive. Br. Curtis Almquist invites us all to embrace this rich fare for our souls.
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Br. Curtis Almquist, a Brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist for more than 30 years, lives at SSJE’s monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He works with leaders from a wide spectrum of professional disciplines, helping them listen and respond to the amazing gift of life.
cooperating with the will of God
Monastic obedience is not about hazing others into conformity, nor infantilizing grown adults, nor abdicating personal responsibility, but about discovering the freedom to be fully alive. Obedience is the toughest of the monastic vows, but it also yields the richest fare. Fare for us all.
Obedience involves the exercise of our will. From the beginning of creation, God exercises willfulness. God calls creation into being. We have been created in the image of God with our own will. Our life’s invitation is to align our own God-given will with God’s will, and Jesus is our exemplar. Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”[i] So what about Jesus’ own will? Jesus’ will had been formed by his own life experience. Though Jesus was eventually recognized as “Lord,” he could lead because he had already learned to follow.[ii] Jesus gives his own will as an offering to God for its transformation.
Jesus learned to listen. Biblical Hebrew contains no word that means “to obey.” Instead we read the verb shema, which means to hear and to respond. Between the time that Jesus was twelve years old in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when he appears before his cousin John to be baptized, almost twenty years pass. What happened during those “hidden years”? Jesus was learning to listen to his life: “How can this be?” “How shall I be?” Jesus was learning how to align his own will to the will of the God whom he calls “Father.” Jesus eventually said, “I have come … not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me”; however that is not where he started in life.[iii] Sr. Joan Chittester calls obedience “the willingness to listen for the voice of God in life,” and she predicts that it will “wrench us out of the limitations of our own landscape. We are being called to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something beyond ourselves.”[iv] We see such obedience, and how it plays out, in the life of Jesus.
The practice of listening to our life is essential to finding our way. In SSJE’s Rule of Life, we recognize that “obedience requires us to be constantly attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts, endowing us with our own unique authority and gifts.”[v] Who you are, what you are, why you value or devalue various things in life have been informed or deformed from your past. Your desires do not come from nowhere. We need to be on good speaking terms with our own past, about which God is already fully apprised. This is the experience Saint Paul refers to when he says that one day, “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[vi] Obedience requires listening. The English verb “to obey” comes from the Latin, obaudīre: to listen.
A second practice essential to cultivate for obedience is surrender. Most every day we are reminded that we are not God. Many things are beyond our control, which is actually our salvation. Life’s challenge, and life’s liberation, is to give up our will to God. I’m not speaking of the denial or denigration of our will, but the transformation of our will. It’s not that our will is too big and we want too much. No, it’s likely the opposite. We are prone to will too little, and to clutch at tiny things when we’ve been created for greatness, for God’s light and life and love to simply teem from us. The invitation for surrender is to align our will with God’s will and then to receive in return God’s gift of life: fearlessly, generously, faithfully, being fully alive. Our not being God is our salvation. Surrender to that reality and you will be given back life on new terms. Jesus’ terms. You will be amazed, and you will be amazing.
God has called us to be active co-creators in Christ, not passive recipients of external instructions. The English Benedictine, Dom Daniel Rees, says that “the Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not finding the solution to a crossword puzzle, where the answer must be exactly right... Rather, we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using all our intelligence, sensitivity, and love.”[vii]
The practice of obedience is part of our lifelong conversion to Christ. The Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner, defined obedience as “a free acceptance of what is necessary or of what in a particular situation is inevitable.” In coming to understand and accept the meaning of his life and the imminence of his death, Jesus learned obedience. Sometimes our obedience is very costly. Obedience is always seeking the mind of Christ: what would Jesus do if he were you? Incorporate the word “obedience” into the active vocabulary of your soul. Will you always get it right, where your will is conformed to Christ’s? No, not in my experience. But I do desire this, as will you: to be attentive and faithful to the myriad ways that God Emmanuel – God with us – is directing us, impressing us, guiding us, alluring us, loving us into that place of being fully and freely alive.
[i]John 6:38. In Matthew 26:39, Jesus said: “My Father, not what I want but what you want.” Saint Paul writes: “[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).
[ii]1 Corinthians 15:28.
[iv]Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB in A Spirituality for the 21stCentury; The Rule of Benedict; (Prologue).
[v]SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 12: “The Spirit of Obedience.”
[vi]1 Corinthians 13:12.
[vii]Dom Daniel Rees, OSB in Consider Your Call; A Theology of Monastic Life Today; pp. 189-204.