Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The obstacle to spiritual progress according to St. Benedict

In re-reading Benedict's Rule again over the last few weeks, one of the things that struck me is his diagnosis of what ails us spiritually. According to Benedict, the primary obstacle to our spiritual progress is our self-will. In the first chapter of the Rule, Benedict describes four different types of monks, two he likes and two he doesn't. The first two, cenobites and anchorites are those who follow a rule and subject themselves to an abbot (in the case of the cenobites) or have started in a cenobitic community and progressed to the life of a hermit. The other two types of monks, sarabaites and gyrovagues, are those either have no rule or no stable home respectively. Benedict describes sarabaites as those who do "whatever strikes their fancy" and gyrovagues as those who are "slaves to their own wills."

Benedict sees our self-will as a tyrannical force that enslaves us and keeps us from making spiritual progress. The problem of our will is that it causes us to "give in to our whims and appetites" (5.12) rather than to what God desires for us. As a result, Benedict constantly urges us to "hate the urgings of self-will" (4.60), and "not to follow your own heart's desire" (3.8), or to guard against the sins "of the self will" (7.12). Benedict's concern is that when it is our self-will that is in charge, it will lead us to value things other than God and thus hinder our spiritual progress.

It is with this concern in mind that Benedict puts so much emphasis on obedience and on the role of the abbot. The abbot is charged with overseeing the spiritual progress of monks and with meeting their physical needs. By following the Rule and subjecting one's will to that of the abbot, the monk begins to have his self-will trained and focused on divine things rather than human things.

In thinking about the secret to the 1500 success of Benedictine life, I've become convinced that when we focus on the spiritual practices of the Daily Office and the Lectio Divinia, we miss the real key insight of Benedict. What makes Benedictine life so successful is its emphasis on obedience as a means of escaping the tyranny of self-will. Obedience becomes the key spiritual practice in Benedictine life.

This, of course, is a foreign idea to our modern sensibilities, which are dominated by ideas of reason and personal conscience. We are wary of any authority which may conflict with our own ideas of what is best for us or of what we should be doing.

This is not to say that there is no room for members of the church to have discussions and to dissent from authorities, but the question that we must ask ourselves is whether our dissents are just elaborate justifications for our self-will, or whether they are grounded in divine ideas of human thriving.

How would your spiritual life change if you began to think of obedience as a spiritual practice?


Jon said...

Amen, although it is probably worth asking obedient to what exactly? With the Benedictines it is relatively clear, one obeys the abbot, but how do we apply this to non-monastic life? We have to watch out for cults and things like that, after all.


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