CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #34
THE GROUND OF OBEDIENCE
Recall a time when you ate or drank too much, or you got too much sun because you did not bother to take precautions that you knew you should have taken or you simply did something contrary to good advice. These are moments when we refuse to listen, or if we do listen we do not hear and if we do hear we act in defiance of what we hear. Put bluntly, this is disobedience. Our English word "to obey" has its roots in the Latin word audire, meaning "to hear".
Apart from the psychodynamics of this sort of disobedient behaviour – so typically human and perhaps more likely to occur in the young – we might ask: "What is happening here?" Approach it from another angle: "What should I have done?" I should have paid attention to what my body told me, what experience had taught me; I should have attended to the factors involved in the situation and submitted to what "life" was suggesting to me, or I should have listened to the advice of wiser heads, and so on.
Such mundane situations will be more or less trivial or more or less significant in their consequences. I might pass off the occasional incident of eating or drinking too much with a little embarrassment; I cannot pass off so easily the fact that I have defied the voice of my conscience and wilfully lived out a script contrary to the deepest urgings of my very being and the genuine desires of my heart.
THE PURPOSE OF OBEDIENCE
Life calls us into a certain rhythm here. We might call that rhythm the "obedience rhythm". It consists of three interdependent movements:
|We hear and|
Consider any human life of depth and wisdom, one of compassion and radical honesty, and you will find this rhythm is a significant part of that life. (And the reverse is also true.) The truly human person is an obedient person and the obedient person actively listens, is keen to hear and heed what is true and real.
Ultimately, what is at issue here is the truth of who I am. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, sums it up nicely:
"At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many ‘I's’. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one – which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your ‘I’." (Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, 19.)
The truly obedient life, Hammarskjold suggests, will lead one inexorably into a deep sense of vocation, the sense of being necessarily and invulnerably part of an expanding mystery. We could call this the discovery of an existential "must" within one’s depths. All the great men and women of history know this "must" and respond to it with passion. Hammarskjold writes:
"What must come to pass, should come to pass. Within the limits of that must, therefore, you are invulnerable. (Op cit, 48.)
CONFORMITY AND OBEDIENCE
In the concrete human situation it is not always easy to embrace that rhythm of obedience. Within us and around us there are a multitude of forces making listening to what is true and real very difficult. If the listening is interrupted, what we eventually hear and submit to may put distance between us and that existential "must" of our lives. Our lives may thus become radically dishonest, literally unreal, disobedient.
In 1945 the world became aware of The Holocaust and the horrifying depths to which the human race had sunk in and through the Nazi ideology. At the Nuremberg trials – begun on November 20, 1945 – the world heard an utterly rational but totally unacceptable defence: "We were only obeying orders". It was worrying to hear this same appeal to "obedience" used by the two French military operatives who had sunk the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour on July 10, 1985, killing a photographer on board.
The "obedience" spoken of here bears little resemblance to true obedience. True obedience lies beyond social conformity or merely doing as one is told – though it may, as a matter of fact, include both these. Obedience is a process that seeks the True and the Real as such, beyond what this or that person or group might maintain. Obedience does not deny or dismiss the given social order, be it ecclesiastical or secular, it merely relativizes that order in the context of a bigger order. Social conformity is a process which seeks the maintenance of a certain social order, ecclesiastical or secular. Social conformity is also a process by which the individual seeks to be part of that social order. Whether that social order is in any way a manifestation of what is true and real is not relevant to mere social conformity.
Consider, by way of contrast, the "civil disobedience" – the "social non-conformity" – of people like Jesus of Nazareth …. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and thousands of others who listened, heard and chose to submit to a higher order, sometimes at great personal cost. Who would not recognize, for example, in the choices made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein, something far more deeply true and good – a far more genuine obedience – than the choices made by those Nazi officers in their "obedience"?
Cardinal John Henry Newman knew the obedience rhythm, he was a man who felt the demands of life’s "must" and he submitted:
"I am what I am or I am nothing. .... My first elementary lesson of duty is that of resignation to the laws of nature, whatever they are; my first disobedience is to be impatient at what I am, and to indulge an ambitious aspiration after what I cannot be." (A Grammar of Assent, Image Books, 1955, 272f.)
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Describe the obedience rhythm in your own words. Give an example from your life.
- Describe a simple experience in which you defied the obedience rhythm of life. What happened?
- Have you ever known someone who entered generously into the obedience rhythm of life? Reflect.
- Have you ever experienced the peace that comes when you are in harmony with life? Reflect.
- Do you think you know how to listen to the "higher order" in your life? Reflect.
- Has the call of obedience ever placed you in a situation of social non-conformity? What happened?
- Reflect on your experience of life’s "must"?
- What is the most difficult thing for you in embracing the obedience rhythm at depth?
- What helps you to be an obedient person in the deepest sense of that word "obedience"?
- Express John Henry Newman’s thought in your own words. Give an example from your life.