Circular Letter: Summer 2003

Holy  Obedience:  a  felicitous  Lot!

In the Work of the Holy Angels the members are encouraged to strive to acquire seven special virtues which will help them to achieve a more intimate union with the holy angels. These are: Fidelity, Humility, Obedience, Charity, Silence, Temperance and the Imitation of Mary.

Humanly speaking obedience often appears so pragmatic, so cut and dry – a ‘do this’ and a ‘don’t do that!’ Sacred Scripture reveals obedience’s nobler pedigree in friendship with God, which was lost by the disobedience of Adam. Ever since, obedience regularly wears work clothes, for it is in toil and the sweat of his brow that man eats his bread. By the obedience of Christ, the new Adam, we were redeemed; friendship with God was restored. He, the Servant of God, the Child of the Father, imbued obedience with love. Obedience is the felicitous lot of the child and the lover as well: “Your wish is my command!” Related to God, it becomes a beatitude precisely for those who thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied (cf. Mt 5:6).

As a virtue obedience falls under the cardinal virtue of justice, whereby we have a perpetual and constant will to give each one their due (cf. Summa theol. II-II. 58.1,c). Supernaturally, we are ‘justified’ by Christ’s obedience, for His grace makes it possible for us to render worthily to God that which we owe Him: faith, veneration and obedience. “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be given to God Who reveals, an obedience by which man entrusts his whole self freely to God” (Dei Verbum, 5). By devotion, the principal act of the virtue of religion we readily pay to God the reverence and worship due His Name. And by holy obedience, we submit ourselves to His majesty and authority, that is, to His laws, whether coming directly from Him or from those who exercise authority in His name, be it in the Church or in society.

Significantly, our submission of obedience to the divine will is the guarantee that our religion be holy and pure. King Saul was rejected because he failed in this respect and did not execute God’s command. Samuel chided him: “Obedience is better than sacrifices, and to heed [the word of God] better than to offer the fat of rams. For it is like the crime of witchcraft to rebel and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey” (1 Sam 15:22f). This is why St. Thomas reckoned pious self-will among the worst faults: under the appearance of religion and obedience, one does that which is their opposite.

In a broad sense obedience is a universal virtue or characteristic of the moral life, for every good work ‘obeys’ some law, and every sin somehow ‘disobeys’ some law. Thus it enjoys a close link to charity, according to Christ’s words: “If you keep My commandments you will abide in my love” (Jn 15:10). It is not possible to love God, if we do not revere His authority and submit ourselves to His commandments.

In this Circular Letter, we shall consider obedience from the pragmatic side of service and the filial side of Christ’s obedience. Obedience not only gets the job done, but also disposes us for union with God. Next to His love for the Father, obedience is Christ’s greatest redemptive attribute!

Obedience in the History of Salvation

Obedience is esteemed for being functional and practical. Yet, merely functional obedience is incomplete; it falls short of the ideal we have in Christ, Whose reverent obedience was inspired by His love. Obedience purposes more than external purposes; as a virtue it aims at order, especially at an ordered, reverent relationship to authority.

In the beginning, the Angels were subjected to a trial of obedience. The fallen spirits rebelled out of aversion to the divine Plan of Salvation in which they were called to serve: “From the very beginning, you burst your bonds and declared, ‘I will not serve!’” (Jer 2,20).

Adam and Eve too were subjected to a simple trial of obedience; their docile submission to divine authority would have gained for them and us the greatest gifts. How inscrutable was their fall! St. Augustine noted: “By the precept He gave, God com-mended obedience, which is, in a sort, the mother and guardian of all the virtues in the rational creature, which was so created that submission is advantageous to it, while the fulfillment of its own will in preference to the Creator’s is destruction” (City of God., XIV, 12).

How easy it is to fall away from God, how difficult it is to find our way back again! Man could not be restored to divine friendship without being restored to the proper reverence before the Divine Authority. Thus, man’s redemption required a long and arduous preparation through a series of covenants which God established with His chosen servants. The foundation of these covenants was always faith and obedience. First, Noah found grace with God and so was able to save himself, his family and mankind in the midst of the flood through his obedience to God by building the wooden arc (symbol of the Cross of Christ; cf. 1 Pt 3:20; cf. Gen 6:8.14ff).

Abraham: “Because you have obeyed My voice!“

Similarly, God commanded Abraham: “Walk before Me [in obedience], and be perfect. And I will make My covenant between Me and you: and I will multiply you exceedingly. … You shall be a father of many nations!” (Gen 17:1-2.4). And when the time came to try Abraham again, God demanded the sacrifice of his dearly beloved son, Isaac. When, in pure faith and holy obedience, Abraham showed himself ready for this sacrifice, the Angel of the Lord withheld his hand, and declared: “Now I know that you fear God, and have not spared your only begotten son for My sake. I will bless you, … because you have obeyed My voice!” (Gen 22:12.17-18). God spared Abraham’s son, but He did not spare His own Son, rather He delivered Him up for our salvation, the obedient for the disobedient (cf. Rom 4:25; 5:9).

