The Obedience of the Desert Elders: a tool for reflecting the true self

The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.
— from chap. 5 of the Rule of Benedict

In our last post, Amma Syncletica, having moved to a graveyard outside Alexandria Egypt, recommended to us the unpopular virtue of humility – not just any humility, but a fiery humility.  A humility that is bold and strong enough to reject requests that keep us from our task, to pursue a goal with fierce determination, to act quickly and decisively in matters of great import.   To add to the difficulty, says Syncletica, we learn this humility by obedience. 

Two hundred years later, St. Benedict writing at Monte Cassino in Italy, echoes this theme.  The first step in learning humility, he says, is obedience without delay.  This is sounding more and more controlling and, dare we say it, fascist.  More like the “unthinking obedience” we are warned against in ethics and history classes and by our mothers.  But let us keep going for a bit, past this common misconception.  I argued in the last post that obedience is NOT a good in itself, but serves as an instrument to get us to something else: humility.  Obedience serves us as:

a tool that pries you free from attachments.  Free from attachment to possessions, concern with personal pride, free from achievement.  Free, even, from attachment to the Desert Elder who is your guide.

Today I want to argue that obedience can only do this when paired with inner discernment.  Thus, by obedience, we are made aware of those elements in our motivations that are impure. We obey, but know we are uncomfortable.  We obey and sense we are more trying to please than trying to do the right thing.  We obey but feel resentful.  We obey and feel the tension between obedience to a legitimate command or request and one that oversteps it bounds.  Is our reluctance because the direction given is wrong or because we are somehow too attached to our own will? Asking questions like these is the inner work of discernment, and obedience, where our will bumps up against the will of another, takes us there.      

asking is itself the path

Then in conversation with our Elder, or with our brother or sister, we tell about these different motivations and thoughts we have had.  And we learn to discern those attachments we have that do not reflect the person we desire to be.  That are not the person we hope to become.  We learn to identify those attachments that are not the desires of our true self.

One caution here.  We should notice that this discernment is subtly different than discerning those desires that our Elder or brother or sister wants us to have.  If we follow this path, it takes us to a false self, attached only to the desires of our guide.  Our job, our work, is to learn to identify those desires that reflect the true self, or for the Christian, those that reflect Christ.  And if we cannot discern the desires in our heart, then no one, in conversation with us, can help us learn. 

So now let us practice this discernment.  Think of a time when someone has asked you to do something and you did it, with perhaps a little “hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling, or complaint” (this list of improper motivations is from Benedict’s rule chapter 5).    It need not be a big thing (though it might).  It might only be making the bed, or making dinner.  Think of a time when you did something you were asked, but not with your whole heart.

List the possible motivations you might have had for doing it and for not doing it.  List two or three for doing, and several for not doing.  Then read each one and ask, or meditate, over the source and goal of that motivation.  Just doing this will begin to lead you down the path of reflection.  What is from the real self, the self you want to become?  There is often not an easy answer, but asking is itself the path. 

Pilgrimage, Interrupted

Amma Syncletica: The fiery nature of humility