12. The Spirit of Obedience
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The Gospel of John will teach us to experience obedience as a growing freedom to love all that God desires and wills. Jesus bears witness to this freedom, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise . . . my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” On our own we are powerless to act in selfless freedom in response to God’s desire. Obedience is only possible because Christ dwells in us and we dwell in him through Baptism. His obedience is active within us, drawing us into his union with the Father.
By the vow of obedience we join together to make this loving consent to God’s will the corporate offering of a community. We learn together to listen intently to God, and we support each other in the struggle against all that resists God within and around us.
The vow has many facets. It is a pledge to unite in a common response to God by embracing and fulfilling the Rule of the Society. It is a promise to work together to discern God’s will as a body and act in concert to God’s glory. The vow binds us to cooperate with the Superior in carrying out our mission. It is a pledge to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking within the heart and to respond to God’s invitations to self-surrender.
Resurrection into the freedom and constancy of Christ’s obedience can be attained only through death and burial in union with him. Our share in humanity’s sinfulness means that we are still hindered by fear of what God desires and resistance to what God ordains. As a community bound together in obedience we support one another through the inevitable pain of dying to our old selves, and encourage one another to trust in the goodness of God’s will for us. The community is a school of reconciliation, conversion and healing for sinners, in which we can grow in our capacity to give ourselves to God.
Obedience is also a path of detachment. We have our own ideas of how best to serve God, our dreams of serving in particular ways. God’s actual call will often be to follow in other ways; as our vocation unfolds we will find that obedience requires us to lay aside again and again the plans we had made for ourselves. Monastic obedience gives us constant practice in letting go of attachment to our individual preferences and learning to trust in the wisdom of the community. It trains us to be resilient and prompt in responding to the Lord in the here and now.
The vow of obedience is fraught with risks. In the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity. Unless our obedience is in the Spirit we could be tempted to use the life of the community as a shelter from claiming and using our own responsibility and power as sons of God. The vow of obedience requires us to be constantly attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts, endowing us with our own unique authority and gifts. We are called to be obedient to our true selves as they are being formed in Christ. Only where there is a growing respect for our true selves can there be authentic participation in the community’s common endeavor to discern and carry out God’s will.
The road to freedom is a long one. I have been so amazed each time I realized I “forged my own chain”. I am way more comfortable with being authentic in my struggle. Hacking apart the links in a chain is not a graceful for me. I have usually been the one who conforms to what others expect or even exceeded what they expect. Pretty much going with the flow at great cost to my personal well being. Over recent years I have unceremoniously chopped links in chains of people pleasing. In the family and church setting this has ramifications. I remain among them but as a person who is more interested in what my true self, and God’s Holy Spirit are leading me to do. I love Thomas Merton’s words, “It was a lucky wind that blew my halo off. Saints departed in all directions.” Or something to that effect. Obedience to Christ for me means that I remain authentic within the community of church and family. That kind of obedience frees me over and over again.
Cranmer’s prayer, coupled with a dynamic engagement with the Apostles, Fathers, and life, is entirely accurate: true “service is perfect freedom.” Such service is only possible through the death of the false self and the resurrection of our true Self in Christ.
I, too, struggle with detachment but I no longer struggle very hard. I’ve decided I’m attached to people and things and places. However, I smile when a new possibility arises that makes something I’m attached to seem less crucial. I realize that in God’s time, if I’m open to letting go or changing, I’ll become less attached. The time will come when I’m too old to remain in my house, or visit friends afar, or see or hear with the acuity I have now. It would be wise to become open to detaching now, but with vitality and vibrancy. I, too, am attached to life.
I struggle with the valorization of detachment in Christianity. Detachment, asceticism, denial all rankle me, but detachment especially has been a thorn in my mind, which even studies of Buddhism could not extract. “You must lose your life in order to save it.” Maybe it’s naïveté (not enough Othello in my diet), maybe it’s ignorance, maybe it’s willfulness or spiritual impoverishment–certainly it’s insufficient obedience–but I cannot reconcile the tradition’s push toward detachment with my instinctive, vibrant, and tenacious *attachment* to life.
There is much in this chapter that speaks to me. Today I walked on the campus of Caltech in Pasadena where I used to work as a research fellow before moving to to do clinical work in Massachusetts. I subsequently left Massachusetts because I became disabled and unable to work and returned to Pasadena. Since returning, I have been helping to care for my mother and her affairs and taking care of my own medical condition. Today I mourned the loss of my professional life as I walked over beloved grounds that I used to consider my own turf. I clearly had ideas of how best to serve God and dreams of doing so in particular ways. As my life has unfolded, I have had to lay aside those dreams. However, I believe that this current, unplanned and unwanted, path is following God’s call. My family needed someone to take this role, and I was called to do so. I needed a means to receive and afford appropriate medical care which returning home gave me. Moreover, upheaval in the life at my old church led me to seek a new place to worship. My new, current church offers me an opportunity, similar to that of the monastic community, where I have to let go of attachment to my individual preference and learn to trust in the wisdom of the rector and choir director and ministers. It is indeed training me to be resilent and more prompt in responding to the Lord in the here and now. I have already weathered a disagreement about Compline which was quite difficult for me, but I hung in and it’s okay now, but it was resolved in a way I did not predict. Those in charge decided not to do Compline. I hung in because I trusted that God had called me to be in this community at this time and I needed to discern and carry out his will. I am willing to be obedient, not simply because I like these people, but because of something deeper, a sense that it is in obedience to the community’s common endeavors that I will receive that which membership in this church has to offer. If I simply do what I want and disregard the rest, I won’t grow, and I won’t receive the gift that God has given me in bringing me there. Although I have been a committed member of other churches before, this sense of obedience is new. I believe I am being more my true self and also putting more of that self into the mix. I am experiencing an appreciation and acceptance I have not found before.