Chapter 5: obedience


The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.

Why should I listen?

There is a myth that ‘millennials’ (my generation who have grown up saddling the millennium) have no respect for authority. In reality I think we do have respect for authority but the authority must be earned before it can be trusted. This does lead to many of us dismissing first instances of authority, particularly if it is enforced with rigor; this is a dangerous tendency. Our primary authority is no longer in older figures, previous generations but rather in peers; this is an even greater danger for what it leads to is a narcissistic, blind belief in our own power, understanding and un-walked wisdom.

Blogger, Anna Mussmann, has written a really interesting critique on culture using the young adult fiction which is popular. The article is called ‘Millenials Think Authority Figures Are Untrustworthy Idiots, And Modern Culture Is To Blame’ and takes stories such as Hunger Games, Finding Nemo and Splendors and Glooms to explore what these books have taught and continue to teach us growing up in this culture. Mussmann argues,

…when young adult fiction encourages reliance on transitory, peer-based relationships, it casts off the unifying role that classic literature once played. Our stories no longer bind multiple generations together. Instead they divide them… we even structure young people’s lives in ways that decrease adult influence and increase peer culture: our children are separated by age at school and attend age-specific youth programs at church (often never participating in traditional services that are designed for all-ages). They listen to their own music and text in their own language. The qualities which unify a culture, such as music, etiquette rules, and stories, are all things of which youth have their own.

This article is fascinating when considering my own attitude to obedience to authority figures of older generations. The issue, in my eyes, is always with them. This is an unhealthy reaction to many older people who have lived and experienced many things. I don’t want to dismiss my generation too quickly though. I do feel there’s always been an earning of trust and some blame must fall onto the previous generation who, after dismissing their parents for the mess of two world wars and the violent climax of enlightenment and modernism, felt they should never impose obedience on their children. In this context is it any wonder that young people today have little to no moral compass to guide them through the chaotic adolescence.

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you will know that over the last two or three years I have been increasingly vocal about ethics and virtues and the nature of moral discussions (read On Secularism, The Hunch, The Compulsion and The Overwhelming Pain, The Pope is Dust Just Like You and There is No Majority). The heady mix of my generation with my parents’ generation when running a society, is a cocktail for increasingly isolated people with highly subjective opinions to right and wrong trying to co-habit a claustrophobic space which leads inevitably to an increase in violence, physical and political. Our politic is broken because we have taken a shared narrative away and allowed a vacuum to be created. We now happily worship the absence in true nihilistic fashion.

Many young adults, especially those from the less affluent backgrounds, feel that they live in a world where family and community have eroded to the point of dysfunction. Personal loyalty may be their only hope in a dark, chaotic, and existential world. This kind of loyalty is the same moral value on which both gangs and tribes are built, and in many ways, our culture encourages a new kind of clique-like tribalism. Paradoxically, however, such loyalty is also constantly mutating, because our peer-oriented relationships (friendships and marriages) are self-chosen and therefore dissolvable. In real life the group loyalties break and reconfigure under strain. Such single-generation tribalism is also incredibly narrow. G. K. Chesterton argues that families are far more broadening than self-chosen companions because they force individuals to learn to understand many kinds of people. (Anna Mussmann, ‘Millenials Think Authority Figures Are Untrustworthy Idiots, And Modern Culture Is To Blame’, The Federalist, February 4th 2014,

Through this millennial lens I read St. Benedict’s words on obedience. I have explored in the previous weeks the role and nature of the abbot and have wrestled personally with my own attitude to the leader figure. I would argue that it is right, at this time, to reshape our understanding of leadership to fit the culture. In order to do that a leader must become an advocate to the people under his/her authority and we should embrace a more flat leadership model, organic in nature. This does not mean that the leader must become a friend, homogenous to the group, for that complicates the role of wisdom and obedience needed in order for personal and communal growth to occur. Authority is needed and it must remain external to the self. Tribalism is not a healthy way to exist but there are elements of it that should be encouraged; togetherness, sociality, loyalty but in Narnia this balance between friendship and authority is beautifully portrayed in the character of Aslan who remains aloof and separate from the children who must negotiate the strange and dangerous world of Narnia. I return again to the model of the ensemble theatre company; there is a sharing of leadership and direction but the role of the director becomes one of facilitator and ‘story-keeper’. This role ensures that authority is named and placed in a specific place. The challenge comes when the person who takes on that role mis-uses it. This is why the selection of such a person must come from the group and is placed on them through a sense of vocation and discerned calling.

Aslan’s style is to be alongside, encouraging but at times to demand the respect and authority to, enigmatically at times, to guide the children into strange and unknown experiences. The children do not understand why at the time but they are encouraged to trust the authority of figure to do it anyway. My generation would instinctively baulk at such suggestion,

Why should we?

Who does he think he is?

He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what’s good for me.

When I think of my personal authority figures, the ones who know me and guide me and whom I respect and obey, most of them are of a previous generation. They have earned my trust but remain separate enough from me to be able to command me and my will.

The church, I feel, must reflect on this cultural issue seriously when we discuss the nature of leadership and authority. There needs to be an overhaul of our images and models of leadership and I am increasingly convinced that we must return to a ‘priestly’ model where reconciliation and spiritual depth are primary roles. Obedience is demanded like Jesus demanded it; not by His words first but by His character. He was obviously a man who commanded attention but where it came from, no one could tell. Jesus, of course, is unique but as priest’s we are called to be His ambassadors in His Body, the Church. We are called to stand in His place between people and places, heaven and earth. We are to follow Him closely to encourage the people of God to do likewise. We must commit our lives to being lead by our Master in obedience and to speak the commands we follow to those whom God calls us to.

Sacrificial Obedience

Not satisfied with calling the monks to obedience, St. Benedict takes it one step further and asks them to do so ‘without fear, laziness, hesitance or protest.’

Orders should be carried out cheerfully…God will not be pleased by the monk who obeys grudgingly, not only murmuring in words but even in his heart.

I am guilty of saying that I am happy to obey authority but doing so questioningly and with reservation. I act, in line with commands, suspiciously or creatively twisting the will of my superior to fit my own desires and will. St. Benedict is clear that true spiritual growth will occur when ‘These disciples must obediently step lively to the commanding voice – giving up their possessions, and their own will.’

I’m not sure if what I am about to suggest is skewed by my generational attitude to authority but I wonder if there’s an understanding here that the abbott himself is under the authority of the Rule and, prior to being called to the role of abbott has shown himself obedient to it. Thus his authority has been proved through his own discipleship. I wonder if his own discipleship and obedience must remain the hallmark of his leadership. The abbott must, in this understanding, follow and imitate Jesus, his Master, who followed and imitated His Father.


This week’s chapter has cut to the heart of some personal issues for me and I am convicted to pray through my attitude. There is a sense in which it is a nudging back in line with God’s will and not a whole hearted overhaul. In parish ministry at this time there is a large confusion about right and healthy distinctions between ordained ministers and laity. In the past there has been some devastating situations caused by those in authority in the church and this has destroyed much of the Church’s authority. To destroy the whole thing and dismiss the tradition is too risky and dangerous and is akin to throwing ‘the baby out with the bath water’. There is such a call to wisdom but, unfortunately, my generation in this culutre will struggle to find wisdom for we no longer ascribe to a shared cultural narrative and to any virtues of character. The characters we share are story-less, peer-guided and self selected. With no wisdom this self-selection is vacuuous and vapour and we will lead ourselves ever darker into the abyss of nihilistic existence.

Lord have mercy upon us all.

Come, Lord Jesus.