09 August 2016

Followup Questions on Obedience

[[Hi Sister, I guess I haven't really understood how obedience works, or maybe I am suffering under the influence of an older understanding of obedience. Your description of the way it works with your delegate was surprising because she seems to leave things up to you to decide. Is that really the way it is? Why then have a superior at all? Isn't obedience about dying to your own will? How can you do that if you don't have to do what you are told to do? Is what you described typical of hermits only or is it pretty much the way it is with all religious?]]

Common Misunderstandings of Religious Obedience:

I think that seeing religious obedience as a matter of "doing what one is told" is the most common misunderstanding there is in regard to this vow. It is true that, as you say, the purpose of obedience is to assist us in dying to self and embracing God's will --- not only for ourselves but for the world around us. Doing what we are told, however is not necessarily much less usually the best way to truly learn obedience. In some ways it has been part and parcel of a form of authoritarianism which has assured only that people never learn to truly discern the will of God, never allow their hearts and minds to be shaped in terms of that will, and fail to grow as individuals who can discern and implement the will of God in solitude or in those situations which are difficult, where others need their real wisdom in hearkening, and often there is no one to tell them what to do in any case. My own vow is about being truly attentive and responsive to the Word of God whenever and in whatever way that comes to me. How can I do that if obedience is merely or even mainly about "doing what I am told"?

Another common misunderstanding I think is that obedience is about the death of our own will. Obedience is certainly about its formation and transformation so that one's own will mirrors and is empowered by God's will but this is not the same thing as the death of our will. We cease to be truly human when our wills die; we can neither act to love others or ourselves in the absence of a will. What tends to be true is that the same kinds of things that harm our spirits or wound us psychologically can cripple or otherwise wound our wills. But we are called to image God in Christ and coming to do that does not occur with the abdication of the obligation to learn and be formed in Christ's likeness. Dying to my own will means learning to set myself aside for the sake of others; it means learning not only to be generous but to see others, their needs and potentials, and especially allowing the will of God to be the lens through which all of reality is perceived. To will what God wills is to want and to work towards what God wants and works towards. It is something which is divinely inspired but which requires guidance, modeling, personal healing, and concrete opportunities for discussion and discernment.

So, do I decide things myself and if so, then why have a superior at all? Yes, generally speaking I do decide things myself --- but never in a vacuum. I am responsible to God for my own life and growth in mirroring Christ. On that level of things I work with a director who keeps her finger on my spiritual pulse and assists me in discerning God's will for me personally. But I am also responsible for living an eremitical vocation in the name of the Church and this means a level of responsibility which is more than merely personal. Both my delegate and my bishop (and also my pastor even though not a legitimate superior!!) serve to remind me of the dimensions of my life beyond the narrow confines of the hermitage walls. They each in their own way serve to make me accountable 1) to other religious and for the vows and religious life itself, 2) for the desert tradition itself and canon 603 as a renewed instance of this specifically, and 3) to both the local and universal Church to whom my vocation belongs and in whose name I live it. It is common for a hermit to meet far less frequently with her bishop than with the others but even so each of these persons represent a perspective I need to see things clearly. And because I am accountable to them whether or not they ever command me to do x or y "in obedience," my awareness of the way I live my life is impacted every single day by our relationship; I think this is a good and necessary thing.

It occurs to me that perhaps it might be helpful if I posted the foundational canonical requirement for a superior, the legal norm which defines the essential nature of the superior's role: [[ Can. 618 Superiors are to exercise their power, received from God through the ministry of the Church, in a spirit of service.  Therefore, docile to the will of God in fulfilling their function, they are to govern their subjects as sons or daughters of God and, promoting the voluntary obedience of their subjects with reverence for the human person, they are to listen to them willingly and foster their common endeavor for the good of the institute and the Church, but without prejudice to the authority of superiors to decide and prescribe what must be done.]] As you can see, while the power to command in obedience is a reality, the superior's role is rooted in their own obligation to obedience, docility, and service to the Word and Will of God. They are to find ways to foster "voluntary obedience" and today most superiors have adopted this approach to the vow. Similarly there is a strong collaborative dimension here motivated by real love which remains despite the very real obligation to "decide and prescribe." That heightens my own sense of accountability all across the board.

