First, we will explore the disposition of obedience, which is the foundation and source of all other things--this is why Albert included it first among his charges to the brothers, that they profess obedience to a prior, and even earlier that he stressed the importance that from among all the ways that lead to Christ, it was to him that the hermits had turned and to this way that they should remain obedient. Again, as I have written may times already, this requirement is not an imposition of oppression and control, but a fundamental piece of wisdom because if we are not obedient, if we do not begin by carrying a disposition of listening and deferring to the very thing that we hope will lead and guide our life into a better place, if we are not committed to following what is recommended but rather judge our own wisdom and experience to be superior, then what is the point? How can we claim to follow a Rule, or any way of life, if we are not actually following it? Would we think of the Disciples as followers if they had not first been obedient? To be obedient is the first step in following any thing or person, and here it is through obedience that we then may follow through on the prescriptions for prayer, on our daily attention to silence, on acts of charity and kindness, and on the other dispositions of chastity and the renunciation of property.
The first question of obedience would be: What do we mean by obedience? In its simplest form, to be obedient is to do what someone else has told you to do, and in essence, this is the holy disposition of obedience that we are seeking. Yet this is not a blind or dumb obedience of which so many people are afraid; that in pledging obedience we are opening ourselves to potential abuse, that we are surrendering our God-given intelligence and initiative, or that we are giving up our essential liberty and freedom of choice in order to be bound in chains to some other. These are legitimate fears and are often stumbling blocks that prevent many from actually giving themselves over to obedience; that somehow, b holding onto a sliver of self-determination and preservation, by reserving some rights to object according to a so-called ‘holy’ disobedience, that we can protect ourselves against injustices and abuses by one who has us under their authority and claim of obedience.
Disobedience, if that is how the thoughts are projected in our mind, is never holy; disobedience is not a disposition or grace of love; it is not a virtue that leads one to a better way of living, nor does it build bonds of unity between people. Disobedience is harm, it is division, it is separation and the stepping over of another person. Disobedience is violence and to be disobedient is to oppress someone under our personal will and desires. These words may be hard ideas for us to hear and even harder for us to truly consider thoughtfully surrounded by a culture and time that praises acts of civil disobedience and encourages self-assertion of one’s own ideas, thoughts and identity. Disobedience, is much like anger and pride. We may be tempted, and even encouraged to believe that that there are times and situations that call for these things: that we should be angry over injustice, proud of great accomplishments and disobedient in the face of evil. Rather, we are to be passionate for the protection of life, grateful for the gifts that God has given to us and act in obedience to our Lord and to the love and the good of all.
One of my Carmelite brothers was teaching us about the vows and in particular about this vow and disposition of obedience. He was seen by many as a revolutionary in the Order and regularly disobedient, periodically standing up to his provincial against orders that he saw as violating the spirit of the Order and the Carmelite Way of Life. He urged us to always be obedient to our Prior and Novice Master in the simple things and even in the face of orders that seemed to be stupid or that clearly did not consider our own well being. We asked him then about how to recognize the times when we are called to disobedience; when we are to look at the broader picture and how we should go about disobeying what is clearly a bad command: one that asks us to violate either our vows or what Christ has commanded us to do. “You should never be disobedient,” he told us, going on to tell us a story about a recent conversation he’d had with his provincial. He said to him, “I am sorry Father Provincial, but I cannot do that. . .” which sounds very much like being disobedient. When we pushed him, characterizing that his act of disobedience to the provincial to whom he had vowed obedience was in his desire to be obedient to Christ first, he again told us “No.” He was, in fact, being obedient to his provincial, that it was for the good of the provincial and the Order that the brother could not take such an action.
The brother sought no harm, felt no anger nor desired any rebellion against an unlawful order, but continued to seek what was good not only for himself, but for the provincial. The difficulty is that he was trying to explain to us that in order to be obedient, not to the particular words of the provincial but to what was good for him, the brother had to refuse to do what he was being asked. He was not, in fact being disobedient in the face of an unlawful or unjust order, but was committed and determined to remain obedient to something higher. This brother was teaching us to always be obedient to Christ, that is, to be obedient to the love of the brothers and sisters and to their own good. There are times, which are very few, when we do not understand what it is that we are actually asking of someone else, or we may not see that we are actually causing ourselves harm and distancing ourselves further from Christ. Our brother’s job was not to be disobedient, but to help his provincial to see the harm that what he was asking would cause, and to not allow such harm to come to the Provincial and the Order. It was not disobedience that our brother was teaching, but the recognition that true obedience to love does, at times, require one to refuse to take certain actions. If we feel the urges and heat of disobedience; if we feel the nervousness of rebellion or the fires of anger of being asked to do something that is unjust; if we feel the guilt or embarrassment of possibly being caught, we are likely falling into the sin of disobedience which severs our ties and separates us from the one, or many, to whom we are being disobedient. Yet if we remain always obedient to Christ, acting out of this desire and a desire for the good, the conversion and a real concern for all of our brother and sisters, then we remain in union and in love. The question is a question of disposition: Do we feel the pull and flames of disobedience, or are we being driven by a passion and desire for being obedient?
The Rule does not ask the brothers to vow a blind obedience to everyone they meet, nor to a singularly unknown person that may or may not carry their best interest and common purpose in life. There is one to whom they are to vow this obedience: to the prior, who himself has also vowed obedience to the Rule and all that it requires and demands of him in the care, service and direction of all who have vowed to the Order--and all have vowed obedience to a life in allegiance to Christ. It is to Christ that a holy, good and fruitful obedience is vowed and given. It is to Christ, whom scripture has affirmed and we know not only wishes good and healing for us and truly loves us, but who also bears the wisdom of Wisdom itself, who knew us before we were even born, who has seen us sitting beneath the fig tree, knows his plans for us to prosper and who gives his commands and directions in the love that leads us to salvation. It is to him, the one we call Lord and Master that obedience is properly and joyfully given and in his light that we write and describe the virtue of obedience, in the ways and in as much as he has set the Rule over the Order, a prior above the brothers, a parent over a child, a teacher over students, or a boss or manager over employees.