Obedience, to the secular mind and more so than any other virtue seems to be a vice.
By the same token, there is no more certain route to personal disaster than obeying only oneself. We are not so wise or self-sufficient that we can afford to shut our minds to all others and find our way through life solely by listening to and obeying ourselves. How many of us can say that he even knows himself? And if an individual presumes to be self-sufficient, why should he not expect to exercise his authority over others? Moreover, would a society of closed and self-sufficient individuals be able to cooperate with each other? Or would they engage in rancorous and incessant feuds with one another to the detriment of civility and social cohesion? Obeying only oneself is a formula for both alienation as well as anarchy.
I'll do it my way
Martin Buber has a more pragmatic view of the human being. As a mere "I," according to the author of I-Thou, the individual becomes hopelessly entangled in the unreal. "He has in truth no destiny," writes Buber, "but only a being that is defined by things and instincts, which he fulfills with the feeling of sovereignty that is, in the arbitrariness of self-will." The individual who obeys only himself is unable to sacrifice his unfree will one that is held in bondage to things to his grand will, which is in harmony with man, society, God, and truth.
Those who see obedience as a vice really see nothing as a virtue. And, if there is nothing that is truly virtuous, one might as well listen only to his own voice. But there is a world of meaning, authority, and virtue. Self-sufficiency is an illusion. And this is why obedience can be a virtue.
Like any other virtue, obedience must be regulated by prudence. No virtue obedience, courage, generosity, or anything else is virtuous without prudence, which is the virtue of being realistic. One should not obey himself in all matters, no more than one should obey his horoscope, his enemy, or a manipulator. Obedience needs prudence in order to be virtuous, just as a student needs a teacher in order to learn. One must know whom he should obey. With regard to religion, we are wise (prudent) to obey God, though it should be kept in mind that in obeying God we are often obeying ourselves at the same time. This should not be surprising, since God's good for us and the good we rightly perceive for ourselves is the same good.
But the matter goes further than this. Obeying God is so important that He commands us to obey Him. The matter is not negotiable:
I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command this day, to go after other gods which you have not known (Deut. 11:26-28).
God does not invite us to obey Him. Such a tepid disposition would suggest a less-than-fervent love. Disobeying Him is not an option that He cordially extends to us. He commands us to obey. Similarly, when Queen Elizabeth II mailed personal announcements regarding the wedding of her son, the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana, she commanded her subjects to be present at the wedding. The Queen commands obedience; she does not invite it. One obeys the Queen.
A fortiori, one obeys the Lord.
Mary, our model
The person who loves is happy to serve, eager to obey the needs and desires (legitimate ones, of course) of the beloved. Obedience allows a person to transcend the narrow confines of egotism and respond to the good of those he loves with alacrity, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness.
In the Swahili version of the Hail Mary, the word "Holy," as in "Holy Mary," is mtakatifu. Here, the Swahili language offers us an interesting and valid insight into the concept of Mary's holiness. Taka means "desire," while tifu refers to "obedience." As a whole, the word mtakatifu means "one who de sires to be obedient." Mary is holy because she is fully obedient to the will of God. She freely unites her will with God's so that it not only affirms her own good, but the good of all God's children as well. Mary, therefore, is truly a universal mother.
While the secular mind has difficulty with the concept of obedience, it has no difficulty in regarding loyalty as an important virtue. Yet loyalty and obedience are very close to each other. Loyalty requires a strong allegiance, if not obedience, to a group. The loyal person must often make sacrifices on an individual level for the good of the group to which he belongs. Acts of disloyalty are more easily viewed as betrayal and selfishness than acts of individual growth. Disloyalty to the Mafia is sometimes seen as less tolerable than disobedience to God; likewise, disloyalty to one's political party is less excusable than disobedience to one's spouse.
Nonetheless, obedience, as a virtue, is superior to the virtue of loyalty. It is more personal (rather than group-directed) and, when it comes to obeying God, takes on a supernatural quality. In praying to God, one seeks transformation from unyielding resistance to obedience. Christ was obedient to death, death on the Cross (cf. Phil. 2:8). He was obedient to His parents (cf. Lk. 2:51) and advises us to be obedient as well: to Him, to His commandments, and to the truth.
It is most reasonable (prudent) to obey the person who loves you and knows the truth about your being. In this regard, a certain French philosopher speaks well when he writes, "Love makes obedience lighter than liberty." The virtue of obedience is not contrary to freedom, nor does it represent a master/slave or dominance/submission relationship. It both presupposes and anticipates freedom. Moreover, it establishes and perfects a relationship of love.
Obedience, therefore, is closely allied to service. Hence the expressions "your will is my command" and "it is a pleasure to serve you." The person who loves is happy to serve, eager to obey the needs and desires (legitimate ones, of course) of the beloved. Obedience allows a person to transcend the narrow confines of egotism and respond to the good of those he loves with alacrity, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness.
Donald DeMarco. "Obedience." Lay Witness (March 2001).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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