A Reflection on Obedience (Constitutions 46-49)
Patrick Burke, O.Carm. Carmelite Family: Number 18, Summer 2003.
God’s will and my will
Thoughts of surrendering our will do not rest easy with us. If the one to whom we surrender our will gives it back to us in better condition then we might be prepared to think about it. We would rightly reject the idea of handing our will over to anyone who would make a slave of us or take away our freedom. However, the idea of someone who is capable of enhancing our will and our ability to make the right choices and decisions has much more appeal. This is what we find in the obedience we give to God, following the example of Jesus.
When seeking to do God’s will, we rely on the fact that God’s will is for our freedom and for our growth as people. We do not become lesser human beings by surrendering our will to God. That would happen if we surrendered to anyone less than God unless that person was the voice of God at that particular moment or in those particular circumstances.
We rely also on the fact that God is the Creator. He brought his creation into being out of love and his will is that everyone should be saved and that all of creation should come to unity and perfection in him. Allowing our will to be taken over by God, or desiring that this should happen, puts us in a position to learn what God wants for the world in which we live. With our mind and will so educated, we are able to think and to act in a way that is true to ourselves and to God. This is the fundamental understanding of Christian obedience. Jesus allowed his will to be taken over by the will of the Father. As the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, his will was totally united with the will of the Father. As the Word Made Flesh he had to learn. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that he learned obedience through what he suffered. He suffered to bring about what was good for his brothers and sisters. He suffered to bring about the Kingdom of God.
How do I surrender my will?
We learn to accept the truth of what is told to us. We pause, listen to and reflect upon what the Church says to us, the Scriptures say to us, the events of the day say to us, other people say to us. In our listening we become aware of the truth that is being spoken and the direction that we are being asked to follow. We learn to accept the truth that is being put before us, a truth that we have come to understand.
The more we do this, the more we grow as believers. We are transformed by coming into a closer relationship with God. In this growing, God’s will comes to be less foreign to us, and something that we will seek more and more. Our deepening belief in the truth that is told to us enables us to seek that truth with greater commitment as time goes on.
Who will tell us what to do?
We cannot do this on our own. We do it with others: an “anam cara”, a soul friend, a spiritual director, a community, a family, a Church. Here we find people who pray, listen and discern together. There are many decisions that we have to make: decisions about our future, our state of life, the use of our resources and talents, our reaction to difficult situations, commitment to other people. We can choose what seems handy and expedient. We can choose what will give us the greatest pleasure. We can choose what we believe to be right. We can open ourselves to the inspiration of God and chose what is the will of God. Sometimes all of these go together and there is no conflict between them. Sometimes it is difficult to accept the will of God over what we hold to be right and good, according to our own judgement.
Obedience to God through obedience to others
Will I obey another person? Should I obey another person? The answer could be yes, if I have made a commitment and that person has legitimate authority in relation to that commitment. I can come to an acceptance of the wisdom of following the decisions of another person, who has authority over me. In the work situation we often have to take orders which we would not take if we did not trust the organisation for which we work. In the marriage setting, obedience is mutual between the partners. In a community the role of the prior is enhanced by the willingness of the members to select the one who is best suited for the position and by co-operation with that person for the building up of the community and the fulfilment of its mission.
Freedom in the Spirit
In our search for truth in what we do, we are entirely free, once we have learned to seek the knowledge of the Spirit, and once we are guided by love. In this sense we are no longer under the law, where that law is one that is made by humans. In the freedom that comes from the Spirit we know that we can act in the knowledge that if we are guided by love in the Spirit of God, we cannot do anything other than good (Galatians 4).
That is the great obedience that we want to achieve. We have to accept that the lesser obediences of our daily lives are intended to lead us there, to train us gradually for that ultimate obedience and ultimate freedom.