What does "obedience" really mean?

Before Morning Prayers, or Lauds, we read a chapter from the Rule of Benedict and it often sets the tone I carry throughout the morning. Yesterday’s reading has lingered longer. It was about obedience.

“…obedience to the Prioress and to one another’ is one of my favorite excerpts from the Rule. I have many reasons for cherishing this line, but first understand that obedience is NOT blind assent. It comes from the Latin root “obidere,” meaning to listen.

Obedience calls us to listen to our Prioress, our Sisters and ourselves – but listening is no easy matter. Listening requires a sincere heart and mind. Obedience also requires respect for the other. More deeply, obedience requires each of us to understand how our lives affect those around us. It moves us beyond listening and respect to an other-centered focus. It is not about what we want but what others need from us.

In community, obedience is about meshing our own concerns with those of the Prioress, the Sisters and the community as a whole.  Obedience is about  learning my own wisdom, nurtured through prayer and study, and listening to the wisdom around me to discover God’s Will. Sometimes being obedient is about speaking our own Wisdom! God’s Will is not always immediately clear and so we must discuss and share our piece. This is especially true in Benedictine communities like ours, where we all together make decisions that affect the whole. However, even in our individual decisions, it is about prayer and listening to Wisdom from the Prioress and our Sisters.

This obedience is the foundation of community life. It is how we live together and why we entered this particular community. For obedience means we live not for ourselves but for and with our Sisters.  It is how we communicate each day and make each decision. We do not live isolated lives, but rather, communal lives, obedient to each other.  We consider and respect others, we listen to their voices, we look inside and find our voice, we share our voices, we reflect on how our voice impacts others and we decide together what is best for all.

Of course, it’s not always easy to put aside me for we, which most people find out in marriage, or work, or other commitments. Obedience makes it possible to achieve an astonishingly deep we, leaving the limited me behind.

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