By Annette Brownlee
I recently read St. Benedict’s Rule with a group of seminary students in a first-year MDiv class. The assignment was to read the Rule straight through, in one or two sittings. I wanted them to get a sense of the whole thing, its flavor and shape, before we began to explore specific chapters.
Their reactions were mixed. Some were repelled by it, especially the authority the abbot seemingly had over every area of life. Others were envious of the chance to live this way. Several of the students had or were living in some form of intentional Christian community. Except for the community of one student, who had lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan, the intentional communities were not working well. There was not enough common life: prayer or eating together. Common expectations about personal space and cleanliness were insufficient. The students who had some experience of intentional Christian community, even those who had reacted negatively to the Rule, all said the same thing. We need some kind of abbot.
God’s will and Word call forth a response from us. The creation of intentional communities were such a response, but their communities had not become what they had hoped for, in large part because the individual commitments of the members impeded the development of the common life they had hoped to establish. They sensed they needed help.
They were, without realizing it, expressing the longstanding understanding that Christian obedience is a path to freedom. It releases us from the grip of self-will in order that our free will to follow God has a chance to develop. “I will walk at liberty, because I study your commandments,” the psalmist writes in Psalm 119, that long poem in praise of God’s commandments.
By and large, self-will and free will are conflated and confused in North America, where choice, the protection of individual rights, and the construction of self-identity are paramount. We are free in order to develop our self-wills. The consequences of this confusion are many, in culture at large, and for the Christian.
First, it has led to an inability to distinguish between self-will and free will. We resist restrictions on the former in the name of the latter.
Second, it has led, in many young people, to a kind of paralysis. University and college campuses cannot keep up with the growing need of their students for mental-health services. The freedom to construct one’s self-identity comes at a price: lateral support, which is part of a cohesive social system, is missing. All this freedom to develop one’s self-identity can lead, ironically, to the inability to do just that. Literature on the topic describes this situation as a failure to launch: bright, educated, capable young women and men have difficulty finding their place in the world.
Third, there is another kind of consequence, less evident perhaps, which is a deforming of the nature of choice. The conflation of self-will and free will has flattened out and emptied meaning from the act of choosing. Does it matter which of the 30 breakfast cereals in the grocery store aisle I choose from? Does it matter whom I pray to? The answer too often is No, not really. It’s up to you. In response to all of this, my students’ declaration rings in my ears: we need some kind of an abbot.
Obedience is one of three vows in Benedictine communities. The other two, stability and conversatio morum (conversion), receive less pushback. Discipleship and spiritual formation are current parlance in Christian communities. But not obedience. All three Benedictine vows have the single goal of creating a community whose rhythm of work and prayer is shaped by the Gospels. Scripture is the point of reference throughout the Rule, but never does the Rule ask for bare obedience to God’s Word, just as it does not ask for blind obedience to the abbot. Here is the Rule’s enduring vision for 1,500 years. It is in community — a community that is a school for love, whose life is ordered by a Rule shaped by Scripture, and led by the abbot — that individuals develop the freedom to hear and respond to Christ.
The distinction between free will and self-will in Christian teaching needs to be taught and preached once again. The confusion of the two is not new. Augustine knew that the soul loses track of itself and becomes incapable of accessing its actions. It becomes insolent and proud in self-will and self-indulgence. It resists having bonds broken because it does not see them as restrictive. Having to come up against a rule, and our accountability to it through the authority of an abbot, is a means to help in the assessment of our actions.
But we do not have abbots, as my students oddly lamented. Who is the abbot in marriage? one student asked me. Or consider seminary, where participation in chapel is expected of students, but where there is no way to require it (i.e., no consequences) for those who chose not to participate. What about in a congregation? Or Bible study? Or in the growing trend toward training Christians leaders through online or distance learning?
Obedience, as the psalmist says, is the path to developing the freedom to follow God’s commandments. I suspect this is so not only when we struggle with self-will, but when we are paralyzed by too many choices. Obedience, which comes out of our centre, is a choice to take responsibility for our life. The challenge in all this is not to throw individual Christians back on themselves or ask that their obedience to Scripture carry this weight. My students’ declaration that they need some kind of abbot leads to these questions: What are the necessary conditions under which young people can develop a healthy sense of self-will, which in time they can offer to God? What are the necessary conditions under which we can recognize the grasp of our self-will and, through obedience, begin to lessen its grip, so that our free will to respond to God has a chance to flourish?
I do not have answers, given the radical loosening of social structures. But the answer does not lie, I suspect, in having more choices or options.
The Collect for Peace in the Book of Common Prayer holds out this promise to all of us: O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom. Christ promises us nothing less than freedom, a freedom that he gives us through our participation in his own ministry of obedient freedom and perfect service. Such freedom is a promise and goal — a choice — worthy of seeking with our whole hearts. Christ’s life tells us that obedience to God’s Word and will cannot be skirted. Nor can it be substituted with some form of spiritual seeking, which does not press us toward the hard work of releasing us from the grip of our self-will, or provide us with the structure necessary to free us from the paralysis of too many choices.
As my students told me, we need some kind of an abbot.
The Rev. Dr. Annette Brownlee is the chaplain and professor of pastoral theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican evangelical seminary in Toronto. Before moving to Toronto, she served parishes in the Episcopal Church for 20 years.