Some words are as old fashioned as my grandmother’s butter churn, words like clew (ball of thread), fandangle (useless or purely ornamental thing), popinjay (a parrot), and scapegrace (a rascal). A word not yet archaic but in danger of becoming so is the word “obey,” especially when used in reference to human behavior. Obedience is a good quality to have in children, employees, soldiers, and subordinates. However, it seems to cut so much against the modern, egalitarian grain that when we hear it commended, it can have the same effect as running one’s fingernails down a chalkboard. (Chalkboard is another word in danger of becoming archaic.)
The Rule of St. Benedict begins with the archaic word “hearken” in Dom McCann’s translation. It means “to listen intently to” or “to obey,” and it appears in the imperative mood: Listen! Obey! Obedience is a virtue not only for children and employees but also for monks, nuns, and anyone trying to live a spiritual life. In fact, St. Benedict, at the very beginning of his rule, speaks of the “labor of obedience” and the “strong and shining weapons of obedience.” Obedience is described as both a means of returning to God and an instrument of spiritual warfare with which we fight for him. Renouncing one’s own will is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s no wonder St. Benedict refers to it as labor. The word calls to mind images of chain gangs and delivery rooms.
What makes obedience joyful, though still difficult, is the knowledge that the one we obey is a “loving father.” It is unclear whether the reference is to God or the abbot. Likely it’s both, since the abbot (from the Aramaic “abba,” meaning “father”) stands in the place of God. Loving parents make it easier for their children to obey. The same principle applies to all leaders, whether employers, teachers, military officers, abbots, or abbesses. In God’s kingdom, love and obedience go hand in hand. With love, obedience still isn’t easy but it’s less likely to become extinct.