The third degree of humility is, when anyone submits himself with obedience to his superior for the sake of the love of God, after the example of the Lord, of whom the apostle says: “He was made obedient even unto death.”
~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7
Today is the 221st anniversary of the public execution of King Louis XVI of France. How fitting to reflect on obedience to one’s superiors on a day when men of the modern age claimed to have none, God included.
And then those people have kids.
And suddenly obedience doesn’t sound so bad anymore.
True, as an American it can sometimes seem peculiar to me the sort of obedience that was once offered to royalty. When I was Protestant, I did not understand ecclesiastical obedience either.
Well, I don’t think St. Benedict is here advocating any particular political order (other than that of monasteries). Nevertheless, ascetic teaching on obedience is relevant even for today. As I have written in the past, it is one form in which we learn to deny our own wills.
Thus, this third degree of humility follows naturally from the second. That highlighted 1) the importance of practice for obeying God, and 2) the positive nature of self-denial.
Similarly, obedience to our “superiors,” or even our equals, or even our “inferiors,” as the case may be, is not about becoming slaves to others. It is more about not being a slave to our own wills.
Most of us have “superiors” in some sense, even if we would not view them as royalty. Children have parents. Workers have bosses. Parishioners have priests. These people are not ontologically superior, but they have a superiority of authority, or, at least, honor.
Obedience that is not freely given is slavery. In this sense, none of these relationships need to be understood as forms of tyranny. Parents must teach children to obey, of course, even actively resisting their wills and limiting their freedom. But no parent views the reception of punishment they give a child who misbehaves as laudable obedience. The obedience they want, and that good children give to good parents, is the sort that (eventually) requires no chastisement.
When it comes to bosses and priests, the relationship is far more free. A boss can fire a worker and a priest can implement discipline, but a worker and parishioner can also freely leave a job or a parish, refusing to follow direction.
Among equals, we see further that the spirit of obedience (which, as I have said, is self-denial) must be present for harmony. Spouses must deny themselves in order to live in harmony with one another. They ought not to order one another around, but in a healthy relationship each should be willing to align his/her will with the other, serving one another in love.
Furthermore, parents often even deny their own wills for the sake of their children. Brendan, for example, simply loves anything that spins. Sometimes, if I want to spend time with him and show him how I love him, I need to sit with him as he spins the propeller on a toy helicopter, for example, again and again and again. I derive little enjoyment from spinning things myself, but because of the love I have for Brendan my heart fills with joy when I participate in this with him.
We submit ourselves to one another “for the sake of the love of God, after the example of the Lord.” I have previously mentioned that the logic of humility, exaltation by humiliation, is precisely the logic of the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, for our salvation.
All that Jesus did was out of obedience to and love for the Father. The Father is not ontologically superior to the Son. Indeed, he even gives his authority fully to the Son and the Spirit, according to St. Gregory the Theologian, for they are one in nature with him.
The obedience of the Son to the Father, then, was a picture of the loving relationship we ought to have with God—it was done for our sake, for our salvation, so that we would have “the example of the Lord.”
In this obedience, he did not shrink back even from death. So also, having begun with the fear of God in the knowledge of our own frailty and mortality, we ought not to fear the death of our own wills. For in submitting ourselves to others we contribute to the harmony that all creation was made for, which itself is a participation in the ever present and active grace of God.
“Greater love has no one than this,” says Jesus, “than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” And that is precisely what he did for us out of his love for us and the Father.
So also, we participate in that love when we lay down our lives, even unto death if need be, for others. True friends are the sort that sacrifice for one another. They help each other move. They give each other gifts. They lend their talents to shore up the other’s weaknesses, just as God offers all of himself to us to raise us up from our weakness, our humiliation, and into communion with him.
This is the third step—self-denial, friendship with God, and love. Understood in this way, obedience is not antiquated but timeless, even eternal.