On his first Maundy Thursday in office Pope Francis washed the feet of some of God’s people.
Humble. Obedient. Outrageous.
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
And so Francis did it — but he colored outside the lines: everyone expected him to wash twelve priests‘ feet; he washed prisoners’ feet, two of them women. I’d say humility and obedience took him into mission. After all,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Take that quotation in context and a lot seems to hang on it.
How do we get that kind of humility and obedience? Benedict has a twelve step plan.
I’ve been blogging about St Benedict’s Rule, exploring the paradoxical relationship between monastic community and mission.
- On the one hand, becoming a monk included a vow to stay put, live and work inside the monastery for the rest of your life.
- On the other hand, Benedictine monasticism became something of a training camp for the missionaries who brought Christianity to the far ends of Europe, as well as for other leaders of the church in the middle ages.
Stay inside, but go and serve. Hmm… What’s up with that? And how does Benedict’s advice on having a Rule and an Abbot have anything to do with this process of training monks to serve in mission?
The life Benedict envisions, under a Rule and an Abbot, sets up the entire community to grow in two key ways:
- They will become obedient.
- They will become humble.
Those goals are not going to appear in the marketing plan of the “seeker sensitive” new church plant. They are, however, very important qualities of disciples of Jesus Christ.
Benedict’s ideal is obedience — and that’s immediate willing obedience rather than resistance or delay or complaint. He would have loved the story I recall from the Desert Fathers: a monk was writing when called to come to prayer, and he put down his pen and left before crossing the letter “t”.
“The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.”
He repeats the expectation that obedience be immediate several times, grounding it in the authority structure where the Abbot is in the place of Christ to the monks.
“As soon as anything hath been commanded by the Superior they permit no delay … as if the matter had been commanded by God Himself.”
Respond as quickly to the Abbot as we do to God. It is a system to form our characters to willing obedience, cooperation, service. No need to quibble about how we aren’t so very obedient to things that God has personally commanded. Benedict teaches earthly obedience to get us in the habit. (And no pun intended about the “habit” thing.)
Obedience to God grows from real living faith, and the monastery helps this happen. Obedience does not make God love us or bring our justification. However, once I have Christ as my savior I get Christ as my Lord, and I have to obey. In Benedict’s approach, the monastery, with its Rule and Abbot, becomes a boot camp to teach this.
This virtue of obedience is closely related to the other key monastic virtue: Humility. I’ve already quoted him saying obedience is the first step of humility. He actually has a full twelve-step program for humility two chapters after the one on obedience. I’ll paraphrase:
- Humility fears God, and is mindful of God’s commands
- Humility loves and does God’s will instead of our own
- Humility, because of the love of God, submits to superiors
- Humility is patient and even-tempered when commanded to do unpleasant things
- Humility tells the truth, confessing sins honestly
- Humility is content with having simple things rather than insisting on the very best
- Humility is honest inside about sin, not just mouthing the words of confession
- Humility limits itself, doing just what the Rule and the example of one’s elders say to do
- Humility holds its tongue
- Humility isn’t addicted to being funny and laughing at everything
- Humility speaks gently and seriously about serious things
- Humility always keeps one’s eyes on God, aware of who we are before him
Benedict’s take on humility is as bracing and all-encompassing as his take on obedience. But look closely and it all flows from a sane understanding of who we are and who God is. It grows from a life of obedience, in community, under Rule and Abbot.
I said obedience and humility were the qualities of Christ’s disciples. They are also qualities that make participation in mission possible — just imagine how effective a community of people formed in the opposite way (disobedience and pride) would be in doing God’s work. When the monk has learned to humbly obey inside the monastery, he’ll be ready to obey when called to go out and serve in mission.
Benedict’s monastery nurtures humility and obedience. What kinds of behaviors and attitudes does the structure of your community nurture?
What might a community do today to nurture qualities and virtues needed for mission?
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