To be read: January 1, May 1, September 1
Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master, and incline to them with the ear of your heart. Cheerfully receive and put into practice the admonitions of your loving Father, 2that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience you have gone astray. 3To you, therefore, my message is now directed, who, giving up your own will once and for all, take up the strong and most excellent weapons of obedience to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.
The Prologue sets the stage for Benedict’s teachings in the chapters which follow with three keynotes which will resound throughout the entirety of the Rule. These keynotes are: listen, obey, and submit to Christ’s will. To obey we must first listen—listen to the master’s instruction. We must tune the ear of our hearts to his heart and not just his words. And thus armed with obedience we can submit to Christ. We can do battle for Christ, our King and our Lord. Listen and obey, that we may “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” (RB 72:11).
Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master… Benedict does not define master in this context. Is he Jesus? The abbott? The novice master, or maybe the monk’s spiritual director? Benedict does not say, but the exhortation would be true for each. We all need a master to whom we may look for spiritual direction—an accomplished elder who has the insights of someone who has walked the Way for many years. However, we are not all privileged to have someone like that to whom we may listen and submit. Michael Casey, OCSO suggests that if we do not have the good fortune to have such an individual in our lives, “the next best option is to attach ourselves to a tradition, making the journey in company with others who share the same ideals and learning from their example and wisdom” (The Road to Eternal Life, p. 14). And so, we listen to the Master through the fellowship of the Body of Christ.
Listening, we learn to obey. Benedict calls this type of obedience a “labor”. This is not labor in the sense of a burdensome toiling in a rock-strewn field. This labor is a joyful effort to draw closer to Christ. It is more like the courting of a beloved, seeking the deeper, more permanent relationship of marriage. We work hard to establish the bonds of love and solidify the covenant. Sloth has no entry into that type of energetic effort. Benedict indicates that the major obstacle to spiritual growth, and the ultimate sign of disobedience, is sloth. This “labor of obedience” is the means by which the goal of union with God is reached. It is a goal worth working for.
The third keynote, submission to Christ, follows closely on the heels of listening and obedience. It is the reason we take time and make the effort to listen, and the purpose of our obedience. We have chosen this path of spiritual discipline in order to yield our will to the will of Christ. Benedict makes bookends of this pattern of submission by opening the Prologue with this exhortation, and sums up his Rule, as noted above in chapter 72, with the command that we “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”
The heart of our daily battle is the fight between self will and submission to the will of Christ. Whether living in the confines of a monastery, or in the temptation-rich fields of the world, the Rule confronts us with the challenge to submit our will to that of Christ’s; to live in obedience to Him and to His Body. We cannot live in submission to Christ apart from the Church militant. For without the army of Christ, the weapons of obedience are not available to us.
And so, those of us outside the confines of the monastic enclosure need the fellowship of the Body. We cannot come to the full richness of relationship with Christ apart from the Body of Christ. With the help of our brothers and sisters in the Church we can do battle with self will, and continually renew our commitment to submit to Christ, our King and our Lord.