What’s wrong with the world? When this question was sent out by a British newspaper in the early 20th century to noted authors of the time, intending to elicit essay responses, G.K. Chesterton famously gave the most concise response: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely Yours, GKC.” The remark hits upon a profound truth. Take your pick from among the laundry-list of social ills that plague our world: abortion, crime, war, poverty, sexual scandal, political corruption, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse. Every social ill ultimately has its root in the individual human heart, and without seeking a remedy to this first of all, we are like sailors on a sinking ship continually heaving water off the boat while ignoring the leak.
This is not to say, of course, we should ignore social problems, or neglect putting our energies into shaping a social order that respects justice, human dignity, and the common good. It is, however, to point out what Chesterton realized, and indeed what recent Popes have pointed out in their social encyclicals: a just social order necessarily depends on a fundamental conversion of the human heart, both to initiate worthwhile change, and to maintain and preserve it.
It is most interesting, in this light, that Aquinas reckons the virtue of obedience as part of the cardinal virtue of Justice (ST II.II.104.2). In our contemporary American culture, we are perhaps not used to thinking of “obedience” as a virtue. We more naturally, I think, imagine it a necessary but annoying part of certain very limited segments of life: a worker obeying his manager’s wishes on the job; a soldier bound to obey his higher officer; even a pet properly trained to follow the dictates of its owner (it is telling that two out of the four automatically generated Google suggestions for “obedience” pertain to doggy-training!). Yet Aquinas, articulating a longstanding Christian (and biblical) tradition, sees obedience not only as a virtue necessary to the just maintenance of human society, but pervading all aspects of human interaction. Why?
The first part of the answer is fairly straightforward. Insofar as obedience indicates a certain way of yielding our immediate desires and inclinations to the common good, the obedience we give to civil law ensures that society can function on a day-to-day basis. Society demands order, and if I thwart that order by stealing something not rightfully mine, the state can justly punish me and demand I recompense the aggrieved party. So too the “obedience” I give to my employer is a choice I make in full knowledge that if I neglect my duties, the employer can relieve me of my employed status. Aquinas, though, will say that something more than external conformity to the law is needed to make obedience meritorious. Charity must inform the practice of obedience, such that we obey “not through fear of punishment, but through love of justice” (ST II.II.104.3). Justice, moreover, extends beyond the legal and civil order with which we generally associate it. It extends to obeying religious superiors (“observance”), to obeying parents (“piety”) and above all to obeying God (“religion”).
As a religious, I can testify (with virtually every other religious I’ve met) that among the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the last is the most difficult. Poverty can offer challenges, such as not being able to travel as readily or obtain the worldly comforts many people today enjoy. But in our consumerist world this sort of life is somewhat refreshing and attractive. Chastity has its demands as well, though my experience is that fidelity to one’s prayer life and closeness to the sacraments protects and sustains the heart and mind in this regard. Obedience, though, cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being, or more specifically what it means to be a son of Adam.
Each of us clings desperately to our own will, and not without reason. Our free will, among all the goods we possess, is perhaps the most cherished and intimate part of ourselves. It is the center of our moral action and all our behavior. It is the faculty we have, as a gift from God, to carry out day-to-day tasks, from the minutest to the greatest. It is where thought, memory, experience and desire all unite into concrete decisions about how we are to live. As we know, though, the more valuable and sacred a thing is, the more drastic and destructive can be its effects when misused. Scripture and history eloquently and relentlessly narrate the abuses that arise from a disordered human heart that is bent on “having its way.” So, too, in our own personal lives each of us experiences the weakness of our human will with its faults and inclinations to sin, even in spite of our best intentions.
The vow of obedience in religious life, therefore, is partially meant as a kind of school of discipline to remedy this natural inclination to selfishness and pride. All Christians in virtue of our baptism are called to self-renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 16:24). But in making the vow of obedience in religious life, one is in essence saying, “My life is not my own. I put it entirely at the service of God and His Church as God reveals His will to me through my superiors.” The rub comes when we are called to do things for God and His Church at the command of his sometimes very weak and fallible human instruments. Thus charity enters in. Unless a superior demands something that is contrary to God’s law and thus violates conscience (in which case one is actually bound to disobey), the practice of obedience hones us in charity. I happened to have been blessed with very good superiors thus far in my Dominican life, but whether one enjoys this situation or not, in either case obedience impels the religious to put aside his own will, put himself at the disposal of another, and (above all) trust that “in everything God works for good”(Rom 8:28). In doing so, we imitate in some small way the One who became “obedient, even unto death, death on a Cross”(Philip 2:4).
There is even a freeing aspect to such a vow. The central Dominican mission is to preach for the salvation of souls. We cultivate a life of prayer, study, and contemplation precisely for this end. Taking a vow of obedience in a sense frees one of the burden of always thinking and wondering and planning where he is going to be in the next year, the next month, even the next week. If the Order calls, we go. If there are souls in a particular place, then, well, the gospel needs to be preached there, whether I in my own cleverness had thought of the possibility or not. One must be ready, of course, for bearing a certain burden, and for facing up to and enduring perhaps very demanding ministries and missions. But in all things, God’s is the glory and we put ourselves entirely at the service of His desires as they come to us through the Order to which we are vowed.
With the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, upon us at the outset of this new calendar year, we may look to Mary as an icon of that perfect obedience to the Father’s will which we are all called to imitate. Unhesitating, total, undaunted, willing even to endure misunderstanding and suffering, Mary’s obedience to the Father’s will is the model for all religious. Mary could have had no idea what she was getting into when she uttered her Fiat, but she trusted that her Father would provide, whatever circumstances arose. It is this kind of loving obedience to the Father that is the cure for our fallen nature’s more destructive tendencies, tendencies that will last as long as we dwell within this mortal coil. We do well to continue heaving as much water out of the ship of human affairs as we can, though each of us must be especially attentive to that primordial leak which only grace informing our will by charity can plug. Mary, Mother of God, Ora pro nobis!