Moses: A Tutor to Prepare for the Promise

To further prepare man in reverence for the promise God sent Moses as a tutor of the Law. How wisely did Moses propose the Law to Israel, instilling in them both hope and the fear of the Lord: “Behold, I set forth in your sight this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. A curse, if you obey not the commandments of the Lord your God” (Dt 11:26-28). Salvation History teaches us this: The servant’s fear of the Lord paves the way for filial, loving piety. “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My fear? (Mal 1:6).

Social and Filial Obedience

Two kinds of obedience are recommended in Holy Scripture. First, social obedience, which is necessary for the well being and functioning of society and the individual. Such obedience, rooted in nature, also overflows into the order of grace and revelation. Secondly, filial obedience, which in Christ takes on a revelatory character. This obedience invites us into the true freedom of the children of God. A certain accent distinguishes functional from filial obedience.

Social Obedience

Social obedience tends to be functional. It is about work that needs to be done. Here is present a unity of purpose that is hierarchical in nature, like that which accrues between the will and the hand. All creatures are like instruments in the hand of God, all creatures serve the plans of His providence. “As the eyes of the servant are on hands of their master, so our eyes are on the Lord!” (Ps 122:2a-2c).

Varieties of Social Obedience

Beyond the respect and reverence we owe our parents (cf. Eph 6:1), we owe every legitimate authority obedience in those things that fall under their rightful command: Servants should obey their masters “in sincerity of heart, as you would Christ” (Eph 6:5). Spouses are to be “subject to one another, out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) and wives in a special way to their husbands “as to the Lord” (5:22).

Similarly, civil authority has a right to command based on the authority received from God: “Be subject … to the king as supreme, or to governors … for such is the will of God. … honor the king” (1 Pt 2:13.15.17). For this reason Jesus submitted to the authority of Pilate, to whom He said: “You would have no authority over Me, if it were not given to you from above” (Jn 19:11).

Degrees of Social Obedience

Social obedience admits of many degrees, the least of which, inspired by dread fear, is not even a virtue. Craven obedience is that kind of compliance with the law which is wholly external and motivated only by temporal considerations: ‘obedience’ is rendered only in order to avoid punishment, disgrace or some worldly loss. Were authority unable to exact punishment, if sin could be committed with impunity, souls moved by craven fear alone would flaunt authority and do their own will.

While there is nothing salutary in craven obedience, such ‘obedience’ is still useful for society and even for the individual himself. First of all, civil peace and order are maintained. And secondly, when the sinner abstains from sin out of fear, sin is less deeply rooted in his soul, and so his chances for amendment are the greater.

Servile obedience, the beginning of virtue, is also rooted in fear, in this case, though, a holy fear inspired by the supernatural consequences pro and con. One obeys, so as not to lose the rewards of heaven; one obeys in order to avoid eternal punishment. Like imperfect contrition and servile fear, servile obedience falls short of the mark of perfection, but still helps dispose the soul for it. We can apply St. Francis de Sales’ words on imperfect contrition to this imperfect degree of obedience: “As the desire of paradise is extremely honorable, so the fear of losing it is an excellent fear! … these motives are taught us by faith and the Christian religion, and therefore the repentance [obedience] which results from this is very laudable though imperfect” (Treatise on Divine Love, II, cc.18-19). Even when we come to perfect contrition (obedience) we should never exclude the motives that come from imperfect contrition (obedience); the fact that we have a perfect love of God should never dispense us in this life of making acts of hope (cf. St. Francis. ibid., II, ch. 17).

Considered functionally, social obedience is straightforward like a just and honest labor contract, or like military service. Vertical relationships are static and clearly defined. Such obedience is ordered to the accomplishment of something! It is a question of getting this or that job done, for which, in return, one awaits this or that reward.

Reverence for Authority

While not setting aside the hope of reward and fear of punishment, the formal motive for supernatural obedience is the reverence we have for the Divine Majesty and authority and for those persons who share in this authority. The formal fault of disobedience, accordingly, lies precisely in irreverence and contempt for authority, for which reasons St. Thomas numbers disobedience among the mortal sins. However, he adds that most disobedience is really only a material disobedience (Summa theol. II-II, 105). Now, what do he mean by “formal disobedience” and “material disobedience”? It comes down to this: when the reason why someone disobeys a law is to be sought in some other apparent good the sinner is seeking, then we speak of “material disobedience” . Such material disobedience is not a mortal sin against obedience, though it may be a mortal sin against another virtue. Adulterers, for example, commit a grievous sin against the 6th commandment, but not against obedience.

