Obedience: The Perfection of Charity

I was speaking to the parish secretary where I teach religious education and do youth ministry. She’s a very holy woman. She knows that I studied Mystical Theology and that the spiritual life of the laity and the Franciscans are my passions. She suggested that I write about obedience for the laity.

Usually, when we speak about obedience, most people think about religious. The secretary mentioned how much she learned about obedience by observing the brothers at the parish take a deep breadth when the Guardian (superior) walks in the door and says to the pastor, “Think it but done say it.”

We have four brothers at that house, one is ordained a priest and the others are lay brothers. One of the lay brothers is the Guardian. Technically, there is no pastor, because you have to be a priest to be a pastor. In this case, the only priest cannot be the pastor, since he is not the superior. Therefore, the priest is the parish administrator. This is a prime example of obedience and humility. Imagine being assigned to a parish with three of your confreres and but you cannot be installed as pastor, because you’re not the superior of the house. The degree of obedience that this requires is very special. To have your superior walk in and tell you not to express your opinion requires even greater humility. You’re given a directive and you execute it, no questions asked, no opinions, no doubts, only faith, the same faith as Christ on the cross.

I’m always reminded of something that I read in one of the Council documents on religious life, Perfectae Caritatis. Literally translated, it means the perfection of charity. But what is the perfectionof charity? I would have to say that it is obedience. There is no greater sign of love than to obey. I have often wondered if the laity (many religious and priests too), but let’s stick with the laity for now, if most lay people understand that they too are called to obey.

To many people, obedience is about doing what you’re told. They are right. It is. However, there is much more to it. In fact, it’s beautiful. It is very difficult at times, ok most of the time. But it IS very beautiful. Imagine putting your entire life in the hands of a superior or a bishop. You know that these men are fallible. You know that they sin like everyone else does. Nonetheless, you also realize that God in his great mercy rewards the obedient soul. You know that Christ and his mother exercised perfect obedience. This brings a special sense of joy into your heart and mind, to know that every time you obey, you are closer to being like Christ and his mother.

We have to clarify one point here. When someone commands you to do something sinful and you refuse, this is not disobedience, because you are obeying God’s will. As St. Francis would tell his brothers, there is never any justification for disobedience, even when you’re idea is better than the superior or the bishop’s.

Disobedience is the refusal to accept what is commanded or expected within what is morally permissible. Commands and expectations need not be perfect, only moral. Many people confuse this. They refuse to obey the bishops, the pope, their spiritual directors or confessors, because the directives, expectations or demands are less than perfect or because they find a fault in what has been commanded. But Francis teaches us that fault is not a good reason for disobedience. There is a difference between fault and sin. No authority can legitimately command sin. Such a command is not only illegitimate, but a null command. In other words, not a command at all. All commands must conform to the will of God, regardless of where they come from.

However, it is also important to remember that God does not always command what WE consider to be perfect or right. Sometimes, God’s commands are rather strange. Look at Abraham. God commanded him to slay Isaac. But God had a plan that Abraham did not know. However, Abraham obeyed and was rewarded and Isaac’s life was spared. Peter often found himself in conflict with the Father’s commands. He debated with Jesus about the merits of the crucifixion. We probably would have debated the same point had we been in Peter’s shoes. Now we argue that Peter was wrong, but let us not forget that hind-sight is always 20/20. We’re looking backward in time and we know how the story ended, with the resurrection. But Peter did not know.

In the end, this is what true obedience is about. It is about loving when you don‘t know the end of the story. It is not about being right or superiors and bishops having full knowledge about everything that they teach and expect. Mother Teresa said it best when she said that obedience is about being faithful. True obedience is about fidelity to what we love, which should be Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. The perfection of charity is found in a loving obedience, even when we believe that we know better.

Comments and reflections are welcome.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

Dear Brother

Thank you. Enjoyed reading it. I’d have to say perfect obedience as you say is extremely difficult. I find myself it depends on what your being called to obey. Ultimately all lawful authority is derived from God and it can be hard to see where the obedience will lead sometimes. It makes it a big challenge. I’m thinking of St Joan of Arc being called to martyrdom by fire. She really struggled with this as one might expect. I think some types of obedience is more important such as obeying the commandments and church. But this type is easier than obeying man. I can see the point you make about obedience to men being hard. It is. Obeying God can be harder though when your called to martyrdom for instance. It’s a good thing we never get tested beyond our strength. You do make a very big act of faith when you subject yourself to bishops, superiors etc. And I agree obedience is a very fine virtue. One that is sadly lacking today. I agree you need very great charity for the obedience you speak of. Thank you for sharing this. It made me think about a few things.

