SATURDAY READING: Listening by Esther de Waal

Listening by Esther de Waal

From Seeking God: The Way of Saint Benedict

How great is the freedom to which you are called.

Right at the start of the Rule of Saint Benedict had the vivid image of the crowded marketplace and the Lord calling out very loudly, trying to arrest the attention of passers-by in the crowd to what is on offer.  This is an open invitation, a general offer to anyone who cares to stop and listen.  It is not highly selective at all; in fact it is addressed to each of us personally.  The Bible of course presents us with some spectacular calls: Moses was alone in the desert, Samuel was dragged out of sleep, Paul was blinded.  But then Simon and Andrew, James and John were merely at their usual daily jobs, fishing and mending the nets, and Amos was about his usual work as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.  The stories of the call experienced by modern Benedictines are often quite ordinary, reassuringly commonplace.  What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus is exceptional; the setting of daily life is far more common.

Saint Benedict was of course writing for professed monks and there can be no doubt about the rigorous demands that he makes on those who enter the monastic life.  Yet never himself a priest and writing his Rule with a community of laymen in mind, his very clear grasp of the principles underlying the commitment of the vows remains applicable and valuable to all who are trying to follow Christ.  So however stumbling my efforts and halting my progress, I can still find in the Rule perceptions which support and illuminate my way.  I come back again to that crowded marketplace and to the offer of “true and eternal life,” an offer open to all, a response possible from all, but with the proviso that if I respond it must be here and now, and it must be with action as well as with faith.

The very first word of the Rule is “listen.”  From the start the disciple’s goal is to hear keenly and sensitively that Word of God which is not only message but event and encounter.  This is the start of a life-long process of learning, and the whole of the monastery is set out as a school of the Lord’s service, a place and a structure to encourage the dialogue of master and disciple, in which the ability to listen is fundamental.  The simple word, obsculta, is rich in meaning, for it involves a reverent, ready, humble way of listening.  It involves not only listening to the Word of God but listening at many other levels too, to the Rule, to the abbot, and to the brethren.  We are probably today in a better position than at any time in the past to appreciate just how wide-ranging that exercise can be.  The way in which we have been made familiar with what is rather pompously known as nonverbal communication has taken listening out of the narrow sphere of hearing words into the much wider sphere of recognizing signs, particularly in body and posture, and not only in other people but in ourselves as well.  Listening to ourselves and learning to love ourselves, paying attention to our body, to its demands and its rhythms, has been pushed underground by centuries of Puritan repression and it is only now at long last being taken seriously again.  The ache in my back need not necessarily be dismissed with stoic fortitude as lumbago; it may be telling me about tension and strain, a signal that it is time to stop and to be kind to my body and my nerves and not make impossible demands on myself.

Since we no longer associate schooling only with the acquisition of information we are also more open to recognize the vital part that experience plays in learning.  Saint Benedict’s understanding of listening falls into this order; it is the listening of the whole person, of body as well as intellect, and it requires love as well as cerebral assent.  And it also involves mindfulness, an awareness which turns listening from a cerebral activity into a living response.  Having heard the word, through whatever channel it may have come, even as unacceptably as a pain in my back, I stop and take it seriously and then do something about it.  To listen attentively to what we hear is much more than giving it passing aural attention.  It means in the first instance that we have to listen whether we like it or not, whether we hear what we want to or something that is actually disagreeable or threatening.  If we begin to pick and choose we are in fact turning a deaf ear to the many unexpected and perhaps unacceptable ways in which God is trying to reach us.  For example, the geriatric ward in which so many older people now end their days is inescapably full of pain and distress.  It would be absurd to pretend otherwise.  Yet, bound as most of us tend to be by the relentless demands of the clock and the calendar, we find here a world which accepts another sort of time, where requests and reminiscences repeated endlessly remind us of something which the Orthodox liturgy knows with its continual repetitions again and again and again.  These people, a sector of our society which many would prefer to banish and forget, might be speaking to us through their often confused words – if only we could hear them – of that time outside time of which we need a constant reminder.

To listen closely, with every fiber of our being, at every moment of the day, is one of the most difficult things in the world, and yet it is essential if we mean to find the God whom we are seeking.  If we stop listening to what we find hard to take then, as the Abbot of St. Benoît-sur-Loire puts it in a striking phrase, “We’re likely to pass God by without even noticing him.”  And now it is our obedience which proves that we have been paying close attention.  That word “obedience” is derived from the Latin oboedire, which shares its roots with audire, to hear.  So to obey really means to hear and then act upon what we have heard, or, in other words, to see that the listening achieves its aim.  We are not being truly attentive unless we are prepared to act on what we hear.  If we hear and do nothing more about it, then the sounds have simply fallen on our ears and it is not apparent that we have actually heard them at all.

