The opening of Rule of St Benedict (Prologue) is very much like the overture of an opera; here we meet the themes, words and images which will be developed throughout the Rule. One such theme is that of the urgency of God’s call. The urgency of the call is such that St Benedict does not want us to delay and would have wake up, open our eyes and run:
Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts (Ps 94:8). And again: You who have ears to hear, listen to what the spirit says to the churches (Rev 2:7). And what does he say? Come and listen to me, sons; I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Ps 34:12). Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you (John 12:35).Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue v 8–13
There is all the energy and dynamism of an athlete in this short quotation. It’s easy to imagine a runner on a path, with the goal in sight. For St Benedict the race is not so much one person competing against others, but a community running together, running in the tracks made by monastics from centuries past. It is love which empowers us, love which spurs us on. Towards the end of the Prologue St Benedict returns to the image of running on a path:
As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commands, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue v 49
This is a grand vision, but one which is certainly worth the effort. The whole of the Rule could be understood as guidelines for expanding the heart and growth in love. St Benedict knows that it won’t be easy and that we are bound to stumble. One of the ways in which the monastic is strengthened for running on the path is by learning to listen to God, to the superior and to others in community. This three-fold listening is how St Benedict understands OBEDIENCE.
Throughout the Rule St Benedict makes explicit the quality of obedience which is expected of each member of the community:
The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of the dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they carry out the superior’s orders promptly as if the command came from God himself.Rule of Saint Benedict, Obedience, Chapter 5 v 1–4
St Benedict’s vision is very much an ideal, something which we work towards during monastic life. What he is concerned with is the practice of virtue. Just as an athlete trains and builds stamina and so is able to compete, so too, the monastic trains and is able to offer ‘unhesitating obedience.’ It is easy to think of obedience as a burden, something wearying and heavy. St Benedict sees obedience as a blessing:
Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot, but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way that we come to God.Rule of Saint Benedict, Mutual Obedience, Chapter 71 v 1–2
Obedience is a very active virtue which demands everything that we have. Michael Casey, a prominent Australian Cistercian, expresses the urgency in the following quotation:
For St. Benedict, the opposite of obedience is not rebelliousness or insubordination, but laziness, negligence, doing nothing. In the Prologue is expressed a labour of obedience against the laziness of disobedience. Obedience is the opposite of inertia. So, rise from sleep, open your eyes, and let us hear God’s voice! RUN! He doesn’t say walk or…take a taxi! To run is very active. Run is the work of a lover. It speaks of a certain enthusiasm, to be at tune with what God tells us. Obedience is to act now, in this moment. Benedict calls here upon the subjective conscience of each person to complement external regulations with the awareness of further possibilities for doing good and avoiding evil. Keeping the commandments is the minimum. A fuller righteousness is required.
Scriptural Perspectives On Running
I have chosen the way of fidelity,Psalm 119 30–32
I have set my heart on your rulings.
I cling to your decrees:
Lord do not disappoint me.
I run the way of your commandments, since you have set me free.