13 June 2019

On Obedience versus Religious Obedience

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if you owe your spiritual director obedience? Did you come to owe her obedience in a different way after your profession? My current director doesn't seem very keen on me owing her "obedience" and I was wondering if it is a matter of style or something -- if you know what I mean!]]

Thanks for your questions: they are good ones! Most contemporary spiritual directors will not accept obedience from their directees if by this we mean religious obedience of the type owed a legitimate superior because of public profession in religious/consecrated life. After all, spiritual directors are not ordinarily the person's legitimate superior (there are very good reasons for this) and are not authorized to request or accept this kind of obedience. It is simply not responsible. Neither is it truthful. This means I am not surprised your spiritual director is not too keen on the whole idea! I do not encourage my own directees to look to me for "commands" or "directives" on what they are to do or not do. I often give suggestions on journaling topics, Scripture passages to meditate on, etc, but these are not commands. The client (or directee) must decide for themselves what is most important or helpful in these suggestions and undertake them in that light --- not because I have said to "Do this". At the same time, I do expect my clients to practice a more general kind of obedience than that undertaken in consecrated life by virtue of a vow. That is, I expect a foundational attentiveness to the client's own heart, to our conversations, to the presence of God in their lives, in the Word of God and so forth. But a spiritual director as SD is not one's legitimate superior and is not owed the kind of obedience one embraces and owes by virtue of a vow of (religious) obedience.

All that said then, the answer to your first question is no, I do not owe my SD obedience in the sense defined by vow -- at least not insofar as she is my spiritual director. However, my SD is also a delegate serving the bishop and me for the sake of this eremitical vocation (we take care with questions of internal and external forums --- the usual area of difficulty in having an SD serve as delegate); that means that I see her regularly in place of my bishop who, after all, cannot meet with me nearly as frequently as I might need and does not know me nearly as well. Because she is my delegate (we --- meaning Sister Marietta and myself, but also Sister Susan, a co-delegate --- also use the term Director for this role --- much as we might call a Mistress of Novices or Juniors a Director of either of these today. Insofar as either Marietta or Susan are also my Directors in this sense, yes, beyond obedience in a more general sense, I owe them religious obedience by virtue of the public vow I made in the hands of my bishop.

Neither of these Sisters nor my bishop are much into requiring this more specifically defined religious obedience from me, but occasionally one of them will do so. I am often encouraged to do x or y, but rarely is there a specific directive to limit x, do y, or refrain from z! I am ordinarily surprised when I receive an actual directive (it is both unusual and ordinarily unnecessary) but it always helps me in whatever circumstances I find myself; what is most striking to me is how it reveals just how profoundly obedient to what is happening within me my Director has been herself! Still, the ordinary obedience (attentiveness and care) I give to communications with my delegate is usually sufficient to affect the kind of fruit desired. My sense is that this is generally true of this kind of relation in the lives of religious today. It is a good deal more than style because it is spiritually and psychologically demanding and more appropriate to mature religious, but I definitely know what you mean.

It is important and probably should go without saying that religious obedience should never be infantilizing. It is also important that religious obedience help us to be truly obedient to God who rarely if ever simply tells us what to do. We must learn to listen, not only to our directors but to the Spirit of God alive in our own hearts, minds, sensibilities, and even in our own bodies and to discern what it calls for from us. Simply being told what to do and doing what we are told does not foster this kind of discernment or growth. It used to be taught that we are to give up our own will and do the will of God (where the command of a superior represented the will of God). Today we focus more on the shaping and conforming of our wills to the will of God in a way which allows us to mature as discerning human beings. A superior is to assist in this growth and this means s/he will do a lot of intent listening to God, to his/her own heart and to us as well (including our psychological, physical, and spiritual states, needs and potentialities. It is a very much more demanding expression of obedience than the simple "Do as you are told" or "Command what you will even if you don't know well the subject's circumstances" kind of obedience.

        By the way,  regarding your last question, yes, the quality and nature of the obedience I owed my Director/delegate changed in light of my vow. It is true that Marietta consented to being my Director in this sense prior to profession and in some ways that would have affected a change but strictly speaking, until I was publicly professed in the hands of the bishop (meaning until he became my legitimate superior because that is who "in the hands of" indicates he is), neither was Marietta my Director/delegate. This is because until the moment of the profession (meaning until the making and reception of one's life commitment and consecration by God through the mediation of the diocesan Church) I became subject to the authority of the Church in a new way. I might have pretended or even desired to be bound to someone in this sense prior to profession (this is especially true when I was younger and this kind of accountability meant a new and somehow intriguing way of  "belonging" in community***) but it is the public act of profession which establishes one in a new state of life with attendant rights and obligations. Religious obedience is one of these.

***It is interesting the way we sometimes "like" the idea of being bound in obedience to another. I know that directees sometimes like to think they are bound to me (or to other directors) in this way. Apparently there is an attendant sense that one is truly cared for by another in this way. I experienced this as a young religious, but in my recent experience, as I have noted above, those requiring obedience from me in the sense of my vow ordinarily demonstrate in what they have required a profound sense of my own needs, well-being, potentialities, etc. It is (or at least has been for me) a profoundly loving thing for legitimate superiors to exercise the ministry of authority over another in this way. (Of course this can and has been both misused and abused in the past; at times it has been exercised in terms of power and pettiness and not in terms of love. When exercised in love, however, the ministry of authority is both freeing and empowering of the true self. I have been delighted to discover that in recent years.