Topic: Obedience

Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture


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Speak to any religious and they will consistently tell you that obedience is the most difficult of all of the vows. I know that every time I've said this the questioner has always been dumbfounded. They always expect me to say that celibacy is the most difficult of all the vows. But, it just isn't true. Don't get me wrong, celibacy is hard. Poverty is hard. They can be a daily struggle. However, obedience is a struggle every moment of the day.
Why is this? I think it's because obedience goes against the fundamental "virtue" of the modern era: radical self-autonomy. It's completely understandable that this sort of autonomy is thought of as the most prized virtue of human life. We are the sort of creatures that can freely choose. This freedom is bound up with the very dignity that we posses as human persons. The ability to assert our will is what allows us to love. But, obedience is the free choice to lay aside that autonomy. It is not, however, a choice against love.
From the very moment we profess our first vows, we make a radical choice to place our wills in the hands of another. These others are our superiors, our constitutions, the Church, and the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the practice of deferring to the preference of a brother is a sort of obedience. This is no easy task for a group of men who come from a culture that values autonomy above other virtues. Professing the vow of obedience is subversive to our cultural and, to some degree, the American ethos.
Obedience isn't simply doing what you're told. That's too legalistic. The truly obedient person seeks to be obedient. He desires to be obedient. Contrary to this is the old saying, "it's easier to ask forgiveness then to ask permission." This is the opposite of obedience. In its place, the obedient person says, "it's good to ask permission so I don't have to ask forgiveness."
What's good is not often the same as what is easy.
Why would anyone do this? Why choose obedience? The reality is, everybody has to be obedient to somebody. You might be obedienct to your boss, your wife or husband, the government, whomever. Often times these can be begrudging forms of obedience. Obedience in some of these situations only exists because the other person or institution has great power and authority over you. They can compel your obedience. This isn't the case with Religious Life. Every single one of us has freely chosen to vow obedience. This choice is a great act of love. Likewise, when a superior receives the obedience of the brothers, that reception of obedience is also a great act of love. Both the superior and the subordinate are taking a great risk. Vowing obedience and receiving obedience risk the possibility of setting up a battle of wills.
There is nothing in our modern form of Religious Life that compels the individual brother to obey his superior. The brother must want to be obedient. In this way, obedience becomes an act of charity toward the superior. This concept is nothing new. The Rule of St. Augustine says pretty much the same thing. The difference is the contemporary concerns, the contemporary culture. Simply put, we must learn to ask before we act. We must trust our superiors with our hearts.
Perhaps coming from a society where there is an over 50% divorce rate contributes to the difficulty of being obedient. The younger generation of Religious is accustomed to those entrusted with our care violating trust. As a result they've built coping methods that are contradictory to the practice of obedience. When you grow up in a society where you can't trust people to be faithful, it's very difficult to build that disposition of trust when you're an adult. You are forced, by circumstance, to become independent and radically self-reliant.
Yet the fact remains the same. Those of us who've entered into religious life have freely vowed obedience. We saw something compelling in such a way of life. And it's a beautiful life. To be able to trust another with determining what is good for you is awesome. You discover that there are people who have your greatest good in mind when they make decisions. You wake up each day realizing that you are loved. It empowers you to act with love every moment of every day. The only answer to the lack of fidelity we experience in our culture is obedience. It is both our privilege and pleasure to break the cycle of mistrust and venture forward into a better society where love abounds in real concrete ways.
Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Bound for Freedom

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In a world which so values freedom, the average person may find it odd, incomprehensible even, that a person would root his life in a vow of obedience. Isn’t that precisely the opposite of freedom? Doesn’t such a “binding” of the will necessarily reduce our freedom, our humanity?

I think of this having recently witnessed the solemn vows of two of our brothers, Brs. Ambrose and Dominic David. Afterward, the Master of the Order, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, who received their vows, spoke with all of the student brothers and made the comment that the most important event in the life of a Dominican Friar, even greater than his ordination, is his solemn profession: this is what unites us with the Order and makes our life possible. Thus the mission of the Order of Preachers depends upon this vow, this commitment to the Order and to one another. In order to be most free to contemplate God and share the fruits of this contemplation, a friar must first bind his will to the Order.

But this paradox runs deeper: all freedom, I would propose, depends upon a certain necessity for its very possibility. Freedom requires necessity, a certain binding of the will. St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing the freedom of the will, notes that a certain type of necessity is required for the will: not the necessity of coercion, nor the necessity of material construction or motion, but a necessity of end: “For what befits a thing naturally and immovably must be the root and principle of all else appertaining thereto, since the nature of a thing is the first in everything, and every movement arises from something immovable” (Summa Theologica I.82.1c). And so “necessity of end is not repugnant to the will”, and “natural necessity does not take away the liberty of the will.”

Thus the goal of our lives, of our will, is fixed: we are “wired”, so to speak, for the Universal Good, or Ultimate Happiness: in a word, God. We cannot avoid seeking God in everything we do, even if we fail to realize it, and even when we do so in a disordered way (i.e., sin). Thus, there is a sense in which our will is “bound” to God by its very nature; and it is this “binding” of the will which makes our freedom possible at all. We need to be directed toward something in order to be free. Otherwise, we are mere slaves of arbitrariness and chance. So purpose, a directedness towards the ultimate goal, is what makes freedom possible.

The Dominican vow of obedience, then, is analogous to something we find in nature: a fixed orientation of the human will leading us to God. For the Dominican, we "fix" our will by an incorporation into a community which prays, studies, lives together, and preaches; it is an orientation which arises by binding our will to God, to Mary, St. Dominic, our rule, our constitutions, and our superiors – an orientation by which we, and others, might be more free to reach our true end, Ultimate Happiness, God Himself. Thus, we are bound for freedom.