This is the chapter that scares our culture the most!
Benedict believes that absolute obedience to the abbot is essential for spiritual growth and growth in humility:
They do not live according to their own desires and pleasures, but progress according to someone else’s judgement and orders, living in monasteries and choosing to have an abbot in charge of them. (p. 20, trans. White)
This, of course, runs entirely to our culture’s belief that each of us should be his’er own master, that each knows best for oneself, and that no one should/can tell me what to do. I have a friend who works in Christian ministry, and one of the student leaders she was working with would take no suggestions and say things that amounted to, ‘Who are you to speak to my ministry?’ The answer being, ‘A sister in Christ.’ And, in that particular case, someone actually in authority over you…
But what if I am not wise enough to sift the path of discipleship on my own? What if there is someone who is better qualified to direct my paths, a spiritual father?
This emphasis on obedience is part of a wider culture of self-denial that we find a few decades later in Sinai with St John Climacus, and many centuries later in St Thomas à Kempis. The former of these two, a former hermit turned abbot and spiritual father, expresses many ideas consonant with Benedictine monasticism, including radical obedience. In St Thomas, we see a belief that we ourselves should put everyone before us and treat them as our betters.
All of this is well and good for the ancients, but unless we are monks, or Roman Catholics who confess to a priest, or Eastern Orthodox who likewise confess or have a spiritual father, what lessons might we take away from here?
I think the spirit of this obedience, in its good sense, can be found in what Richard Foster says about submission in Celebration of Discipline. We choose to submit to others and their requests and their wills not because we know they have better ideas or deserve submission, but because Scripture teaches us to submit to one another out of love. Christ came not to be served but to serve, and to lay his life as a ransom (Mt 20:28).
The obvious objection: ‘Won’t people walk all over me?’
My honest answer: ‘Probably. I’ve never tried this at large.’
Foster notes, though, that if you have already chosen in your heart to submit to your fellow-Christians and obey them, then are they walking on you? I, personally, try (not always with success) to think of my relationship to my wife and son in these terms. That in serving them I love them, that in submitting to their needs, desires, requests, I am acknowledging the headship of Christ in my own life.
A final thought related to this: Let us learn not to grumble in our hearts.
Perhaps as great a lesson, if we ever wish to be content and love our communities, our families, our coworkers, our churches.
An interesting little piece recently appeared called ‘No More Lying About Mary’. It’s not bad, although it treads too closely to assumptions re the virginal conception (that is, I suspect [but may be wrong] the author denies it and thinks it is a story that tells Bad Things About Women and Sex, whereas it is a truth that tells us Good Things About Jesus) and verges on blasphemy on thinking that God would be pedophilic in choosing a teenage Mary to be the Mother of Our Lord.
Very little in the piece is new. The author rightly tries to take away the idea that Mary embodies a modern form of submissiveness, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, we see the Blessed Virgin carefully scrutinising the Angel Gabriel about his person and his news before she says, ‘Let it be unto me according to your will.’ And, as I like to observe, she is pretty much the only receiver of an angelic messenger in the Bible who, having heard all that was to be said, says yes without making excuses. None of the ‘great men of the Bible’ were so in tune with God that they were ready to embrace His will once they knew it.
So we need to praise St Mary, as the article encourages us.
Nonetheless, the author is keen to attack something called ‘submissiveness’.
‘Submissiveness’ seems to be something horrific imposed upon Mary by the patriarchy and used to subjugate women throughout history.
I don’t think it’s something I’m interested in.
And, given the long line of biblical and saintly women such as the warrioress Deborah, or Judith cutting of Holofernes’ head, or the BVM, or Sts Hildegard, Hilda, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Lady Julian of Norwich, I don’t think that traditional Christianity is actually interested in some form of submissiveness, and certainly not the subjugation of women.
Now, certain men throughout the history of the Church have clearly done their best to misuse Scripture and Tradition to that end, but that’s not the same thing. Just as we are to take neighbourliness, love, non-coercive preaching, and freedom to worship in synagogues from St Gregory the Great as the Christian approach to our Jewish neighbours, so we should look to the right thinkers in how Christian men and women love women (Christian and otherwise).
In the comments section, the author says, ‘Christ is never about submission, is always about raising us up and setting us free.’
Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
Christ is certainly about raising us up and setting us free.
But He is not never about submission.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity. It’s a good time. One of the issues that any reading of Scripture in relation to the Trinity and Christology must work through is what to do with statements such as, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (Jn 14:28) (A more readable, modern discussion of such statements is Browne’s Exposition of the 39 Articles.) In his Incarnate state, as St Augustine shows, Jesus the Christ is clearly submissive to the Father.
Here are some of the passages where Christ, Who is God the Word Incarnate, mentions this submission to the Father (all NRSV):
for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (Jn 12:49)
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (Jn 5:19)
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (Jn 4:34)
I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Jn 6:38)
Jesus Himself practised submission. What is remarkable is that these statements all come from the Gospel of John, which is notorious for having the highest Christology of the Gospels. John 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ making it clear further on that Jesus is the Word. In this Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Before Abraham was, I am!’, and, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, and various other similar things not at the top of my head.
Once we acknowledge that the Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself was submissive to the will of the Father, we have a couple of options. We can explain it away or maybe reject these parts of the Bible. Or we can read the Bible holistically and see what this submission to the Father tells us both about Christ and about submission. In so doing, I believe we will shatter the false dichotomy between submission and freedom.
My approach to the Bible, unlike (I imagine — I could be wrong) that of the author of the Patheos blog who, elsewhere in the comments section, embraces John Dominic Crossan as the foremost NT scholar of our age, is necessarily triadic and deeply Trinitarian. I blame John Zizioulas, St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Athanasian Creed, and my Dad’s confirmation classes.
The Holy Trinity is three Persons in one God. They are consubstantial. But there is only one God. There are three hypostaseis but only one ousia. For a biblical defense of the Trinity, I again refer the reader to chapter one of Browne. In the modern Greek reading of the Cappadocian Fathers offered us by Zizioulas in Being As Communion, the Persons of the Trinity are a communion, and this communion is the foundation of all being. It’s beautiful and profound; don’t forget my bit on why the Trinity matters.
By the logic of the Trinity, God the Word has always existed, being with the Father from all eternity. He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit exist in a union that can perhaps best be described as ecstatic, self-emptying love. If we can redeem the concept of eros, they are filled with a universe-creating desire for one another. They choose out of their love to make stuff — the universe we inhabit — so that there can be more stuff to love. Not because they have to. Creation is contingent on the Most Holy Trinity; not the other way around.
This mutual giving and receiving pervades the whole of their Creation.
And then, out reasons directly related to the overflowing love of the Trinity for the Creation, One of the Persons of the Trinity chooses to be incarnate as a Man.
But He is also sent. Sent by the Father. He comes to earth to do the will of the One Who sent Him. There is no clearer message of submission than that.
However, Christ our God and God the Father exist in a perfect love relationship. Each is perfect and holy. Each loves perfectly and holily (not a word, sorry).
Therefore, when Incarnation is on the table, One of Them submits gladly out of love, and the Other Two gladly send Him to us.
Biblical submission is not about submission to clerics or to forces of power or to men or to anything else. It is about perfect submission in perfect love to the one who loves you perfectly.
And this is why we, too, submit. We submit to the Holy Trinity not because He/They tell us to or because He/They is powerful or He/They is lording it over us, but because He/They love us perfectly and know us perfectly and know what’s best for us, so we, in a love relationship of trust, submit to Them and Their perfect relationship of perfect love and holy trust.
We are called elsewhere in Scripture to submit to one another, bearing each other’s burdens in love (Eph 5:21). St Paul doesn’t do so well in feminist circles today, but once again, the Scriptural virtue of submission is not the same as submissiveness. It is about willfully choosing to abandon self-love and self-will and self-fulfillment and self-importance to help others, choosing the obscure and uncomfortable path of service and love. It is about giving up myself and loving other people because Christ tells us that in others we will find Him. It is treating others better than ourselves, whether they are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian — and whether we are any of these things ourselves.
As Christ says, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them (Mt 16:25).
When we come against the perceived ‘traditional’ view of something, especially when it has been misused, we need to seek the true tradition and the biblical use of that word. Perhaps submission is unpopular today. But perhaps it is where freedom lies. Perhaps meekness is unpopular today — and that’s a shame, since the meek will inherit the earth! (Mt 5:5)