God bless you and pray for me please:thumbsup::slight_smile:


I bolded one of your sentences because it’s very true. I believe that modern man, esepcially in Western societies, has often abused democracy. I believe it comes from an erroneous idea of self-determination. We tend to forget that we do not have full control over our destiny. While man has free will, he also has consequences with which he must live. Modern man has forgotten about the consequences involved in free will. In other words, if you follow the rules, things turn out well. If you break them, you live with the results. We have a tendency to forget that little detail.

As a result, we find it very difficult to submit to the will or expectations of another. And yet, I can offer a perfect example where obedience is crucial. A soldier on the front lines risks his life and that of his platoon if he or she disobeys. The disobedience of one person not only causes chaos, but endangers lives.

This is the approach that many saints took to obedience. The disobedience of one member of the body endangers his soul and that of others. The sins of one member debilitate the entire body. I believe this why St. Paul was so exacting when writing to the Churches that he founded. If we pay special attention to Paul’s letters, they are really the letters of a bishop to his flock. He is demanding that they tow the line.

Yet, today’s lay man, religious and priests often fall into the same pit, today’s lay man puts distance between him and ecclesial authority. He tends to judge, question and reject legitimate ecclesial authority. We’re remembering here that legitimate authority is all authority that is put in place by God and that commands what falls within moral rules.

We have to recover this so that we can pass it on to our children. We have to remember what St. Francis always told the brothers. The sins of the law giver are irrelevant. He remains the law giver. This was not an original idea of Francis. He gets it from Paul who reminds his sheep to do as he says, not as he does. Benedict and Bernard were even more severe on this than was Francis of Assisi. Francis threw love into the mix. He encouraged obedience out of love. Benedict and Bernard demanded obedience out of humility. Love had nothing to do with it. For Benedict and Bernard obedience is about recognizing that one is sinful and needs to sublimate one’s desire to control and to do one’s will. Francis explains obedience as a desire to please the beloved. They are different approaches, but the result is the same.

A Catholic must be willing to obey his pope and bishop, whether it’s out of humility or out of love. In the end, Christ obeyed. To be Christian is to follow Chirst’s example.


Br. JR, OSF :slight_smile:

Your words stir my soul to reflection.

It is said that love has three fruits: Peace, joy, and mercy. These three fruits of the tree of charity also have fruits of their own. Because each attribute of God is God Himself, that is, just as love is a tree so is peace, joy, and mercy; each attribute is a tree and bears fruit. The trees, far from being isolated, are interconnected, they each the fruit of one another and each bears the other as its own fruit. Love is in truth, truth is in justice, and justice is in mercy. They are one, unity, God. And if one were to come up with a human way to speak of this oneness, it would be holiness or spiritual perfection, since God is Spirit. And this Spirit is not only God’s but ours as well, not in the sense of possession but in the sense of self-giving, and so, as the Lord wishes to reign in all hearts, God’s attributes are each universal or catholic. And if He gives Himself to us, most especially in Jesus Christ, for our salvation, than each attribute is apostolic. Hence, God is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and the Church, in as far as it resembles Him, bears these four marks or qualities as well. But because, humanly speaking, the marks can be summed in the Church’s universal mission, which is not only what she dose but what she herself is as the Body of Christ, than it follows that we call her the “Catholic Church” and we call God “Our Father”.

Now, because God shares Himself with us, that means He shares the Law with us. He gives us the Law in many forms: scientific laws, which rule the Universe; physical and mental laws, which rule the body and mind; spiritual laws, which rule the soul; and every law of mankind, since all authority belongs to God. Now God dose not appoint secular rulers, but as He walks with man - Himself being Providence Itself - He guides history, and so, the ruler of a country is based not upon chance but upon justice; the times and other circumstances of the present moment, the character and culture of the culture, etc. all contribute to the election of politicians, so that, men bear the ends of their actions. Hence, we have no real right to complain against a wicked ruler, though every right to defend our rights against evil, and it is in fact our duty to pray for the ruler, for his sake and for the nation, for the sake of Christ crucified and to the glory of God. What acts one dose dose not only effect the one but all things God has created, as is clear from the result of a murder or the deed of giving alms: the murder results in death, pain, anger, and through a chain of events more pain and suffering, and eventually, God brings a greater good out of the evil (even, I hope, the victim and sinners’ salvation); the alms result in cheer, consolation, relief, and through a chain of events more joy and cheer, and eventually God brings more good unto the soul (for He gives more to those with more).