Disobedience which aims at expressing rebellion and contempt for authority is called “formal disobedience” and is a grievous fault. In their rebellion, the fallen spirits did not think that they could find happiness outside the will of God, their only ‘happiness’ was in their exercise of contempt for God, slapping Him in the face with their “Non serviam!”

Turning things around, we also find souls who externally (materially) submit and ‘obey’, while their hearts are full of criticism and contempt for the person in authority. Clearly, by this contempt such souls sin formally against obedience! Very often, this corroding sin is neither repented nor confessed. Moreover, without deep humility it is difficult to avoid this fault, for just as humility disposes to reverence for authority, pride breeds contempt. Humble reverence, which lends wings to obedience, should animate the members of the Work of the Holy Angels.

Filial Obedience

Filial obedience is principally about persons, not about things; it leads beyond itself to union in love. “Obedience, practiced in imitation of Christ, whose food was to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34), shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust, which is a reflection in history of the loving harmony between the three Divine Persons” (Vita consecrata = VC,21).

Consider the rich young man; he was only interested in some ‘good thing’ to be done functionally in obedience to gain eternal life. Jesus raised the discussion from things to persons, from a ‘good thing’ to the only One Who is Good, namely, God! Eternal life is not so much a thing to be possessed, but a personal relationship to be entered into through reverent obedience and love. Since no one can come to this relationship with the Father except through the Son, Christ invited the rich young man to set goods aside which impeded him and begin to follow (obey) Christ, Who would lead him to the Father. The rich young man went away sad: he only understood functional obedience; he did not understand filial obedience which in reciprocal love leads to union and happiness.

This point is lost not only on the rich young man, but equally on many who exercise authority. How easily they are ‘job-oriented’, ‘good-thing’ oriented, and so forget that their principal mission is to cultivate a paternal relationship with those in their charge. Doubtlessly, this idea will meet with criticism. But if the first end of labor, is the good of the worker and not the product of his labor (cf. JP II, encyclical On Human Labor, 13), how much more must authority – ultimately received from God and exercised in the name of the Father – be exercised for the personal good of those under charge.

Focal Point: the Christian Family

The integral reality of obedience is to be found in the family, where paternal authority, exercised in a spirit of love, inspires and sustains filial reverence and piety. Obedience contributes both to the deepened union within the family and to the common good through its productivity.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. Seduced by the pleasures of the world, he demanded his inheritance; he wanted to be freed from filial submission to his father. Thus, he ran off. After having squandered his wealth, he remembered the goodness of his father and came back contritely and reverently, begging to be accepted as an obedient servant. The father restored him to the full dignity of sonship. The reverent order in their relationship was restored, without which love could not flourish.

The elder brother, too, though he had always obeyed the commands of his father, had never understood the loving filial relationship his father had always desired: “You are always with me and all that I have is yours!” (Lk 15:31).

The Son of God became man, not merely to pay our debt, but to lead us reverently back into the merciful embrace of the Father: “He who loves Me will be loved by My Father,…he will keep My word,… and We will come and make Our abode with him” (Jn 14:21.23).

In the Bosom of the Father

“No one has at any time seen God.” – How then can we know the mystery of His love? – John continues: “The only-begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him” (Jn 1,18). The mutual love and reverence between the persons in the Trinity is the exemplar for the work of Redemption through the Incarnation of the Son, Who says, “Behold, I come to do Thy will, O God!” In His humanity, He gladly humbles Himself and lays down His life in obedience, so “that the world may know that I love the Father and do as the Father has commanded” (Jn 14:31).

For the reason of His loving obedience unto death the Father loves Christ (cf. Jn 10:17). Since the Father’s love for Christ was already infinite, this special love refers to the redemptive merits of Christ, by which He also merited the eternal glorification of His Body, both personally and for all the members of the Mystical Body who shall rise one day in Christ. For this Christ had specially prayed, that they be with Him in glory (cf. Jn 17:24).

The magnitude of God’s love for us escapes us. By creating us, God reveals His goodness. By sending His own Son to become Man and die for us, He reveals a measurelessly greater love. Still, it does not yet reveal to us the intimate love-relationship with Himself into which He wishes to draw us.

This Christ revealed by instituting the Holy Eucharist so as to unite us with Himself in the most intimate of unions – greater than which there is none. In this He also initiates us into the eternal, loving embrace in which He and the Father are one in the Spirit: “that all may be one, even as You, Father, in Me and I in You; that they also may be one in Us!” (Jn 17:21).

