A Fresh Take on Obedience

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Anyone who has planned a wedding knows that the process involves making many decisions. Indoor or outdoor reception? White or colored linens? DJ or band? The list goes on and on. As people who regularly spend 10 minutes debating between yogurt or toast for breakfast, my now-husband and I quickly became exhausted by the endless decisions of wedding planning, and we were grateful for the rare moments of ease when making choices. One such instance occurred when choosing between reciting traditional wedding vows or writing our own. We had both always loved the time-honored promises, so we barely considered alternative options. Similarly, we quickly eliminated “obey” from the list of actions that I would extend towards my new life-partner. Instead, like him, I would simply vow to “love and honor” for all the days of my life.  

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Obedience is an interesting virtue. While it is valued by religious orders and the institutional church (both diocesan and order priests and sisters take vows of obedience), it doesn’t seem to have a prominent place in the life of the laity. As a child, I understood the importance of obeying my parents and teachers, but now as an adult, I can’t think of anyone to whom I’m devotedly obedient. But I got to thinking about the virtue when I recently read Joan Chittister’s examination of the Rule of St. Benedict, in which she explains Benedict’s emphasis on obedience as “setting out the importance of not allowing ourselves to become our own guides, our own gods.” This short explanation made me realize that I could use a dose of obedience in my life, and so I chose three practices oriented towards developing it:

Take the advice of my spiritual director seriously, whether I like it or not.

When considering the advice of family members, friends and acquaintances, I have the tendency to take some bits and leave others, an inclination that largely stems from stubbornness: I desire the input of others…but then I also want to do what I want to do! This behavior helps me avoid unpleasant circumstances, but then it also inhibits me from growing in valuable, if uncomfortable, ways. Realizing this, I decided that I would start putting all of the advice that my spiritual director gives me into action. After all, my growth is her prerogative, and I trust her. Most recently, this has manifested as approaching a certain family relationship in a different way. It has been challenging for me, and I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for my spiritual director’s wisdom and my recent commitment to obedience, but I can already see the fruit that the change is bearing.  

Commit to a set of “instructions” from our faith tradition and live them out wholeheartedly.

I am an ardent list-maker, from daily to-do lists, to seasonal goals’ lists, to lifetime bucket lists, and I generally feel that I have succeeded in my efforts if I end a day or season with 75% of my list completed. I tend to approach the “lists” of our faith in a similar fashion, from the Ten Commandments to the Corporal Works of Mercy to the Beatitudes. While I don’t set out to break commandments or ignore works of mercy, I consider myself in “good shape” if I scan a list and feel like I mostly uphold it. But, in the name of obedience, I decided to shift this mindset. At the start of 2020, I purchased a book about the Ten Commandments and each month I focus on one and commit to practicing it more fully. I’m not letting myself off the hook at 75%.  

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Honor the preferences of others.

I didn’t vow at the altar to obey my husband because a model of marriage in which only one person promises to submit to the other’s authority doesn’t fit within my theology of the Sacrament. What does fit, however, is an understanding that marriage involves not only compromise, but sacrifice at times. No relationship is without its share of disagreements, and while middle ground can usually be found, some differences of opinion are best resolved with deference. For example, I’m a lot less germ-conscious than my husband, so I do things like bite my fingernails, use nothing but water and a sponge to clean counters, and put away leftovers while they’re still warm. For several years, I got very irritable anytime he suggested another way of doing things (“they’re my nails, I’ll bite them if I want to!”) but my reflections on obedience moved me to ask “would it kill me to be a little more careful?” The answer, you guessed it, is no, so I decided to revamp my behaviors. This is one way in which I feel not only comfortable with, but in favor of, practicing obedience, as it provides an opportunity to relinquish some stubbornness and create greater harmony in our home.  

Obedience isn’t the first virtue that comes to mind when I consider ways that I can strive for a life of everyday holiness. But putting it into practice in a few small ways has helped me to see the goodness that can flow from not allowing myself to be my own guide or god.