Saint Benedict really drives the point home.  “The disciples’ obedience must be given gladly, for God loves the cheerful giver.  If a disciple obeys grudgingly and grumbles, not only aloud but also in his heart, then even though he carries out the order his action will not be accepted with favor by God who sees the grumbling in the heart.  He will have no reward for service of this kind; on the contrary he will incur punishment for grumbling, unless he changes for the better and makes amends.” (5.16-19)  So there is no time for the half-hearted response.  Saint Benedict does not find it good enough that I am not really paying attention to the people who have interrupted me and upset all my nice plans for myself, that in my heart I’m actually furious and my calm smile is no more than a façade behind which I am inwardly fuming.

What Saint Benedict is really hoping for he has expressed almost lyrically in the Prologue:

We shall run
On the path of God’s commandments,
our hearts overflowing
with the inexpressible delight
of love. (Prologue 49)

So obedience is really about love.  It is our loving response to God which a murmuring response altogether wrecks.  “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.” (4.20,21)

The outcome of obedience undertaken in these terms is that it brings with it an inner freedom.  “Obedience is a blessing” is the opening phrase of Chapter 71, which tackles the question of obedience among the brothers.  That simple expression makes the point that it is not negative, not a restriction, but positive and it will lead us to God.  The certain conviction that Saint Benedict established at the beginning of the Rule is still with him at the end: that we go to God by the road of obedience.  He makes this clear at the start of the Prologue.  “The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience.  This message of mine is for you then it you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” (Prologue 2.3)  And right at the end he speaks of “observant and obedient monks.” (73.6)  These are men who “have learned to compete in obedience to one another,” (72.6) and the way in which this is achieved is through the practice described earlier in Chapter 7, where the second step in humility asks that “a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires; rather he shall imitate by his actions the saying of the Lord; I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (7.31,32)

That quotation from Chapter 7 of the Rule confronts us with Saint Benedict’s discussion of humility, something quite fundamental to his thought though perhaps something which tends to alarm the modern reader.  This is probably because our immediate reaction is to think that it means somebody who is somehow limp and ineffectual; in church circles it conjures up the pictures of the obsequiously pious, altogether the nonperson we should all hate to be.  This is unfortunate since the word itself (derived from the same root as humus, earth), on the contrary suggests that we should be profoundly earthed, that we should face up to the truth about our human condition.  This is a command which does in fact demand enormous strength of purpose.  If we succeed it will bring a release of the powers and energy to make us full and free followers of Christ.  But first of all we have to tackle what can both ruin our private life and become a corrosive in our relationships with others, namely self-will.  It is our self-centeredness that Saint Benedict means by self-will, and it is important to see that when he says “renounce your will,” this does not mean our free will.  That is one of our greatest gifts.  He wants us to free ourselves from the possessive self, concerned with self-interest, which so grasps and clutches that it gets in the way of any free and open relationship with God.  So it is the use which we make of our will which is the point at issue.  Are we going to use it to serve our own drives and impulses and assert our independence?  Or are we going to use it to serve others and make it a means of returning to Christ?  That is the challenge.

Saint Benedict does not leave us without help here.  He offers us a guide to this life-long process of learning obedience.  He devotes Chapter 7 to showing how this conquest of self can be achieved.  His image is the ladder.  He presents us with twelve rungs and our ascent is progressive; we must attain the first before we can move to the second, and with every step up each preceding rung is knocked away.  The first seven steps look at the growth of the interior disposition, the next five at the exterior conduct which results from that.  The starting point, that we should keep the fear of God always before our eyes, is based on something which the Rule says time and time again: we should never forget the omnipresence of God.  He is always there, it is as simple as that.  God is alongside us – Saint Benedict tells his monk this very firmly: “Let him recall that he is always seen by God in Heaven, that his actions are everywhere in God’s sight and are reported by the angels at every hour.” (7.13)  This awareness of being a creature of God brings with it a sense of responsibility.  If I want to know how humble I am the first question to ask myself is, “How aware am I that anything I do in any way is part of the working out of God’s will?”  With that question I consciously place all that I am before God and make him the center of my existence rather than my own projects and my own successes.  That all is the stumbling block.  Many people go through life without a firm grasp on that first rung of the ladder, a contemporary American prioress told her community in discussing this chapter of the Rule, because they are sure that adversity in their lives cannot possibly be the will of God for them; they will resist the hard thing and put it away from them; they have no room for the recognition that God is running their life.  So after asking for the submission of my will in this way the chapter continues, making its demands for radical disengagement.  In these first steps the humility comes from the inside; later it comes from relationships with other people.  Subjecting myself to another “in all obedience for the love of God,” (7;34) means giving up my power, my arrogance, and instead submitting myself to seek the will of God through others.  If I want to grow, openness and interaction with others is imperative since then I can grow with the help of someone else’s gifts.  I admit my limitations with my weakness, and I let someone else hold me up so that I can go on.  This, of course, prevents any false self-image and cuts down my pride in my own sufficiency.  It involves trust, for it means recognizing someone else’s strengths so that he can rescue me from my weakness.  My attachment to material things clearly has to go, and we shall see later how much stress Saint Benedict places on this.  But equally important, and often much more difficult, is to let go of my ambition and self-esteem, my self-assertiveness, my wish to be just a little different from everyone else.  If through all this I learn to deal with my own limitations then I shall be able to deal with those of other people.  This humility which I am learning to practice may prevent me from laughing quite so easily at other people, or finding things superficial, or being ready so quickly to scorn and criticize.  Knowing my own limitations I have no right to destroy other people for theirs.

