• Richard Southworth

Living By A Rule of Life

Updated: Jan 9

The Rule of Saint Benedict:

Prologue, verses 1-3

Listening Obedience


Photo by Irene Furr


Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.


To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.*


The Rule of Saint Benedict


Much is covered in these first two sentences of The Rule. Listening, obedience, sloth, and will are all concepts that cut to the heart of spiritual practice, and Benedict has strung them together in a profound way that is challenging and even disturbing to the modern seeker. I put it this way in my journal some time ago:


There is so much in these short verses. I am still amazed at the way these ancient writings speak to me personally. The message is simple. Listen deeply and profoundly; and obediently live and act on what you hear. This is nothing other than the call to holiness – the call to live a holy life. I want to do that in the deepest place in my soul. “Lord God, come to my assistance.”

In the context of the spiritual journey listening involves much more than just listening to the spoken or written word. In our day to day life we “listen” mainly for information. We want to understand the meaning of what someone is saying or what someone has written. In this day of television and the internet even that is often reduced to short sound bites, and we expect to get the essence of the message in a few sentences, and in a few moments of our time.


In spiritual practice we still seek information and understanding, but it goes much deeper than that. We seek to listen beyond what the general meaning is for what the message is for us personally. We listen not only to the words, but to our own inner thoughts, emotions, and reactions to what is being said. What in the message speaks to me, and what challenges me to grow and change? What excites me and brings me joy? What in the message is strange, difficult, or even repulsive? Regardless of the reaction, what in me personally is triggered by this message, and how am I called to grow and change in response? It is important to note here that we can learn as much about who we are as unique people and who we are called to be, from things that trouble us as from things that are attractive to us. It is important for us to listen deeply to both.


Spiritual listening is ultimately about listening to the still small voice that speaks to us in the deepest part of ourselves. If we can let go of our seeking of information, and even let go of our own thoughts and emotions and reactions to the people, events and things in our life for even a short time we can then be open to the possibility that what we have heard or experienced will reveal the deeper longings and calling that comes from that place in us where the Mysterious Divine Presence we call God speaks to us, and guides us, and gives us strength and courage.


True spiritual listening requires us to be open to the possibility that the message will change us personally. It requires even the expectation that what is being said or what we are experiencing may lead to our own transformation and conversion of heart. Much in modern rhetoric seems to seek only to change the opinions and actions of others, but in spiritual practice we seek to listen first with the possibility that we ourselves will be called to change, both in our opinions and in our actions—the way we are actually present in the world. This type of spiritual listing requires attention at the deepest level, and it takes time and effort and commitment.


This leads us to obedience. As Norvene Vest points out:


The first word of the Rule is well-known: listen! It is interesting indeed that this Latin word ob-sculta has the same root, and indeed almost the same meaning, as the Latin word ob-oedire, which makes our English obedience. There is a very important connection between true listening and deep obedience; both suggest a turning in order to receive more fully that which is being given. *

Norvene Vest


Here we are called to be obedient to what we hear. There is the sense that if we are not obedient to what we hear we are not really listening. It is important to note here that we may not be called at all to be obedient to the initial message. We are called to be obedient to that deeper message that comes from deep within us. We are called to incarnate that message into the reality of the way we actually experience and live our lives. We are called to be open and available for the change and transformation and conversion of heart that is available to us when and only when we listen with obedience to the profound longing that is revealed to us in moments of quiet listening to the people, events, and things that make up our lives.


But Benedict does not stop there. He goes on to tell us what keeps us from actually living the holy life we are called to, and what we need to do to move forward on the journey toward that holy life. Sloth is defined as “laziness: a dislike of work or any kind of physical exertion.” Failure to be obedient to that still small voice within is essentially laziness, and listening obedience is the key to living a holy life. It is important to note here that, for Benedict, it is not enough to wait for the Divine Mystery to change and transform us. In fact it would seem that Benedict would define that waiting as “the sloth of disobedience.” We must renounce our own will and be obedient to the profound calling within us that is found in listening deeply to the people, events, and things that make up our lives, and obediently incarnating that discovery in the reality of our lives.


I have seen this truth in my own life over and over again. As I was writing this reflection I took a break and began watching a movie on television. As I was watching my attention moved from an event in the movie to my own inner reaction. I became aware of a restlessness and dissatisfaction in myself, and I recognized that beyond the desire to watch the movie there was a deeper longing to return to my writing. I have often ignored that sense of restlessness when watching television, and when the show was over I have felt disappointed and disillusioned. This time I responded with listening obedience, and returned to my writing. I felt authentic and closer to the Divine Mystery that calls me and guides me and gives me life.





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* PREFERRING CHRIST

A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, buy Norvene Vest:

See Preferring Christ under Recommendations

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