Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obedience's Gifts

After I wrote this I realized that in Latin Benedict means "good word" or "blessed," and Benedictus ("blessing") is the first word uttered by Zechariah after he insisted his son be named John. I wonder if that unconciously drove this piece down the road it went? Patient Spiritual Director's help with my Greek last spring played a role, too...

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 6 November 2008.]

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

“I am Gabriel and I have been sent to you and bring you this good news. Listen! Since you have not believed my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.”
Lk. 1:18-20

“Mom, Mom…Mommmmm! Tell him to leave me alone!” came the increasingly strident demands from the back room. I was moving as fast as I could, but without a voice, the squabbling siblings had to wait for me to arrive on scene to call a halt to the proceedings. Alas, all that came out was a squeak, unlikely to elicit silence when pitted against the booming voices of my teen-aged sons.

I resorted to sign language, learned when the boys were toddlers. Stop squabbling, my hands read, leave your brother alone! The two combatants had no eyes for my hands; the verbal battle raged on over my head, while I was relegated to the sidelines.

Oh, for the return of my voice! Zechariah endured nine months without his voice, forced to rely on his hands, and the patience of those around him to be understood. I imagine it tried his patience, too. As much as I regularly choose to spend time in silence, I find this imposed silence to be vexing. Both Zechariah and I have something to learn. To hear, to listen, to obey.

Luke’s Gospel uses the Greek word “siope” to describe Zechariah’s silence. The Greek translation carries the connotation of an imposed, involuntary silence, of a silence that goes beyond mere voicelessness, to the stilling of one’s will. Without a voice, it’s certainly hard to impose my will (particularly on noisy teen-aged boys).

My inability to express myself strikes more deeply than the temporary suspension of my role as peacemaker. Suddenly I’m put in a position where I have to listen, where I have to accept without argument the choices, pleasing and displeasing, that others make for me — to obey.

A listening ear is the key to obedience. Literally. Obedience derives from the Latin “obaudire” which means to listen deeply. St. Benedict’s rule for monastics begins with his call to monks to live in obedience and humility. The very first word of the rule? Listen.

St. Benedict calls obedience a gift, owed not just to the superiors of the community, but to each other. In order to obey, one first must listen. Not so much to the squabbling children or the demanding student, but to the voice of Christ, hidden in the voices of others. It requires listening not superficially, but deeply. It is a discipline that both requires and produces obedience. It is a listening that should not fail to respond to God’s call.

My voice has yet to completely return (though the kids have ceased squabbling for the moment), but I am balking a bit less at this “stilling of my will.” I’m learning to enjoy being surprised at the choices others make for me along this road, to delight in these gifts of obedience. And I’m practicing listening for Christ in the voices of those around me, even amidst the squabbles, the demands and the banal.

I hope in the end to be able to do as St. Benedict advises, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Lord Jesus Christ, You were made obedient unto death, and Your name was exalted about all others. Teach us always to do the Father’s will, so that, made holy by obedience which unites us to the sacrifice of Your body, we can expect Your great love in times of sorrow and sing a new song to our God. Amen. From Daytime Prayer, Monday, Week II.


  1. I so need to remember to listen. It is so important.

    two of my students lost there voices recently. One just stopped talking, the other fought it

  2. I leave the reader to guess whether I fall into the former or latter category!