Benedictine Vows as a Basis for Ministry

stones-1030811_1920In my last blog post, I began a discussion on how stewardship and faithfulness complement each other based on the book Slow Church. At the end of the post, I mentioned wanting to explore how the Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and transformation might provide a basis for moving forward.

At the outset, let me make very clear that I have never been part of a Benedictine monastery; my knowledge and understanding comes from reading The Rule of Saint Benedict as well as Esther de Waal’s excellent book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. In this discussion, I recognize that this is not a one-to-one comparison—the vows a monk makes are radically different than what I do as a pastor.

Given this, the question I want to ask is: What can we learn from Saint Benedict that might help us faithfully steward the resources we have been entrusted with?

The three Benedictine vows are obedience, stability, and transformation.

Transformation

Everything starts here—the journey of being transformed by Christ into Christ’s likeness. This journey is not one of predictability or control, rather it is rooted in the mysteriousness of God, who will do his work, his way, in his time. Or as Esther de Waal points out, this vow confronts us with our love of the cozy, the safe, the predictable (page 70).

My transformation and the community’s transformation must receive its cues from Christ—his life, but more importantly his death and his resurrection. For only as I am drawn to the cross and empowered by his resurrection am I able to model his life to others. We as a community cannot live a kingdom centered life unless we all submit ourselves to the power of Christ’s passion. A key part of transformation will involve being confronted by the truth of who I am, deeply flawed but deeply loved.

I must start here daily because without this recognition I am constantly tempted to do ministry my way, in my time. And we as community must start here or else we will be tempted to control ministry or settle for the safe and cozy.

Stability

One of the keys to continual transformation is the commitment to stability. Stability is the standing firm, a radical commitment to a particular people and to a particular people. As Esther de Waal writes, “Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another monastic stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God” (57).

In our frenetic culture, addicted to the cult of speed, stability forces me to slow down and pay careful attention to the particular people God has placed with me. Our culture is also addicted to fads, and the church is not exempt. But again stability requires me to pay attention to the real. Instead of escaping and dreaming of people being more like those people, stability demands me to pay attention to what God is doing right here, right now. What is God doing in our community’s life? As a pastor, what do my people need to help them be continually transformed?

If I truly commit to stability, my goal is never to force people, places, or things into my preconceived ideas of what is best. Rather I assume a posture of deep listening. I invite dialogue with others to listen, and I not only listen to what they say, but in partnership with the Holy Spirit, I discern what is below the surface—the hard work God is beginning to do that might not be visible yet.

Obedience

As we submit ourselves to continual transformation and faithful stability, this should lead to a willing obedience for the sake of the other. Of all the vows, obedience is the one met with most resistance, especially in our American culture. Few of us are eager to relinquish our will for the sake of the other. But as St. Benedict writes, “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 of obedience that we go to God” (chapter 71).

We misunderstand obedience if we think of it as we did when our parents commanded us to obey. Obedience within the context of the monastery is not robotic. Esther de Waal describes it this way:

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 (page 50).

If obedience is the bending of our will to the love of God so what we collaborate with him, then obedience finds its root in listening (listening and obedience actually share the same root in Latin). Obedience begins with whole-person listening and then responding in love. In this context, then, listening and obedience are not simply cerebral, but involve a living response to what has taken place.

Obedience begins in an encounter with the Word of God; obedience and listening always begins with being able to hear God properly, but it never ends there. As we listen to God, we should be more and more motivated to listen to others.

The vow of obedience is the willing relinquishment of my will for, the sake of the other. It is about truly hearing what our people are saying. At the same time, it must move beyond that. The vow of obedience is a vow to let another speak powerfully into my life. And this is scary. It is easier to do the talking than the listening. What if I don’t like what I hear?

This fear is why the communal aspect is so important. As a community are we willing to commit together to intentionally listen first for the voice of Christ through His Word, but also in each other? If we are all seeking the same goal, namely the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, then we must trust that what God will say through others will lead to our greater freedom, again as both individuals and as a community.

As I read over what I have written, I don’t think I have answered the question I started with, but maybe that’s for a different blog. What does a church community look like who embraces these commitments and seeks to live from them?

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