St. Benedict and the Freedom of Obedience

Some Benedictine monks welcomed me into their Trappist monastery for a month-long retreat before I went to grad school to start formal theology training.

They observed the Benedictine “grand silence” for quite a bit of the day, which meant that we simply didn’t speak to each other unless we were praying the words of the Liturgy outloud together. It was quite remarkable and quite different from my regular days, even as a single man at the time.

That kind of silence brings many things into focus and leads to deep recollection.

On my third day in the monastic enclosure, just as I was settling into the quiet of the place, the silence was broken by a monk breaking wind, and then by me giggling. I tried to recover quickly. Benedict warns against frivolous laughter in the monastery (RB 4). But that cat was already out of the bag, and I had to turn down a different hallway to catch my breath.

The silence of a monastery can be, paradoxically, deafening.

Similarly, the structure of monastic life under strict obedience can be liberating. The silence is deafening because our inner thoughts are often masked by outer activity. And yet, the inner thoughts are more honest and usually more important. When the monastic walls act to dampen the noises and bustle of the outer life, we begin to hear the important inner voices, and those voices can be demanding and deafening.

Being obedient to the rule of silence quickly leads to freedom from the noises of the world.

Nevertheless, the link between obedience and freedom is not simply an issue of tuning into the more important conversations vs being distracted by noises. The virtue of obedience is about listening and humility according to St. Benedict (RB 5). Obedience is a virtue, and that means it is both a gift from God and something we can work to strengthen.

For St. Benedict, I think obedience sets us free in two key ways.

The first way obedience sets us free is the way of training (“ascesis” for those who like technical terms). Who is more free, the olympic athlete or the couch potato? The guitarist who plays 8 hours a day and has all scales memorized, or the guy who’s fingers obey only two chords? The woman who has learned a dozen languages, or the guy who can barely hold a conversation in one? Obviously, those who have trained hard are more free than those who have not.

They gain the ability – the habit – the virtue – which sets them free.

The second way obedience sets us free is that Christian obedience is always obedience to Christ. For a monk, the Abbot makes Christ manifest (RB 2). For children, parents ought to make Christ present in their lives. Obedience to Christ sets us free from the power of sin and the temptation of the devil and our vices. As best as I can tell, St. Benedict only uses the verb for “to free” (liberare) twice in the rule, and both are quotations from Sacred Scripture which indicate liberty from sins (RB 2.29 & 13.14).

In the spirit of St. Benedict, let us practice that paradoxical liberation found in obedience, and when we must break our silence, may we have the humility to laugh at ourselves.

The Rule of Benedict is available in a respectable edition at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50040/50040-h/50040-h.html as well as http://archive.osb.org/rb/text/rbejms1.html#pro.

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Tommy Humphries

Tommy Humphries

Tommy is a proud father and husband for the Humphries’ outpost in Florida. A native of Arkansas, he grew up in Little Rock. He is paid to teach philosophy, theology, and religion as university professor (CV on academia.edu), and volunteers his time as a District Chief with the county Fire Rescue Department.

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