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