“No one else can tell me what to do: I value my freedom too much.”
Obedience is not popular today, although everyone is called to practice this virtue. In terms of religious life, it’s probably the hardest vow to understand in our individualistic culture when resistance to or rebellion against authority is so often seen as a virtue. Mistrust of institutions and of authority, due to a heightened awareness of the abuse of power, makes it hard to see the value of promising to obey any superior. In addition, true freedom is often misunderstood, equated with no limitations.
Genuine freedom is not:
- living without restrictions or constraints
- the ability to cater to every personal whim
- doing whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like doing it.
Genuine freedom is the ability to make choices in accord with our deepest identity as God’s beloved one, no matter what our situation is. Real freedom is choosing to love, no matter what external constraints or inner pressures we face.
The Paradox of Obedience
The vowed obedience of priests and religious conforms us to Christ, who sought only to do the will of the Father. With this vow, we, like Christ, seek to live God’s will.
Ironically, the greatest limits to our freedom often come not from outside of us, but from within us. We are driven by self-serving needs and wants, often without knowing it. We say we’re doing something because “it’s what God wants,” or “it’s the right thing to do,” but actually most of what we do is at least partly self-serving. I may pray and work really hard to prepare a retreat or book that can change lives, and this is mostly a labor of love. But sometimes I find I also have a few motivations “on the side,” including a desire for appreciation. To want a little appreciation is a normal human desire. But when this desire is exaggerated so that we become driven by it to the point that it shapes our choices, we have become enslaved by our need for the good opinions of others. Our sinfulness, our pride, our weakness, our greed, the need to be right or useful or to dominate others often drive us to take certain actions. In reality, these interior forces are chains binding us, preventing us from living full freedom!
The paradox of obedience is that, in “giving up” our will, or seeking to align our will to God’s will, we become most fully free.
Obedience frees priests and religious from both external and internal constraints that would prevent us from fully living God’s will. With the vow of obedience, God’s will becomes ours.
Conformity to Christ
Like the other vows, obedience is a journey, freeing the priest and religious to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly, to do God’s will completely, in every aspect of his or her life. In a most profound way, the vow of obedience enables the religious to live in union with God, completely offering their whole being—including their will—to God.
In popular culture, a sister’s, brother’s, or priest’s obedience to God directly or through religious superiors is often portrayed as mindless. But mindless obedience is not genuine obedience, which is the submission of our whole being to God–mind, will, heart, and strength! However it is true, as any believer can attest, that God’s ways don’t always make sense to us. Human beings will always experience an element of mystery in God’s plan for creation. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul wrestles with the question of why his fellow Jews rejected Christ, but he concludes his two chapters of anguish and attempts to understand with one of the most beautiful hymns of praise to God’s inscrutable wisdom.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
It’s also true that obeying God through human authority sometimes doesn’t seem to make much sense. I have to confess that, even after 25+ years of vowed obedience, my opinions and way of doing things almost always seem better to me. The vow of obedience of priests and religious often takes more faith to live, because many aspects of our lives are decided by superiors who speak with the authority of God.* More than once, my transfer or apostolic assignment made no sense to me until later. I’ve also found that when I’ve obeyed in something that I’ve been asked to do, it may not have been easy, but I’ve learned more and been pushed to be more creative and industrious than I would have otherwise. And, I often see that it brings great spiritual fruit to others.
Finally, there are also the times when the faith and suffering that accompany obedience become a means God uses to bless others. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, and obedience to God is always blessed.
Obedience is still the hardest vow for me to live well. But it’s also the vow that gives me the greatest freedom. And I treasure this vow in a special way because of how directly it helps me to live in union with Christ who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34).
*As I’ve covered elsewhere, if a superior tells a sister or priest to do something wrong or sinful, they are obviously not speaking with God’s authority.