Over the last fortnight here in the novitiate house, our thoughts, readings and morning conferences have focused on obedience, one of the crucial areas for consideration as we commence our two year journey towards taking vows. Obedience was certainly an area that filled me with unease during my enquiring process with the Society. I’ve spent most of my adult, even teenage, life in control of the vast majority of my decisions. What subjects I studied at school, what sports I played, where I attended university, who I befriended, what job I moved into, where I worked, where I lived and so on… I expect I’m not alone in this. After all, most of us have been brought up in a modern culture where making our own decisions is symptomatic of our empowerment and liberty as individuals. As a result, many, ourselves in the novitiate included, are almost conditioned to treat the term ‘obedience’ with suspicion and perhaps fear or indignation.
During our studies we have been blessed by a wealth of writing in this area, from the treatment of obedience by the documents of the previous four General Congregations (31-35) to explanation by experienced Jesuits in articles and letters (de Potterie, Rotsaerts, Calvez, O’Leary, Arrupe and Kolvenbach to name a few). In this blog I would like to share how my recent consideration of the above has helped to develop and to re-shape my own view of obedience. Hopefully the following will clarify this complex and perhaps misunderstood area of our life.
As Jesuits we are asked to observe a ‘total’ obedience to God, both directly to his calling in our life but also to our superiors who act as His intermediaries in our life. Now on the surface this seems daunting (and internal alarm bells certainly jangled when I first considered this) yet a closer look of how this manifests itself in reality is reassuring. Inside this parameter of total obedience exist many intelligent and humane ways the Society is governed that allow Jesuits to take part in, and thrive in, this system. For example, Jesuits are ultimately encouraged to develop a deep maturity by sharing in decisions that concern them through constant dialogue with superiors in an atmosphere strengthened by mutual honesty and trust.
When sent on missions (admittedly not something for us novices to be worrying about just yet), Jesuits are generally challenged to approach these new tasks with an autonomy and creativity that enables them to go beyond what has been asked. Again my limited experience means that I haven’t ‘lived-in’ this obedience entirely, but, in theory, the maturity and intelligence I have encountered when reading Jesuits discussing obedience has led me to feel more comfortable at the prospect of pledging my obedience to God inside such a Society.
As hinted at in the previous paragraph, obedience in the Society of Jesus is inextricably linked to one’s mission (your area of work or expertise). In the words of Calvez, ‘a Jesuit is essentially a man on a mission that he receives immediately from the Holy Father and his own religious superiors, but ultimately from Christ himself, the one sent by the Father. It is by being sent that the Jesuit becomes a companion of Jesus’. In fact, Pedro Arrupe argued that we are measured as companions of Jesus by the degree of our apostolic availability and obedience. If someone is entirely obedient to God and receptive to the workings of the Holy Spirit in his life then he will become apostolically available – open to serving God wherever and however he feels called following his discernment.
This concept, this ‘typically Ignatian way of acknowledging the absolute nature of God and the relative nature of everything else’ (Arrupe), is something I found particularly affirming. Jesus asks his disciples to ‘follow me’ and St Paul states ‘God has no favourites’. If we truly believe these words then it makes sense to be ready and able to go wherever and to help whoever he calls us to. [NB the notion of experiencing a ‘calling’ is tied into our discernment of God in our lives, another intriguing topic for a another blog]
Perhaps the most important consideration regarding obedience is the well-established argument that it transforms natural submission of one man to another into a filial submission to the Father. It is a religious action that frees us from our own will and unites us to God’s will. In doing this it creates the conditions for the divine to take place in all of our lives. Studying this topic has excited me because I now realise that obedience frees us to give ourselves exclusively to serve the Gospel and dedicate ourselves to who and to what God loves. Therefore what was previously assumed to be an oppressive concept is now quite the opposite; obedience is an enabler of liberation.
Throughout the Passion of Jesus Christ the verb ‘paradothenai’ (the Greek verb ‘to be handed over’) is repeated, from handing himself over in Gethsemane to being handed over from Pilate to people. This typifies Christ’s acceptance of his Father’s will in his life, and his acceptance of the mission he has been given, right up until ‘it is accomplished’. I now realise the possibility of obedience as a ‘paradothenai’ (handing over) of myself and my will to God in order to contribute to fulfilling God’s saving plan and to play my own small but unique part. This is not done in blind imitation of Christ, but an imitation of the reason why he was obedient – to enjoy a filial life with the Father to carry out his will.
In the words of Marc Rotsaerts, ‘Christ is a man for others because he is a man of God… Christ had no fixed program for his life, he took the reality he encountered, moved by the love of his father… In the life of Christ we see that obedience is a way of living’. This ‘way of living’ is a path that I am only just embarking on. It will only be through lived experience that I will only discover whether this initial understanding of obedience is correct. I am thankful, however, to have been able to deeply consider a topic that I now realise is much more profound than I originally realised and is certainly integral to our Christian faith. I hope this blog has been able in some way to clarify the issue of obedience in your eyes too.