On the Experience of Accountability:

I suspect anyone who has worked with a spiritual director knows something of what I mean here. Because we meet once every month or two with our directors we feel accountable for our prayer and the personal work we do to prepare for meetings. Spiritual directors are committed to us and we are accountable to them even when the relationship is not one of religious obedience or lived in the same way as when one lives a vow of religious obedience. Recalling Sunday's Gospel lection we can imagine those left in charge of the Master's estate acting in a way which is accountable because the Master may return at any time. What is important here is not the "threat" quality of his potential return but the sense that he remains a presence which prevents his servants from forgetting (or better, reminds them of!) who they are, who it is they serve, whose property this really is, and how they are to behave toward others. They have been entrusted with something on behalf of another; it is this which the continued reminders of potential return help keep uppermost in one's mind.

Because they are charged with responsibility for others (congregations, dioceses, etc) in ways we are not, legitimate superiors serve to call us to accountability, to remind us of perspectives which are broader than we might be tempted to remember otherwise, and of course, they are persons with whom we can and do talk so that over time our hearts and minds are truly and more deeply formed in terms of a greater love, a broader perspective than our own otherwise self-focused lives allow for. For instance, it is possible for a hermit to focus merely on her life with God and on the goal of union with God. Some justify this in credible ways. But it is also necessary for a publicly professed (i.e., consecrated) hermit to focus on these things (again) 1) for the sake of others generally, 2) for the sake of the local Church whom she serves as publicly commissioned witness, 3) for the sake of the desert tradition which the Church has also commissioned her to live as a vital and contemporary instance, 4) for the sake of the universal Church and her Gospel more generally, and 5) that she may stand as a prophetic (counter cultural) presence in a world so geared toward individualism.

All of us are accountable in our lives on a number of levels. We all have people to whom we answer in one way and another whether these are pastors, bosses, friends, directors, teachers, family, physicians, etc. When we are really fortunate these relationships are truly collaborative; they are vital and empowering relationships that challenge and inspire us to be our best selves and call us to live our commitments with ever greater maturity and integrity. Legitimate superiors serve this way for the person with public commitments to religious obedience. They allow genuine perspective and growth in that. They function to give stability to ecclesial vocations, a stability which allows for necessary change and adaptation while maintaining traditional substance. They are part of the formal and personal way in which the hermit carries on in an attentive dialogue with the larger church and world even as she lives her life in the solitude of a hermitage. Again, religious obedience is a means to a focused and very real accountability which helps protect from narrowness, selfishness, and individualism. Consider that obedience as "doing what one is told" often does precisely the opposite!!

How Typical is this Approach to Obedience?

This way of approaching obedience is common today in religious congregations and certainly among hermits (who tend to be relatively mature spiritually when they begin this life and who are not living with others in a way which requires house or congregational leadership). As I noted in an earlier post both Benedictine and Dominican spiritualities stress the NT sense of attentive listening or even hearkening (which includes the notion of appropriate response) and I am sure that is true of groups like the Trappists and Trappistines (who are Benedictine in character), the Camaldolese (similarly Benedictine), and the Franciscans (at least all those Franciscans I know). There are many other congregations for whom this approach is also true, Holy Family, Holy Names, IHM's, etc, etc. Wherever the accent is on the Gospel and on growing as mature religious who are capable of embodying the Gospel this approach is common. There is a history of infantilyzing tendencies in religious life which were mainly due to the notion of obedience as "doing what one is told" and touting the goal of the death of one's will which most everyone has now turned from as both unhealthy and counterproductive. We need mature moral agents who can be leaders in the Church and world both; it is the notion of obedience as attentive listening or hearkening which is foundational here.

I hope this helps.