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Living Today Using Insights from the Life of
St. Benedict of Nursia

Obedience:  Listening and Responding

Obedience is a scary word. As twenty-first century Catholic Americans, we’re likely to be independently minded people. Obedience hits us in the most sensitive part of our personality – the desire to do what we want and to be in control. That is why obedience is hard. It is often equated with being incapable of making decisions or with a lack of individual initiative or creativity. Or if obedience is in our vocabulary, it is something we expect from others toward us!

The Rule of St. Benedict (originally written for how laymen are to live together -- living fully the Gospel) begins with one simple word: “Listen!” St. Benedict says to listen to his instructions with the ear of the heart, not just with the mind in an intellectual exercise, but with the heart, which is the root of love. The Latin word for obedience is “obaudire,” which means “to listen thoroughly.” St. Benedict describes obedience (Chapter 5, versus 7-9) as involving both listening and responding. Those who practice obedience set aside their own concerns, plans and tasks, even going so far as to leave work unfinished, in order to respond to the request. The requested action would be completed without hesitation, and there shall be no delay. Obedience is accountability in community and in relationships. We are accountable to God and others. Obedience is an expression of love and the acting out of mutual responsibility. We place others before ourselves. If obedience is characterized by listening and responding in love, then obedience needs to be a part of any healthy, caring relationship where we strive to be honest and open and can even disagree with one another.

Obedience is appropriate in every relationship, not just one of subordinate to superior. For example, a mother obeys her child by getting up in the middle of the night to provide comfort or food. Coworkers obey one another by sharing tasks. Friends obey one another by taking the time to listen. In the Benedictine sense, obedience is not what we expect from others. Rather it is what we do ourselves for others.

Grumbling Destroys the Spirtual Life

“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7)

The response of obedience, according to St. Benedict, must be spontaneous and joyful. Obedience must be given gladly. What matters isn’t the deed itself but the motivation behind the deed. According to Jane Tomaine in St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living, St. Benedict does not tolerate grumbling, or as he puts it, “murmuring” – whether it’s audible or spoken silently within the heart. Why is St. Benedict so adamant against grumbling? Jane interprets St. Benedict’s Rule on murmuring,


    “Grumbling is detrimental to both the spiritual life and to the community as a whole. A resistant or whiny attitude creates “black holes” of negativity. While it may make us temporarily feel better to complain about a situation or a person, it won’t help us accomplish anything good. Grumbling about someone else (which we refer to as gossiping) is probably the most dangerous thing we can do in a community, in a family or in a relationship. Even silent grumbling spills over to our community, for it affects the way we interact with others. Grumbling adds a destructive negativity and permeates a community so that the whole becomes unwell.”

Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., in Living the Rule Today, asks those who are compelled to grumble:

“To people who sign up but then complain, we ask them not to sign up;
give us the gift of not murmuring about it.”



1.   What do you think gossiping and complaining is?
2.   What are some consequences to grumbling and gossiping?
3.   Have you ever regretted talking about someone or complaining about a situation?
4.   What should you say when people are gossiping or being negative?
5.   Do people gossip more about people they’re close to or who they don’t know very well?
6.   What’s the difference between a rumor and gossiping? If you’re telling the truth, is it o.k.?
7.   Why does news, especially negative news, spread so quickly?
8.   Do people who gossip and complain come off as immature? How can we stop the gossip and complaint cycle and adopt an attitude of gratitude?


In your mouth and in your heart, you hold the secret to transforming your life. Is this a big claim? Yes, but this is a plan that has already proven itself with millions of people around the world. This life-changing plan is based on the simple idea that good things will happen for you in abundance if you can just leave your grumbling behind.

Making the world a complaint-free/gossip-free zone. On Ash Wednesday, the parish handed out purple bracelets that said “Turn away from sin. Be faithful to the Gospel.” (If you need one, please call the parish office). Here’s the challenge: We want you to take it out and wear it for the next twenty-one days. Each day that you do not complain or do not gossip, count it. (i.e., Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.)

If you catch yourself complaining or talking about another behind their back, take the bracelet and move it to the other wrist. Start all over again (from Day 1), the count of "complaint-free, gossip-free days.” Now try this again until you reach 21 consecutive days of “complaint-free, gossip-free living”, then you can take the bracelet off. (It should become a habit by then!)

This plan, originally developed by Will Bowen in 2006 has been tried elsewhere and spread like wild fire. Within one year after his initial challenge, more than six million people took up the challenge, trying to go twenty-one consecutive days without complaining, criticizing, or gossiping, and in so doing, forming a new, positive habit. By changing your words, you can change your thoughts and then begin to create your life by design. People who have practiced this plan have shared stories of relieving chronic pain, healing relationships, improving careers, and becoming an overall happier person. Less pain, improved health, satisfying relationships, a better job, being more serene and joyous: sound good? It's not only possible, it's probable. Consciously striving to reformat your mental hard drive is not easy, but if you stay with it, you will find that not only will you cease complaining, but others around you will cease to do so as well. In a short period of time, you can have the life you've always dreamed of having.


Obedience, as you can see, is not for the faint-hearted. Why would we want to obey? We strive to be obedient because we love God and others as ourselves. When we consider the needs of others first, we replace competitiveness and aggression with gratitude, generosity and mutual consideration. But we must have great faith and courage to leave our own desires behind and respond in love to others.

How can we do this? St. Benedict writes that the first step of humility is obedience without delay. Humility is not humiliation. Humility, St. Benedict advocates, is the state of mind that subordinates my will to God’s, realizing that I am not the center of the universe. The primacy of God’s will over self-will is at the heart of obedience and humility.

