The freedom to obey

For most people, the word “obedience” is rife with negative connotations. It is seen as a sign of weakness, a limit on freedom, an obstacle to self-determination, a threat to intellectualism.  

According to the rules of American culture, if we have to be obedient to anyone or anything outside ourselves — be it a boss, a family member, a teacher or a pope — we are not completely free.  

And yet the Catholic Church teaches that through obedience we can know ultimate freedom. That’s quite an oxymoron when viewed from a secular perspective, but when viewed through the prism of faith, obedience can become a sign of strength rather than weakness.  

Listening to God 

Regardless of how free we imagine ourselves to be, we all have to be obedient on some level, even if only to civil authorities and the law. Catholics, however, have to kick it up a notch. We may think that obedience is reserved to religious life, those who profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but the truth is that every Catholic is called to obedience — to God’s word first and to Church teaching as it pertains to our salvation.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to ‘hear or listen to’) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (No. 144). 

Obedience sounds much less harsh when we realize its meaning is to “hear” or “listen” and does not demand our participation but allows us to “submit freely.” It is not, therefore, some external code of conduct forced upon us, but rather a choice that grows organically out of our personal and internal relationship with God. In that context, obedience becomes less about following specific rules and more about following the Word. 

“Obedience, in my opinion, is a gift given. It is a willing participation in achieving something bigger and, yes, better than the smaller parts,” said Sister Judith Criner, a Benedictine Sister of Pittsburgh. “I could not be obedient to anyone or any group that I did not feel was calling me to be more holy, wiser, more unselfish, or more free than I could be on my own. So, obedience to me is a gift that I freely give only to gain more freedom — freedom to love, to grow, to gain the richness of the sacred.” 

As a Benedictine, Sister Criner lives according to the Rule of St. Benedict and has vowed to live in obedience to God, her prioress, who represents Christ to her monastic community, and to the community itself, which includes individual sisters.  

“Obedience is a response to the call of St. Benedict and his Holy Rule. He calls us to ‘listen with the ear of our hearts.’ Listening is an underlying part of obedience. How can we heed another unless we have truly listened to what they have stated?” she said, adding that the concept of “blind obedience” in religious life as portrayed by Hollywood is far removed from the truth. 

“To be truly obedient, one must be fully aware of God’s word and how it touches your own life and the lives of others. There is no room for blindness. One must be able to see the Light and to acknowledge that Light,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “To be obedient in Benedictine life is to see, hear and respond to God’s voice through my prioress, my sisters and my service to God’s people.”

Universal calling 

Whether we are single or married, ordained or professed, we are called to obedience. During the Rite of Ordination, priests and deacons are asked by the bishop: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?”  

And, although marriage vows today no longer include the word “obey” in the mix of love and honor, it’s really still an unspoken truth. We don’t “obey” a spouse the way we obey a parent, but we do have to be obedient to our vocation, whether that means moving across country for the good of our family even when we don’t want to go, or forgoing something we want because it’s not in our spouse’s best interest.  

Right about now you may be thinking that none of this sounds very freeing. The key to finding freedom through obedience comes from the God-centered focus of this practice. If God is absent from the picture, obedience can quickly become a resentment-producing chore. When obedience grows out of a desire to love and serve God, we get a whole different dynamic.

“Obedience is a necessary corollary to our recognition that there is a God and that my life is lived in mutual collaboration with God,” said Susan Stabile, a wife, mother, spiritual director and law professor. “What I obey is the word of God in my life, and if my starting point is (as it is) that my life belongs to God, how could I ever do anything but obey the word of God in my life? Our obedience reflects our choice to act in accordance with who we are. If we understand obedience in these terms, it becomes a much less daunting (and more attractive) concept.” 

But what does it mean to obey the word of God, and how do we know we’re not just hearing what we want to hear? That requires discernment, which, in turn, requires regular prayer and silence before God as well as a willingness to reflect on Church teaching. Obedience is not simply about following the rules. In fact, when obedience becomes simply checking off a list of requirements, it can go to the opposite extreme. People can become “too obedient” in a sense, looking for rules where there are none, or seeking out people who will tell them what to do.  

“It is very easy to make faith all about simply following the rules to a T. The goal becomes getting a good score on the rules, not the total transformation of one’s life that Jesus asks for. But following a list of rules is a whole lot easier than turning one’s life over to God,” said Stabile, who is also a retreat director and posts daily reflections at her blog, Creo en Dios! 

Challenging task 

While all of this may sound nice on the surface, there is no doubt that sometimes obedience can make us uncomfortable or unhappy, or worse. Think of the obedience we witness in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). In Philippians 2:8, we read: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Obedience is part of our tradition from its very beginning, as modeled for us by Jesus himself. 

So, although obedience may be freeing in the sense that it allows us to become our true selves and to live the life God has planned for us, it doesn’t mean it will be an easy freedom.  

Benedictine Sister Criner recalled her own challenges with obedience when asked by her prioress to leave teaching to become director of the community’s adult day-care program, something she did not want to do. 

“I listened and prayed about what I was asked to do. The prioress said that she wanted me to do it under obedience — I had said I couldn’t do what she wanted. Finally, I said I would give it one year. She said she needed a three-year commitment. I ended up working in the area for seven years and really loved it,” said Sister Criner, who currently manages health care for her monastic community. 

She stressed the need for silence in prayer life in order to live out true obedience.  

“This is listening to God. If I am always doing the talking, how can I ever hear what someone is saying to me? ‘Listening with the ear of your heart’ means to accept the gift of silence,” she told OSV. “Obedience will never be a freeing gift if you cannot learn to listen first.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha/Penguin, $16.95). She writes from New York.

Holy Motto (sidebar)

Many of the great saints throughout history focused on the significance of obedience in living out their call as Christians, from the Church Fathers to St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi to modern-day popes. Blessed Pope John XXIII writes about obedience in “Journal of a Soul,” his spiritual diary spanning almost 70 years, and even made it part of his episcopal motto. 

In 1925, upon being named a bishop, he writes: “I have not sought or desired this new ministry; the Lord has chosen me, making it so clear that it is his will that it would be a grave sin for me to refuse. ... I insert in my coat of arms the words oboedientia et pax (obedience and peace) which [the Italian Cardinal] Cesare Baronius used to say every day, when he kissed the apostle’s foot in St. Peter’s. Those words are in a way my own history and my life.”