It is by Christ’s becoming physically one with us, that we can understand the ultimate divine purpose: having become one with Christ, we come to share even more perfectly in His filial relationship with the Father. Christ’s filial obedience is about this reciprocal relationship, this sharing union. And the perfect path thereto is the Eucharist, in which we become one oblation with Him to the Father.

The Greatness of the Evangelical Counsels

If we are supposed to love the Law of God – “O how have I loved your Law, O Lord! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97) – how much more should we love the counsels of His love whose purpose is to lead us to perfection: “If you want to be perfect,… come follow Me!” (Mt 19:21).

“A commandment testifies a most entire and absolute will in him who gives it, but counsel only represents a will of desire. A commandment obliges us, counsel only invites us. A commandment makes the transgressor thereof culpable; counsel only makes such as do not follow it less worthy of praise. Those who violate commandments deserve damnation, those who neglect counsels deserve only to be less glorified…. we follow counsel with the intention to please, and commandments lest we should displease” (Francis de Sales, ibid., VIII, ch. 6).

God calls us all to perfection (cf. Mt 5:48), but not all are called to the religious life in the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Still, all are called to love the evangelical counsels and to imitate Christ in the measure of His donation (cf. Eph 4:7). For, “the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church; … it manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling” (VC,3).

“When our love is exceedingly great towards God’s will,” as St. Francis de Sales points out, “we are not content to do only th e Divine will which is signified unto us by the commandments, but we also put ourselves under the obedience of the counsels, which are only given us for a more perfect observing of the commandments, to which they have reference” (ibid., VIII, ch. 7), above all, to the commandment of love.

“The evangelical counsels are thus above all a gift of the Holy Trinity. The consecrated life proclaims what the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, brings about by His love, His goodness and His beauty“ (VC, 20). “The evangelical counsels [chastity, poverty and obedience]… are in fact an expression of the love of the Son for the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. By practicing the evangelic counsels the consecrated person lives with particular intensity the Trinitarian and Christological dimension which marks the whole of Christian life” (VC, 21).

“The Son, Who is the way which leads to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6), calls all those whom the Father has given to Him (cf. Jn 17:9) to make the following of Himself the whole purpose of their lives. But of some, those called to the consecrated life, He asks a total commitment. …[Christ’s] way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by Him, God and Man, as the expression of His relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit” (VC, 18).

Unless you become like little Children

Thomas was light hearted; he was out for a ride with his daughter, little Judith. To be sure, he was taking her shopping. He mused to himself with delight, “What a wonderful daughter Judith is! A veritable sunbeam of joy in the family, so cheerful, such alacrity, she does everything with joy!” This quality had even caught Judith’s attention, for she had confessed to her father, “Daddy, when I have to choose my own work, it tires me out and it’s no fun, but when you tell me what I should do, I never get tired. It’s better than a game, it’s as if I’m you! Is it because you’re so big, that I never get tired?”

The shopping end of the ride was a surprise for Judith. Thomas took her into their favorite store and invited her: “You’ve been such a good girl lately, pick out a gift for yourself. What would you like?” Without the slightest hesitation, Judith answered, “I want the gift you give me!” — “No, no, my dear, you should get the one you want, pick out the gift you want most!” — But, daddy, what I want most of all is the one you give me!Tears came to Thomas’ eyes as the depth and beauty of his daughter’s response struck home in the depth of his heart. Had they not consecrated her at birth to the Immaculate Conception! She reflected Mary’s purity in her child’s innocence and now she reflected her wisdom in her total love. They left the department store and walked to the other end of the mall to the little religious goods store. Now that it was up to him to choose the gift, she would like best, his thoughts had turned elsewhere. He stood a moment hesitating between two images. In the end, he bought them both: for Judith, an annunciation scene with Mary giving her joyful “Ecce” to St. Gabriel, thus becoming the Mother of God; and for himself, the garden scene with Jesus crying out “Abba”, wanting most the will of His Father over His own.

“Ecce!“ – “Abba!“

In these two words (images) lies the whole wisdom of the Divine Plan for our eternal happiness with Christ in the bosom of the Father. By His obedient return to the Father by the Cross, we too find our way back into the embrace of the Father.

How great is the power and beauty of filial obedience, which is happy to live in that filial relationship, indeed, dependence on the Father! Among the moral virtues and the evangelical counsels, it enjoys the prerogative attested to by Christ, Who, calling a little child to Himself, declared: “Truly I say to you: … Whoever humbles himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3-4). In His own filial relationship to the Father, Christ is Himself this eternal child, resting in the bosom of the Father. He expressed this not only in His love, but in His loving obedience as well. Can you?

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