Hence, obedience is very important. Firstly, it pleases God, who is the Law, and we ought to please Him out of love, because in light of creation, redemption, and sanctification every soul is his, as a wife belongs to her husband. God has given Himself, the Law and obedience, to us, and so, we ought to accept Him just as a husband accepts his wife. Those who are baptized have even more reason to please God, being brides of the Lord. Secondly, it furthers God’s Plan, the plan of consummation, which all men desire and every angel awaits; by doing good, the soul builds up the Kingdom in his heart and all around him, and this hastens the coming Reign of God, that reign of joy, peace, and love. We who await Jesus with joy ought to eagerly obey. Thirdly, it furthers the good of oneself and all men, even in a mysterious way, because good in itself is not evil, so no evil is done, yet, even if evil, such as suffering, should result out of good, God will bring a still greater good out of it, so, either way, it is to God’s advantage and evil’s disadvantage. Fourthly, obedience makes the soul like Jesus Christ, who is the very Image of the Father as the Son Incarnate, both being God and resembling Him in His Humanity, and we are assumed by God in light of the Incarnation are members of this Body, and so, the soul who is obedient as Christ was to His parents, to His executioners, and now to priests becomes Christ-like, eucharisted if you will, and the more he is like God, so the more he is obedient, and so the more he pleases God, furthers His work, and furthers the good of all men and makes himself more like Christ. It is as a cycle of virtue, though it might be broken by sin - yet repaired by God’s Mercy and Grace.

Now, one might wonder, “The soul is obedient, but to whom? God or man?” The answer is, both! God has given us the Commandments, each of which is in the other just as each Divine Attribute is in the Other, as the Ten Words are God’s, and within the Words is the natural moral law, which tells us to honor our parents, to not kill, to not commit adultery, etc. And man, in as far as he gives a good command (that is, a true or perfect command, just as Christ is the Good God, True or Perfect God, and Good Man, True or Perfect Man), dose the Will of God, and so, if man obeys another, he in fact obeys the Lord. It is Christ Himself who exemplified this by His obedience. But if the soul is commanded to do something evil it must not obey, lest it infinitely offend the greatest Good: God. Hence, let the soul love God above all things, lest it find itself fretting with a divided heart over whom to obey more, an evil man or the Lord. Nonetheless, the man might not wish to obey God, lest he is humiliated or scorned, but this why all must have in their hearts a desire to suffer for Christ and a love and joy of the Holy Cross, which is the banner of the elect and the seal of obedience, for Christ was obedient unto death - even death on a cross.

Without the Infinite Law, the Absolute Law, which is, as I said, God, there could no other laws, and where there is no law, there is no obedience, and where obedience is lacking there is no love, and where love is lacking there is no good, and where good is not, there neither is God. Without the Law, there could be no universe. Without laws, we could not have evolved or been formed in wombs or grown up or even be able to think our thoughts. Without love, there is no creativity, reason, or wisdom, and so, there would not be a reality we know but nothing at all - nothing would have been created from nonexistence. Yet as often as there is God, so there is good, and where there is good there is love, and where there is love there is obedience, and where obedience is there is law, and where law is there is God. It is as a cycle of catholicity. So the more one is obedient, so the more contributes to the greater good of all things - ultimately, the consummation of all things. All seek the triumph of good and the day of perfection, so let us all be obedient!

Yet no one can be obedient apart from God. Only by His Mercy and Grace can we be sons of God!

In fact, it’s beautiful. It is very difficult at times, ok most of the time. But it IS very beautiful. Imagine putting your entire life in the hands of a superior or a bishop.

What a beautiful imagery!

Thank you dear Brother. I will ponder your insights.

God bless you and pray for me please:thumbsup::slight_smile:


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