On Obedience

Fr. Henri Nouwen is a mixed bag for today’s Catholics.  He was a prolific and popular writer, authoring some 40 books between 1966 and 1996.  Today’s orthodox Catholics would look askance at most of those books and indeed, I’ve heard disparaging comments generically about the concept of “the wounded healer.”

One book of his that I’ve read and re-read was his diary on the seven months he spent at the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery about an hour’s drive south of Rochester.  My interest was partly because I’ve visited that monastery –  eaten Monks Bread, seen the fields, and heard the deep silence that was backdrop to Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours – and partly because Fr. Nouwen’s introspective inquiring during his time in the monastery resonated in my own spiritual life during a time when I found myself returning periodically to Madonna House.

The following is from the entry for August 26, in which the topic for Nouwen’s meeting with the abbot (John Eudes)  is about obedience. 

So we talked about obedience.  It was helpful  because John Eudes made me see that the problem of obedience is a problem of intimacy.  “Obedience becomes hard when you have to be vulnerable to the other who has authority.  You can play the obedience game in such a way that you never disobey any rule while keeping from your guide and director, your abbot or superiour those things about which you do not want to hear a ‘no.’  You need a lot of trust to give yourself fully to someone else, certainly to someone to whom you owe obedience.  Many people adapt very quickly but are not really obedient.  They simply don’t want to make waves and instead go along with the trend.  That is not obedience.  That is adaptation.”

If I were able to trust more, to open myself more easily, to be more vulnerable, then obedience would not be so hard.  I would be able to disagree without fear of rejection, to protest without resentment, to express different viewpoints without self-righteousness, and to say after all arguments: “If I am still asked to do something I do not like to do, perhaps I must be open to the idea of God’s preparing me for something greater and more important than I can imagine.”

With that attitude, life in obedience indeed can be quite exciting since you never really know what is next.  But I have a long way to go to develop that attitude in my innermost self.

For this post, I’d like to stick with authority in one’s spiritual life.  Whether one’s master is Christ or Caeser is fodder for another discussion.  For all that could be said on this topic, mainly I’ll make the observation that we could probably all identify times of adaptation rather than obedience and that it’s a good topic for self-examination.

As for examples, what first comes to mind are probably the “large” examples and most of them are the opposite of obedience: large numbers of Catholics not attending Mass, those who do attend Mass but practice birth control and vote for pro-abortion politicians, Catholic politicians who publicly support positions contrary to Catholic teaching, clergy and religious in open dissent.

A “small” example of obedience has really stuck with me.  During my long-term stay at Madonna House, I worked in the main kitchen, which like the kitchen of any family, often attracted activity other than food preparation.

As I was slicing piles of zucchini into zucchini sticks, one of the senior staff,  herself the head of a department crucial to the survival of the community, asked permission to buy a cup of coffee in the car trip she was about to take. What impressed me most was that it wasn’t a big deal.  Actually, it blew me away that someone that senior asked permission for something I would have just taken for granted.

When I returned to the States and recounted the incident to a priest (non-DoR diocese), his reaction was, “Oh, that’s too strict.”  Yet, shortly afterwards, an earlier example of his  less than exemplary behavior surfaced, causing heartache to his parishioners. 

Obedience in small matters is a discipline, but it seems to me that it makes life much easier.  The trick is to be truly obedient, rather than simply adapting.


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