When someone commands you to do something, it is all on you. You will either succeed or fail, but no matter how it turns out, it’s on you. Even the consideration of whether you have the capacity to do it doesn’t necessarily factor into the equation. You have been commanded, and now you must obey, sink or swim.
But being commissioned to do something, that’s different. When you are commissioned you are not merely commanded but also equipped, empowered, and given the necessary authority to accomplish your duty. Police officers and leaders in the military, for instance, are given many commands over the course of their careers, but before those commands come, they are commissioned into their offices – that is, invested with the necessary authority and support to accomplish their mission.
In life, maybe we’re most aware of this happening in religious life in community – we are often asked to do something that seems impossible. It may be presented as if it is intended to be a request but it comes across as a command, certainly not a commission since it does not include a package of skills to complete the task. Benedict in his Rule describes how the monk should respond when asked to perform what for them may seem an impossible task. He apparently decided to include these directives after some time of living with the various characters who joined the ranks of community. Chapter 68 is in the portion of the Rule thought to be a collection of after-thoughts. It’s like “oh, and by the way, after what I said about obedience in Chapter 5, it could happen that: “A Sister may be assigned a burdensome task or something she cannot do. If so, she should, with complete gentleness and obedience, accept the order given her. Should she see, however, that the weight of the burden is altogether too much for her strength, then she should choose the appropriate moment and explain patiently to the superior the reasons why she cannot perform the task. This she ought to do without pride, obstinacy or refusal. If after the explanation the superior is still determined to hold to her original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best for her. Trusting in God’s help, she must in love obey.”
We sing about the scene in today’s Gospel in the one of our hymns: “Lord, you gave the great commission … with the spirit’s gifts empowering us, for the work of ministry.” The disciples, and we, are being entrusted and enabled to continue Jesus’ own work – to share the news of God’s love in word and deed. And, not only that, but to invite those who receive it to be co-workers in bringing the kingdom to fruition. .
To be effective it takes willing teachers as well as willing pupils. More than that, it takes disciples as well as students – pupils may be just there, students are open to learning – absorbing and putting into practice. Everything we do in life initially begins with being directly or indirectly taught. Children raised in environments where there is inadequate attention, care and interaction, suffer failure to thrive and many die at a young age. We come into this world ready and willing to learn. God gave us the power of reasoning that we might learn. God sent us into this world to learn his will for our lives so that we might influence others to recognize God’s glory. Remember the 2nd question in the Baltimore catechism? “Why did God make you? God made me to know, love and serve Him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.”
We are commissioned both as individuals and as a community. Thus, we are accountable as individuals and as community. Benedict places much of the burden of responsibility on the prioress. However notice the role of mutual obedience in our lives … each one to each other.
If we are com-missioned then we have a mission. But, it’s easy to lose sight of our mission. We can get excited about proposed projects, ministerial opportunities, and personal pursuits. New projects may have appeal but if they do not reflect our mission as Benedictine Sisters of FL, they are not for us. Or, we need to discern and then endorse a new statement of mission.
This little story – maybe true – illustrates the principle of accountability – “inspect what you expect.”
The story goes: a young soldier was deployed for a minimum of a year. When he left, his fiancé gave him a harmonica. Strange gift – but she said, “I want you to learn to play this: it will help to keep your mind off the war and the girls.”
He wrote to her often and told her that he was faithfully practicing his harmonica every evening.
After a year she met him at the airport, he grabbed her to kiss her and she pushed back and said, “Wait before you kiss me, I want to hear you play the harmonica.”
She was no fool. She knew that the man’s love would be reflected in what he did. If he’d done what he’d promised – she’d know it by his actions.
So, too, does God know by our actions how sincere, how faithful we are to our God-given personal mission, and our community commitments.
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress