One of the things which surprised me when I became the Superior in our community was my relationship to the vow of Obedience. At our Profession, we promise “to Almighty God, and to you my brother, the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and to your successors in this office, that I will live in the life-long observance of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.”
As we know, the English word “obedience” comes from the same Latin word as “audio,” so that in the monastic tradition, obedience is primarily about listening. At times we are called to “be attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts.” On other occasions we are challenged by obedience to “let go of attachment to our individual preferences and [learn] to trust in the wisdom of the community.” As a Brother in the community, it was my experience that there was one Superior. Now as Superior, I find that I am constantly challenged to listen to the wisdom of the community. In doing so, I find that, as Superior, I have twelve superiors.
This relationship between power, authority, and obedience is difficult to keep in balance. We know what happens when the authority of some comes at the cost of disempowering others. We know too the terrible tragedy that occurs “when in the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.”
It is not an accident that this issue of Cowley is devoted to these connected dynamics of power, authority, and obedience. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these issues have been thrust onto center stage. As the pandemic has unmasked many inequalities in society, we have seen and experienced what happens when the balance between power and empowerment, authority and authoritarianism, obedience and listening have resulted in division and dominance rather than reconciliation and cooperation.
It is our hope that these reflections, rooted in our monastic tradition of obedience, will help in some small way as we practice the art of listening to one another deeply, and with open hearts and minds.
That kind of deep listening is not, I assure you, simply empty monastic talk. It is something we Brothers are engaging in currently as we attempt to navigate how best to consider re-opening the Chapel and the Guesthouse. Trying to balance the hopes, needs, and concerns of guests, members of our congregations, staff, and Brothers is not an easy thing. As we are discovering, every decision delights and relieves some, and concerns others. Nor are we trying to address concerns about health and safety issues without abdicating responsibility or giving way to fear. As we carry on these conversations about re-opening, I know we can count on your patience. We ask for your prayers for wisdom.
I cannot conclude this letter to you without once again expressing our gratitude to each of you for your abiding care, support, friendship, and prayers over these past challenging months. They have been sources of strength, grace, and hope to each of us, and especially to me. We Brothers are enormously thankful for the gift of your friendship.
Please know that just as you pray for us, we pray for you.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester, SSJE