“Obedience” is not a very popular word. One thinks of the lopsided, traditional marriage vows in which the woman was asked to make a vow of obedience to the husband, while the husband was asked no such thing. The old vows missed the point of St. Paul’s message to the Ephesians which begins, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Even though the contemporary marriage vows are rephrased with no hint of obedience, we still encounter the word in scripture, in spiritual teachings, and especially in the words and spirituality of St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century lay monastic whose feast day is today, July 11.
As with many words in English, it’s important to look at the origin of “obedience.” It comes from the Latin ob-audire, audire meaning “to listen or hear.” This is what is behind one of the three vows made by Benedictine monks and nuns, as well as those who seek to follow a Benedictine path of discipleship. But at the very beginning of his teaching, Benedict spells out what this means. He writes, “Listen carefully, my [child], to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (RB Prol. 1).
“The ear of the heart” is a great phrase that is also the title of a new autobiography by Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B. The phrase echoes the Rule of St. Benedict, which shapes her life. But even more, the title reveals how the “ear of the heart”— the prayerful work of listening and hearing—has taken Dolores Hart from being a Hollywood actress who was the first woman kissed by Elvis Presley in the movies, to being a funny, thoughtful, and completely fulfilled Benedictine nun living in Connecticut.
The “ear of the heart” might not lead most of us to make changes as drastic as those made by Mother Hart. And most of us will probably not decide to follow St. Benedict in any formal, communal way. But each of us can develop more deeply the practice of listening—to one another, to ourselves, and to God as God speaks through music and meetings, friends and enemies, loved ones and those who challenge our patience. May God teach us to listen and help us to hear, so that we might learn the joyful obedience of the way of Christ’s love.