In 2008, when I seriously began to discern my vocation with the Benedictines in Washington, DC, I asked some of the monks what they thought was the most difficult aspect of monastic life. I had been reading the Rule of Benedict where, in chapter 58, I first learned about the vows of conversatio morum and stability, which are different from the better-known vows of poverty and chastity. What was the most difficult aspect of monastic life? In a diverse community of men, I received a diverse array of answers, but one in particular stands out most. One of the men who has been a monk longer than I have been alive answered, “Obedience is hardest.” I think he’s right. But what makes obedience so difficult?
St. Benedict first mentions obedience in the opening line of the Prologue to the Rule: Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience, thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away. Here we see at the very beginning of the Rule, that obedience is not easy; obedience is toil, it requires work. St. Benedict goes further in the next sentence of his Prologue, comparing obedience to wielding a sword or any other type of weapon: “To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.” This reference to spiritual battle is redolent of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, where he writes that we must “put on the full armor of God.” Although St. Paul does not refer to obedience, he does say that we should use the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) Is not the sword of the Spirit that is the word of God none other than the very person of Jesus Christ, whom, St. Paul reminds the Philippians, was “obedient unto death - even death on a cross”? (Philippians 2:18)
So, obedience has an arduous connotation and is synonymous with struggle, effort, hard work, dying to self. It is a weapon in the spiritual battle, and is personified by Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death on a cross. At first glance, none of these ideas is pleasant, uplifting or edifying. But let us recall that in the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled (struggled) with the angel and here had his name changed to “Israel” that literally means, “he who struggles with God”! (Genesis 32:28) Struggles in the spiritual life are nothing new and go back at least to the time of ancient Israel. This side of heaven, men and women will always struggle in matters of faith. Even if I were to believe everything taught by the Church to be true, I might still wrestle with the fact that others do not believe as I do. In this case, more likely than not, I will pass judgment on those who do not yet believe, thus falling into the trap of the pharisee who prays “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) In this parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, our prayer must be like that of the latter who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ”
There is nothing easy about the spiritual life if one takes it seriously, and humility is required. Jesus chose a cross for a reason, and his instruction to his disciples that they must “deny [themselves] take up their crosses and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24) did not have much of a reference point when they heard him. Two thousand years later, however, we can see the full context of Jesus’ instruction. God does not ask anything of us that He, Himself has not already experienced.
Fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) is not for the weak or faint of heart. This is true for all who take their faith seriously. The spiritual life is not easy, nor is it intended to be. But, nothing in this world that has any value is free - other than the unmerited gift of faith. This gift is freely available to everyone, a gift waiting to be received. For this reason we are obedient when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Matthew 6:10)