The Pillars of Virtue


2i 4 indigo-signature-bannerObedience

The third  in a series of seven reflections on  how the monastic life – not faith – can help us to understand our own lives. Well, this is the biggie, isn’t it? It is the aspect of this thing we do that I struggle with most. I am, to put it kindly, wilful.

I’d like to obey but it is frightening. It requires trust a kind of control over oneself that I cannot claim yet. I can’t even control my hair so to control my emotions and my will is not something I am ready for.

I am not evil. I do not have a total lack of self control. I manage to control myself appropriately in most social situations and have show admirable restraint dealing with unkind people. I am never required to do things that are bad for me or others.

I am not challenged by the content of any request -DJ does not expect me to kneel on rice or staple myself to a bench when I am naughty. It is just the actual existence of a request that is enough for me. I want to do s I am told until he tells me to do something.

Obedience should not be beyond my grasp and yet here it is, I am talking about obedience with an air of “I’m buggered if I know.”

2i 2Time to look to the monks and the nuns I think. If anyone knows about obedience it should people who takes vows on it after thinking about it for ages and ages. They should know obedience inside out.

Monastic obedience, like mine, begins with a personal relationship not an organisation- it is an individual experience. It requires a person in authority to accept the role of  guide and leader. This person does not assume superiority (for a monk there is no assumption that one is closer to God simply because one guides) but each man accepts his own role, whether obeying or leading, and tries to incorporate that practise into daily life.

This requires humility from both parties. Both the monk and I must be able to be honest where we are on our journey. I have to say clearly and without metaphor where my struggles are. Discussion is key, not to juggle with outcomes but to lead to deeper understanding. This includes when I feel wronged or I feel unable to obey. I must go to him and talk.

Monastic obedience is “not a vow but an articulation of a way of life” (1) It is the living antidote to the self will that destructs.

I have lots of self will and much of it is very useful and healthy. It helps me do my work, not slap commuters, wash the sinks in my house and not steal the pretty nail varnishes when I get my nails done in a salon – all of which I achieve without too much thought.

Self will does not always need to be overcome but sometimes it is not the cuddly little bunny it ought to be. Sometimes I have to work very hard to master my will.

2i 3Augustine of Hippo (who I know had many interesting views) saw obedience as a method to not only bind a community but to enable it to function. It performs the same function for DJ and I, our lifestyle needs my obedience to work.  I have to get my ‘self’ under control.

My self-will is not evil as I am not evil but when it rears its head as a response to an instruction from DJ it is often a destructive force. It is self will that is destructive to me, to him, to us and to what we want to achieve. It comes from a place of fear and leads us both to discord and away from love and peace. As such, I can see Augustine’s point. My self-will can harm our community of two.

Obedience is unfashionable, challenging, hard work and desperately important. It should be and can be responsible, thoughtful, considered and appropriate. It does not quire subjugation any more than it requires self harm.

Obedience is not the loss of self but rather the fulfilment of self.

The person that requires obedience is not a despot. He cannot behave just as he wishes. He must have structure and selflessness at the core of his thinking. He requires not just love and knowledge but a perception of the couple (or community) as of greater value than his own will.  In requiring me to obey him DJ must obey the rigors of selflessness and focus on the higher value to which we both subscribe.

For the monks this is the will of God, for DJ and I, this is love and harmony. (I am aware of the irony here.)

Obedience requires maturity.

It is not what happens after a battle of wills where DJ  has spanked me until I cry and I give in. A war of attrition is not obedience and shows no progress towards peace. It is OK that this happens sometimes, it is just not obedience.

Obedience requires listening and clarity of expression from both sides. A sharing of views, values, trust and support is required.  I cannot obey a man who shouts or who demands empty shows of obedience. It is who I am. DJ aims for a peaceful, anticipatory obedience. I think, if we ever reach it, our obedience will look like peace from the outside. It will look simple and polite, hardly like obedience at all.

My obedience will look different to yours.

Obedience must show respect for all responsibilities. Our responsibilities to family, friends, self, health and work must be maintained. Just as monks saw themselves as members of a community so must each of us. Obedience melds and respects all aspects of our lives.

“Obedience within the monastery today rests upon the idea that the community is a society of persons who, through mutual love, sanctify each other.” (2)

I think they were on to something there.

2i 1


  • Do not read stories or books that scare you on these subjects. Just because you read a novel where some poor girl was harassed horribly by the maid just because her husband thought it a jape does not mean your husband requires that from you. Read things only that reassure you and make you think.
  • Discuss your mutual aims and what you are aiming for as a couple. Be aware these are far off and long term but know your vision and your daily actions carry you towards or away from it.
  • If there is a concern you have then say it. Say it clearly and simply. It is better not to be crying or throwing things at this point so don’t wait until it becomes a problem before you speak. The chances are you are not questioning a long term aim, just a method to get you there. You can make a change and still be true to yourselves.
  • Be aware of one another’s sensitivities. Just as I cannot bear to be shouted at- what are your and your partner’s hard lines in this area?
  • Little and often is better than a big change- just like going to the gym.
  • Practise forgiveness.
  • Link this practise to the other topics in the series, including next week’s which is Mindfulness.
  • Remember that disobedience is not failure. It can be an adventure all of its own.
  • If all else fails, love one another.2i 5

3 Responses to “The Pillars of Virtue”

  1. 1 MrJ

    Thank you, Indigo.I find this a very thought provking post.
    I think hat, indeed, self-will is not at stake here. There may occasionally be a clash of wills (or transgression of rules) and properly dealin with that is one way of confirming our particular kind of relationships. The same goesfor giving up self-will at a particulat instance.
    At the core may be trust an control. Control over self-will; and giving up control over circumstances and events. Trust beig the cpacity to act on basis of the assumption that the other will live up to expectatios may be important to both, but especially to the latter. It therefore both requires and sustains the relationship – and may make it grow. .

  2. I agree with what Mr.J wrote and like the pictures too,especially the first one.

  3. 3 Anonymous

    Faith, too, helps us understand our relationships. I’m enjoying your observations.

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