08 August 2016

Questions on Living a Vow of Obedience under c 603

[[Dear Sister, I was wondering how you live the vow of obedience. Since you are under the supervision of your Bishop and also have a delegate do they both act as superiors? Because you wrote recently that if a spiritual director tries to bind one in obedience one should look for a new and competent director, I am supposing that you don't feel bound in obedience to your director. I think it would be hard to have someone telling me what to do and when to do it. That means I think obedience could be one of the harder things I might vow if I were called to be a consecrated hermit. Is it difficult for you? Thanks.]]

Great questions! Timely too since I have just started reading an essay by Donald Goergen OP on Obedience; I am hoping to discuss it with a Dominican friend I usually have Sunday coffee with. It turns out that the Dominican view of obedience and the Benedictine view are very similar so it will be fun to do that next Sunday. (That and an essay from the LCWR 2016 Occasional Papers on Change vs Transformation are on our list to read and 'discuss'.) In any case, it is a topic I am thinking and reading about right now so I appreciate your questions. Perhaps it will help if I first post my own vow of obedience so you can see what is behind everything I say about my own living out of this vow.

[[ I acknowledge and accept that God is the author of my life and that through his Word, spoken in Jesus Christ, I have been called by name to be. I affirm that in this Word, a singular identity has been conferred upon me, a specifically ecclesial identity which I accept and for which I am forever accountable. Under the authority of the Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, I vow to be obedient: to be attentive and responsible to Him who is the foundation of my being, to his solitary Word of whom I am called to be an expression, and to the whole of His People to whom it is my privilege to belong and serve.]] (Received 02. September. 2007)

My vow, as you can see, is a vow to be attentive and responsible to God in Christ through the mediation of the Church. That is first of all a vow to be attentive and responsible to the Word of God in all of the ways that Word is spoken in my life. It is especially a vow to allow God in Christ to be the subjective foundation of my life just as he is truly the objective foundation; that means "binding" or committing myself to this task and privilege in concrete ways via concrete relationships.

The two persons this involves canonically are the Bishop and my delegate.They are both legitimate superiors --- though the delegate serves in this way in a sort of derivative way on behalf of my bishop and the diocese. The term sometimes used is "quasi-superior" but I am bound in obedience to be responsive to her in a "heightened" way precisely because she is formally committed to serving me and the c 603 vocation on behalf of the local Church and our bishop. The third thing my vow  involves directly is obedience to my Rule (which is itself an expression of the shape of my commitment to c 603 and the other canons which apply to the life of a solitary consecrated hermit) --- and this means I am in a relatively constant dialogue with this and c 603, with the needs of daily life, and with my spiritual director (and delegate) regarding my own attentiveness and responsiveness here.

Please note that in none of this does anyone ordinarily simply tell me what to do. Everything involves dialogue and attentive listening on everyone's part. Should my bishop or delegate tell me I must do x or y I would certainly work to understand what is being asked and why (to the extent I can or really need to understand these things), and I would do all I could to respond as "asked". (If the issue is less serious or one I can easily understand the need for I am apt to simply do it --- whatever "it" is.) Generally there would be no reason I would not comply with what is being required of me. Still, this is not the way obedience is ordinarily shaped --- even when matters are presented to me for consideration by my delegate (whose "style" differs from, say, the Vicar for Religious). What is far more typical with her are exchanges like the following (or the approach underlying them). Laurel speaking: [[Because of (x) I am going to skip liturgy for the time being.]] (Delegate --- who understands the entire situation): I support you in this (decision). Stay close to your feelings and prayer. Rest. Contact me as you need.]] or again, (Laurel speaking): [[I am unsure what to do here. I am thinking I should either x  or y.]] (Delegate): I encourage you to x . Your decision.]]  That said, she can and does insist, demand, or "command" I do x or y in certain circumstances, for instance, but this is rare indeed.

Of course I trust my delegate, her perspective, experience, and wisdom and she also  trusts me to do what is best. Obedience cannot work as it is really meant to without this mutual trust. Again, obedience is about listening carefully and deciding to act in a way which most advances the purposes of God in my life and in the coming of the Kingdom. Sometimes I know what that means in my life better than my delegate knows and other times she sees things much more clearly than I do; together we come to a sense of the best way to move forward. It is when I do not see clearly in significant ways that a specific "directive" may be given. Similarly, a specific directive may be given to assist me and to affirm a kind of confidence in me at the same time --- ironic as all that sounds. The larger issue, of course, is that human being is a task and goal as much as it is a given reality. It is in my own discernment and action, my own obedience that I am created or come to be as an attentive and responsible human being. Even when I make mistakes the process of discerning, deciding, and acting is formative in the way described. A good superior makes sure this process is carried forward in each of our lives and is not short-circuited by authoritarianism or crippled by infantilism. 

Something similar is true (or has been true) with my bishop. After a meeting in which I fill him in on what my life looks like and answer any questions he may have I might ask him if he has any concerns. The answer has tended to be no and the day to day matters which might come under my vow fall to my delegate. What I want to stress here is that obedience is the result of honesty and discernment on everyone's part. "Commanding" or "directing" in formal obedience is rarely necessary because generally speaking we are each honest with one another and because I am honest with myself and God regarding how I live my Rule or otherwise attend to the Word of God in my life. Mostly I have found that the role of legitimate superiors is supportive and clarifying. It is, as mentioned above, also rooted in a trust which is empowering, not oppressive or infantilizing. That at least is my own experience of the superior-hermit relationship whether with delegate or bishop.

Other things which come into play in the way I live my vow include the life of my parish community and the needs my pastor might express.  (The vow demands much more than simply responding to legitimate superiors.) I attend to these as I can and I respond both as I am able and as is appropriate to my place in and love for this community and to my own more foundational commitment to God in solitude. I consider these calls to responsiveness to be really important to my life as a hermit and to a life which is meant to express a commitment to obedience in an ecclesial vocation. Again, however, no one is telling me WHAT to do. Opportunities to serve in ways the community needs or may especially benefit from that are within my competence are offered to me and I may or may not be able to take advantage of them at any given time.
Obedience here too is again about attentiveness and responsiveness to the Word of God in Christ as it is mediated to me by concrete persons, institutions, and situations, not merely about doing what I am told to do. While I haven't mentioned explicitly my obligation to read, study, and even grapple with Scripture as an instance of my vow as well as my obligation to prayer, these two are foundational practices which are the ground of any commitment to obedience. Because these are covered in my Rule when I write of "observation of my Rule" I am also thinking of or implying these. Still it is important to be clear that it is engagement with God in prayer and in the Word of God through study, lectio, and liturgical experience that stands behind all  the obedience expressed or observed in other relationships. These, while they are mediators of the Word of God, all first of all stand under the Word of God and are subject to its values and purposes.  The bottom line here is that generally obedience is not hard for me --- though it is always challenging and rewarding!! Generally it results in real freedom --- the power to truly be myself. If you are called to religious obedience, and if you were to model your own understanding of obedience on the New Testament notion and use a Dominican or Benedictine conception, for instance, I think it would be a good deal less onerous than you imagine.