Unless you’re training a young puppy, you don’t think about it very often. A few decades ago, it still applied to the training of young humans, but that’s passè now.
Yet, of all the minor virtues, this one seems the most lacking, the most valuable, and most difficult for libertarians like me.
I’m thinking of obedience.
My Lesson in Obedience
Obedience, like many other virtues, is easy to talk about and difficult to execute. Especially for someone like me. Someone who has spent a lifetime advocating and evangelizing for liberty and freedom and individualism. Then one day the Lord presents us with a stark choice: obedience or your own way.
I have been working toward becoming a Team Leader for the St. Paul Street Evangelization apostolate. I’ve completed two levels of certification in evangelization and apologetics. I’ve connected with another Team Leader in our area who offered to let me join her at an upcoming prayer station. I’ve completed Protecting God’s Children training, which is required of anyone who works or volunteers in the Church. I have prayed countless rosaries and novenas for the graces to do God’s will in this apostolate.
One of the last steps to becoming a Team Leader is to receive references from two friends and your pastor. I’ve sent off the requests. My pastor responded.
His response was very nice and thoughtful as always. He said he would fill out the form if I wished, certifying that I am a Catholic in good standing. But he would not endorse my participation in this apostolate.
Crushed. I was a little crushed. And I had to choose: his way or my way?
With his certification, I could simply ignore my priest’s wishes and pursue my apostolate. Or I could submit to his authority as my pastor. I could apply my gifts and experience as a leader of a grassroots movement to help bring Christ to people and people to Christ. Or I could cool my heels on the sidelines, continuing to pray and working with other Catholic groups.
I needed advice. So I turned to the saints.
Saints on Obedience
The great saints and Doctors of the Church place remarkably high regard on obedience.
Naturally we all have an inclination to command, and a great aversion to obey; and yet it is certain that it is more for our good to obey than to command; hence perfect souls have always had a great affection for obedience, and have found all their joy and comfort in it. –Saint Francis of Sales, Doctor of the Church
—St. Francis de Sales
Without a doubt, obedience is more meritorious than any other penance. And what greater penance can there be than keeping one’s will continually submissive and obedient?
–St. Catherine of Bologna
Obedience unites us so closely to God that in a way transforms us into Him, so that we have no other will but His. If obedience is lacking, even prayer cannot be pleasing to God.
– St. Thomas Aquinas
[I found these quotes and more here]
My esteem for the virtue of obedience was rekindled a few months ago. I was reading Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. This passage struck me:
Teresa [of Avila] read of the great penances performed by Catherine of Cordova, she desired exceedingly to imitate them, contrary to the mind of her Confessor, who forbade her to do the like, and she was tempted to disobey him therein. Then God spoke to Teresa, saying, “My child, thou art on a good and safe road:—true, thou seest all this penance, but verily I esteem thy obedience as a yet greater virtue:”—and thenceforth S. Teresa so greatly loved the virtue of obedience, that in addition to that due to her superiors, she took a vow of special obedience to a pious ecclesiastic, pledging herself to follow his direction and guidance, which proved an inexpressible help to her.
Saint Francis de Sales. Introduction to the Devout Life (Kindle Locations 233-238). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
In my search for help, I found not a single example from a saint who, faced with the choice between following his heart and following his pastoral guidance went with his heart. They all obeyed.
As much as we Americans and libertarians love the renegade who bucks authority and wins the great battles, God seems to prefer to the meek and obedient over the brash and the commanding.
Obedience Has Its Limits
Don’t confuse obedience with obsequiousness. One means deferring to a higher power. The other means sucking up for personal gain. Obedience is a form of penance and humility. Obsequiousness is a form of tribute and bribery.
Nor is sacred obedience blind obedience. No one has a duty to obey an immoral direction. Satisfying the carnal desires of priests and bishops is not obedience to God but obsequious to men. Men with power and authority and something to offer in return. Men who disobey God and abuse the authority God gave them.
The saints were talking about sacred obedience, not worldly obsequiousness. And my pastor’s direction was anything but carnal. He’s a good and holy man who works every day to bring Christ to people and people to Christ.
But the World Needs It Now
Though the Church’s hierarchy has brought much discredit to itself in recent years (and, in fact, throughout history), Christ established that hierarchy and told us to obey it. Fortunately for me, that hierarchy placed two excellent priests in my parish. Men I trust implicitly. Men who deserve my obedience.
Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.
Jesus spoke those words to the Apostles, the first bishops, and to Peter, the first pope. When we obey our spiritual directors in moral teaching, we obey God the Father and please Jesus. When we reject spiritual direction and do it our way, we reject Jesus and the Father.
My email signature includes a quote from C.S. Lewis: “There are two kinds of people. Those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Alright, then, have it your way.’” Obedience is saying “Thy will be done.
I’d rather live in a world where everyone obeys the will of God as expressed through to a kind and holy pastor than in a world full people who ignore God’s will and do it their way. And that world I prefer must start with me because I am the only person I command.
I thank my pastor for his candor and guidance. I thank him even more for giving me this great penance and the opportunity to practice obedience.