Posted by Raima Larter (@Raima Larter)
One year, my kids thought it would be fun (or maybe funny) to get me one of those t-shirts emblazoned with, “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” As I recall, the font was a fancy script, maybe even calligraphy, but perhaps I’m imagining that because the idea I could get anybody to “obey” me seemed as old and outdated as, well, a monastery!
The idea of “obedience” is something convents and monasteries seem very good at acknowledging, whereas the rest of the world does not. The image of a strict Mother Superior is a caricature Hollywood has had a field day with. And there is more than a grain of truth in the image, since we read in the Rule of St. Benedict that the Abbess should:
“…always bear in mind that at the dread Judgment of God, there will be an examination of two matters: her teaching and the obedience of her disciples.” (RB 2:6)
When I was elected about three years ago to the position of Abbess of the Urban Abbey, the northern Virginia group that launched our own Virtual Abbey, I’d already been a community member for several years. The “obedience” idea had never concerned me.
I understood that the title Abbott or Abbess was taken from the word Abba, or Father because this position was that of Christ in and to the community. I knew I was being asked to “obey” the leader because it would help me learn obedience to God.
This I understood intellectually. Obedience was not a matter of great concern while I was a member. On the day of my induction as Abbess, when the community members knelt at my feet (yes, hard to believe, but that’s what the tradition called for) and promised to “obey” me, I was so overcome and humbled that I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.
How was I, a flawed and ordinary human being, supposed to represent Christ to this group? How could I truly live up to the expectations the community had for me in this position? It was beyond humbling and I had serious doubts about this idea of obedience, wondering if maybe this was one aspect of monasticism that we modern monastics could do without.
While the Rule of St. Benedict calls for the leader of a monastic community to be “obeyed” by the community members, it does not allow that leader to be a dictator. The Rule instructs the Abbess or Abbott to call the community together for counsel whenever a decision must be made because, “The Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best.” (RB 3:1-4).
Members of a monastic community are called to see Christ in their leader because they are called to see Christ in every person, not just the Abbess or Abbott. The Rule (RB 5) makes this very clear. Practicing obedience to the leader is a way to learn how to do this. As Jesus the Christ himself taught, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it unto one of the least of these you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40).
So, while the idea of obeying another flawed human being, and seeing God in that person, might seem quaint and potentially outdated, it turns out to be one of the most challenging ideas we might ever encounter.