The very top of the ladder carries a promise of the serenity that comes with my discovery that God is in charge of my life and that as a result I am finally free.  And then it becomes clear what this long consideration of humility has been about.  It is the interior breaking free.  I am released from my bondage to my self-seeking, my ambitions, my self-sufficiency and all the rest of it.  This is of course New Testament teaching, that in God’s service men and women find perfect freedom.  It is also one of the central themes of the Rule.  Saint Benedict makes obedience his ascetic practice.  Perhaps he knew that it was perfectly possible to undergo extreme mortification, fasting and vigils and yet still not give up one’s will and all that goes with it – the tyranny of self-absorption and the self-deception and the fear of failing in the goals that I have set myself (and told others about so that I should fail in their eyes as well as mine, which is if anything even more galling).  Only when all this is broken is there the possibility of progress from slavery to freedom.  And freedom is what most of us want more desperately than ever.  It is true that I seem to be surrounded by enormous freedom of choice (how to vote, what to eat, what brand product to choose when I shop), and yet ironically my ultimate freedom of maneuver seems limited, by career structure, by economic pressure, by the expectations others have of me, by the establishment, by the church.  I seem to be trapped just when I least expected it.

Yet here is the promise that Saint Benedict holds out and it could hardly be more straightforward.  “This Rule is not meant to be a burden for you.  It should help you to discover and experience how great is the freedom to which you are called.”  But freedom for what?  “To be able to do in the depths of your heart what you really want to do,” was what Thomas Merton told his novices at Gethsemani.  He went on to speak to them of getting in touch with that deep inner center, using terms which have much in common with what stability involves, “my being, my reality, what God has willed for me.”  The part played by obedience becomes clear as he continues, “being able to will what God wills for me at every moment is what keeps me in touch with that center: that reality is the will of God and it demands response.  I have to choose, in everything I do, in relation to this.  I must keep contact with this center of freedom.”  Perhaps that choice will be very difficult.  It may feel like panic at the impossible demand, it may feel like a choice between two evils.  Then the only possible prayer is the one that the novice makes at his profession, quoting Psalm 119.  “Uphold me, O Lord, as you have promised, and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope.”  The only hope at this point is to throw myself on the support of God, relying on the protecting nearness to the God of the psalms who reaches out to me just as I felt that I could go no further.  For obedience is a risky business.  It is much easier to talk about it than to act it out.  It means being prepared to take my life in my hands and place it in the hands of God.

Yet by doing this we discover that in fact God has made us collaborators with him, since what he was drawing out of us in our moments of decision or crisis was not blind obedience and mechanical conformity, but rather an obedience that asked us to take moral responsibility for ourselves.  Only perhaps in looking back can we see the extent to which obedience has encouraged a process of growth and of self-transcendence.  What is asked from us is not the securing of a correct answer but something much freer and more creative.  “The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle,” says a recent Benedictine discussion of obedience, “where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan.  A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love.”  Blind obedience simply does not come into the Rule at all.  Critical faculties are neither wrong nor irrelevant.  They are given us to be used constructively and with love.  In Chapter 58, which sets out the succession of steps by which the novice takes his responsible decision, it is heavily stressed that this final commitment comes after fully conscious, mature, and free choice.  When he finally promises obedience it has become a free response from the center of his being, a freely considered choice which carries meaning and authenticity.  Later on the monk may find himself unable to do what is bidden and in that case the Rule allows a place for this.  “He should choose an appropriate moment and explain patiently to his superior the reasons why he cannot perform the task.” (68.2)  If however his superior still holds to the original order, then “trusting in God’s help, he must in love obey.”  This grounding in love remains the vital element.  Ultimately obedience will come from the heart, and it will be the expression of what we most deeply and truly desire.  At the root of obedience is the free, humble, loving surrender to the will of God; the willing obedience which says, “Yes,” with our whole person to the infinite love of God, so that outward observance springs from inward assent, a bending of our free will towards the will of Christ, which will finally make us collaborators with him.

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