Before continuing the narrative of how religious life died, it is important to say something more about the contentious word obedience. The root of the word is to listen, not just any listening, but a willingness for whatever. In fact, the whole point of Christian life, much less the religious life, is to help people fine-tune the art of interior listening, what I often refer to as attentive, responsive receptivity, to 'seek to the beholding'. This acute listening assumes a community of mature people who respect one another.
The reality is that such communities are few and far between, if they exist at all. In the flush of trying to live an 'authentic' monastic life—which, of course, is self-defeating—people tend to turn unthinkingly to the stereotypes, often romantic and unrealistic, to apply to their own situations. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to gather a group of like-minded, mature individuals to live together and allow the life simply to unfold under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that little needs to be said or written down as was the case in the 4th century desert.
Obedience is often abused, in part because the sense of this acute listening at the deepest level has been lost in the miasma of words and inherited misinterpretations that now constitute what is horribly called formation. Instead of acute listening, obedience became, and to a large extent remains, a series of power games. There are ridiculous stories of how far obedience has been pushed in the past, and I'm afraid that a lot of them are true. Novices used to be taught that they should be so obedient that they should anticipate a superior's orders. This implies that the subject should be fixated on the superior, and as noted above, dependence mistaken for obedience is no obedience at all. Perhaps the reality underpinning such a statement is that one should be so tuned in to the community and the common good that certain orders should not have to be given.
But the impression that a superior gives orders and the subject obeys them is a caricature of what is meant by obedience. This notion comes from a too-literal reading of stories of the desert fathers and mothers where novices are told to plant dead sticks in the desert which then miraculously sprout and flower. Such stories, based on the reality that some plants, especially grapevines, when dormant do look like dead sticks, are rather parables of the soul: the new novice is a dead stick, but if he plants himself in the desert, that is, in silence, simplicity and singleness of heart, if he waters the seemingly sterile sand with his tears of repentance—his efforts to come to that listening silence—then he will bear fruit.
Certainly there are times when a superior gives orders—job assignments, for example. But the superior is not infallible and can mis-match people and jobs, in which case the subject should make representations. If she finds out that she is the only person available and the job must be done, then she should give it her best shot. But it is also true that sometimes there are situations when the person, obedient to the inner voice, will be treated with gross unfairness bordering on abuse, but who perseveres because he or she is aiming for a goal that is perhaps beyond the view of the superior. Someone might find himself in a situation where carefully made arrangements for living alongside a community or as a long-term guest are disregarded by the superior, and all sorts of outrageous things done to try to dislodge him. But, having entered the situation to learn something that the superior is incapable of understanding, the person simply accepts the irrational demands because he or she realises that a higher goal is being fulfilled. Such a response can enrage a superior who is using obedience for political ends, which means that the arrangement will be eventually terminated in any case, but the person can walk away having learned what he came to learn—the joy of service without any thought for oneself, for example, or the ability to love people who hate, or a strengthened fidelity to an inner voice that is steadfast and not subject to caprice or power games. This sort of thing does not happen very often, and the circumstances have to be very unusual—it is more common, and usually wiser, to terminate such arrangements before they get out of hand—but they do occur. If the inner vision is strong enough, the person will do just about anything, and put up with just about anything, to follow it. This is the reasoning behind Benedict's suggestion that the aspirant be kept waiting outside for two or three days.
All the vows merge into one vow. All the vows are intended to help a person to beholding no matter what the circumstance. Poverty and chastity (not to be confused with celibacy) strip away the distractions of ownership and entanglements. In their healthy forms they increase appreciation and respect for the material creation and other human beings because the person learns to listen at ever deeper levels. None of the practices traditionally associated with these vows is an end in itself; the vows are means to an end. They help a person to live in equipoise, integrated and responsive to whatever situation he or she may find him or herself in, whether inside a formal community or living an ordinary life in the world. The vows are simply an extension of baptismal vows, which are only a token of a life-long process of learning to behold, to re-centre in the deep mind. Here is Cassian:
'But we ought to be aware on what we should have the purpose of our mind fixed, and to what goal we should ever recall the gaze of our soul: and when the mind can secure this it may rejoice; and grieve and sigh when it is withdrawn from this, and as often as it discovers itself to have fallen away from gazing on Him, it should admit that it has lapsed from the highest good, considering that even a momentary departure from gazing on Christ is fornication. And when our gaze has wandered ever so little from Him, let us turn the eyes of the soul back to Him, and recall our mental gaze as in a perfectly straight direction. For everything depends on the inward frame of mind, and when the devil has been expelled from this, and sins no longer reign in it, it follows that the kingdom of God is founded in us, as the Evangelist says "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, nor shall men say Lo [ecce/idou] here, or lo [ecce/idou] there: for verily [ecce enim/idou] I say unto you that the kingdom of God is within you."' Cassian, Conferences, 1:13; translation www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/conf/book1/conf1.html#1.13.