John Michael Talbot, founder of Little Portion Hermitage monastery, Arkansas, writes on Obedience in ‘ The Universal Monk- The Way of the New Monastics’, ”for the monastic tradition obedience is a spirituality based on listening that becomes a whole way of life. We learn to really listen before we respond, and we learn to respond instead of react. It is a spirituality that brings freedom and life to all. It brings freedom, not enslavement; life, not death.” He also writes the English word ” obedience” comes from the root ”obey”.This comes from the Latin obedire, which an overview of English and Latin dictionaries tells us, means ”obey”, ”pay attention” to ,”give ear,” literally ”listen to”, from ob ”to” and audire ” listen, hear.” So attentive listening that gives birth to healthy action is at the root of real obedience.” ”In Hebrew the word shama means ”to listen attentively”,”discern”,and ”to tell”. In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus ”learned obedience from his suffering.” This attentive listening; listening to God, creation, and God within creation lie at the very heart of monastic spirituality. The core values within monastic and contemplative spirituality is that of living fully within each moment through the daily practice of learning how to still the entire being. This is quiet the jangle of inner noise, sensual, mental and emotional, through the observance and practice of a daily spiritual discipline such as meditation, silence,contemplation and Lectio divina. As John Michael Talbot reflects, ” obedience to authority is obedience to God.”
The monastic aspires toward a shedding of the ‘ little I ‘ of the egoic self and submitting to the will and authority of God through the releasing of the mental, emotional and sensual surges; the dysfunctions of this self and those habitual, reactive and repetitive patterns of coping and survival that lie hide within the deepest sub-conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.
The monastic path and monastic obedience provides a structured and grounded framework for understanding the internal functioning of the self, and in particular, I feel, offers a particularly rich therapeutic schematic foundation for those suffering with the internal fragmentation of mental illness; in a spiritual path that has for centuries been an aid for many in their existential quest and longing towards the God of their heart, and the luminous being that gives breath to all creation and human existence.
On this I reflect, as one who lives daily with the reality of severe and chronic mental illness, and the ways in which the small ‘ human I ‘ of self, can be acutely present while struggling to breathe above the fog, in the darkest days of illness and the familiar habitual and dysfunctional patterns that may entrench within the psyche and internal reality,whist navigating through symptomatic phases emotional and mental of this unwellness.
In this instability, the mind and emotions can appear to overshadow and affect ones ability navigate this interior and spiritual discernment, where one can hear the many layers of spirit concealed beneath the familiar disturbances of the unwell state. Paradoxically, I also question how, within this monastic framework, one may begin to discover a deeper and more authentic way of responding towards the self and others, whilst living with the symptoms of illness, and yet simultaneously move closer toward being able to release and let go of willful and opposing patterns and to turn the whole self, in all ones vulnerability toward the heart and mind of God.The monastic framework can guide toward a path of surrender to the ‘small self’,where one can truly learn how to become still and hear the rustling of the divine, which lies at the heart of all existential human longing.
To hear and listen, we must become ‘ still ‘ and ‘ observe ‘,releasing the ‘ old self ‘, the ego attachments; who we think our quentisential self to be, and become inwardly quiet. John Michael Talbot draws the analogy of a rippling pond, and how before we are able to see what lies beneath the surface of its waters, we must first wait for the rippling water to become still. we must find and internal inner stillness. This is the place of the mindful ‘observer’. the watcher, the ‘ seeing eye ‘ that refuses to become entangled with the dramas of the small self and continues to gaze compassionately and neutrally, encompassing all within it’s field of vision. This is the higher vision, the wise self that exists beyond emotional and mental entanglement, that has the ability to pause, listen and discern before we ‘ respond to ‘ rather than ‘ react from ‘. This is the very challenge to a person in the midst of florid mental imbalance; it is the road that must be walked on and down if one is to come to the fullness of life whilst living with the realities of a wounded self and broken psyche. In this ‘ death to self, we find ourselves.’