In our parish mission statement, we state that “we place God First in all things.” Humility, in a nutshell, is placing God first. Humility is the opposite of narcissism. Narcissism is the concentration of the self. Humility admits that our life and our gifts are given to us by God and therefore to be used as God sees best. We must continually surrender to God’s power in our life and in the lives of those around us. The reason humility and obedience are linked is that we cannot listen or respond if we believe we’re the center of life. We cannot listen or respond if we believe that our way is the only way.

St. Benedict compares the task of achieving humility with climbing a ladder with twelve steps, embracing the action required on each rung. The ladder is our life on earth. Our soul and body are two sides of the ladder: between these sides are the twelve steps of humility. A snapshot of the twelve steps can be found below:


Step 1:  Accept that God is present in my life and to live from that awareness. Searcher of minds and hearts is God” (Psalm 7:10) and “The Lord knows our thoughts.” (Psalm 94:11)


  • God always sees and knows what we are all about. We then need to be vigilant over our behavior, striving to turn from evil and to do good.

Step 2:   Make doing God’s will my prime mission in life. “I have come not to do My own will,
but the will of Him who sent Me.”
(John 6:38)

  • Placing God first means to do God’s will in our lives and not interfere by letting our own wills take over. This means making God’s priorities our priorities. When we place our loving Creator at the center of our life, we become more prayerful, more focused on loving and caring for our families and our neighbor in need and less preoccupied with material things. In short, we find the true source of happiness and fulfillment that we all seek and that the Lord alone can provide.

Step 3:   Recognize that I cannot always be in control and to listen and respond to those who are – to be obedient.He became obedient even unto death.” (Philippians 2:8b)

  • Letting someone else direct us can be very difficult. We need to be flexible enough to step aside and follow another’s lead. We are to imitate Jesus.

Step 4:  Be patient and steadfast when our obedience places us in a difficult or unfair situation.The one who perseveres to the end, is the one who shall be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

  • We need to hold fast when things don’t go our way or when our obedience places us in an unjust situation. We need to stay centered on God and remember that the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Step 5:  Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation by confessing my sins. Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my transgression to the LORD,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

  • St. Benedict recognized the importance of knowing oneself and declaring our faults or misdeeds which transforms us through healing and growth. Once we have experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can forgive ourselves and others, we can practice new behaviors and we can let the past go.

Step 6:  Be willing to do the most menial tasks and be at peace with them.  I was stupid and could not understand; I was like a brute beast in your presence. Yet I am always with you; you take hold of my right hand. (Psalm 73:22-23)

  • St. Benedict encourages us to accept the circumstances of life as they come to us. We must not think we’re too good to do certain things. And we are to be content with who we are and what we have.

Step 7:  Truly believe in my heart that others are better than I am.  “It is good for me that I am humbled, so that I might learn from your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71)

  • If we believe – even a little – that others are better than we are, we’ll be able to learn from them. To begin to do this step, we must be honest about who we are and recognize that we don’t always have the best answer or the best intentions in every situation.

Step 8:  Take no action except those endorsed by people who show wisdom and understanding.

  •  We should seek out mentors and guides who will show us the actions to take that have value and the paths that are worthy to walk.

Step 9:   Listen more than talk.  “Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but those who restrain their lips do well. (Proverbs 10:19)

  • One of the most difficult things to do is to listen. St. Benedict says that silence is preferred over talking and will help us avoid sinning against God and others.

Step 10:   Don’t laugh excessively.  “The fool lifts up his voice in laughter.” (Ecclesiastes 21:23)

  • Laughter is good as it lightens the heart and can make us feel better. However, at times, laughter can be harmful: we can laugh at another’s expense or indulge in sarcastic laughter. With this step, St. Benedict asks us to let go of unnecessary or hurtful laughter.

Step 11:   Speak quietly and briefly with humility and restraint.  A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.” (Sextus, Enchiridion, 134 or 145)

  • Do I talk too much? Do I interrupt others? Do I wish to be a fountain of all human knowledge? St. Benedict stresses the importance of generosity in conversation where we speak gently and briefly.

Step 12:  Know myself and my sinfulness and therefore be humble inwardly and outwardly.  “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

  • Our demeanor should be calm and centered. Our humility would be apparent to all of our companions, shining forth regardless of whether we are working or praying or helping others.

These steps may seem overwhelming. Yet it all starts with the first step: acknowledging the presence of God in our lives which makes the other steps possible. Walk with our eyes fixed on Jesus. God is the reason and the motivation for all our actions. We do everything for God.

Resources on St. Benedict

Bowen, Will.   A Complaint Free World -- Take the 21-Day Challenge.   New York, NY:   Doubleday & Company, Inc., 2007.

Chittister, Joan, O.S.B.   Living the Rule Today.   Erie, PA:   Benet Press, 1982.

Craughwell, Thomas J.  Saints for Every Occasion:  101 of Heaven's Most Powerful Patrons.  Charlotte, NC:  C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001.

Delaney, John J.  Dictionary of Saints.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.

Derkse, Wil.  The Rule of Benedict for Beginners:  Spirituality for Daily Life.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2003.

McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Saints:  from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa.  San Francisco, CA:  HarperSanFrancisco (Division of HarperCollins Publishers), 2001.

St. Benedict of Nursia.  The Rule of Saint Benedict:  A Contemporary Paraphrase.  Paraphrased by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press, 2012.

St. Benedict of Nursia.  The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Edited by David W. Cotter, OSB.  Translated by Leonard J. Doyle.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2001.

Tomaine, Jane.   St. Benedict's Toolbox:  The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedict Living.   Harrisburg, PA:  Morehouse Publishing, 2005.

Tvedten, Brother Benet, O.S.B.   How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job:   An Invitation to Oblate Life.  4th ed. Brewster, MA:   Paraclete Press, 2011.

Walsh, Michael, ed.  Butler's Lives of the Saints.  Concise Edition.  New York, NY:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.