An Unfashionable Virtue: Obedience

Yesterday and today we have been reading St Benedict’s fifth chapter, on obedience. Its fine phrases have often been quoted on this blog, and I have spent most of my adult life trying to put it into practice. We vow our obedience in the monastery. At the heart of that vow is a perpetual listening to God that, far from narrowing our world, opens us up to endless possibilities. It is, we believe, a virtue to be obedient. But is is an unfashionable virtue. In the west we value our independence of thought and action and regard choosing to live by another’s judgement and authority (cf RB 5.12) as somehow immature. Even among Catholics you will find those who seem to know better than the Church!

I think part of the problem may lie in our inability to make the connection between our own obedience and Christ’s obedience to the Father. Canon Law protects us from the enormities of ‘blind obedience’ or any lazy attempt to shrug off personal responsibility by claiming ‘I was only doing what I was told.’ That is not obedience, although it is often mistaken for obedience. No, real obedience is hard work and exposes us to risk. It will change us, and most of us do not like being changed. Moreover, we cannot be sure we are always right any more because we are not the sole masters of our fate. God has a way of upsetting things. Even so, we can misunderstand; we can get it wrong. What we can’t do is play safe, refuse to act, refuse to listen. I have sometimes wondered whether, during those last few days before his Crucifixion, Christ did not ask himself whether he was doing the right thing, whether he had understood aright what the Father wanted. In Gethsemane those questions came to the fore and could only be answered with ‘Let your will, not mine, be done.’

Very few of us ever seem to reach the point where, heart and soul, we can say, ‘Let your will, not mine be done.’ We try, yes we try. We make huge sacrifices, bear terrible things as uncomplainingly as possible, but it is only with our last breath that we can be sure that our obedience is complete. That is one reason why we pray daily for the grace of a good death. Not necessarily a good death as many understand it, a death free fom pain and surrounded by those who love us, but a death that truly completes our life, that allows us to say, ‘I have heard, and I have obeyed.’

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Dying a Good Death

There seems to have been a lot of interest recently in dying well. I notice, for example, that the question of ‘terminal care’ has been addressed by both individuals and groups, and many suggestions have been made about how to make the process of dying easier both for the one who is dying and those close to them. I agree with many of their suggestions, but, oh, how much simpler the whole idea of a good death is if one happens to be Catholic! My own hope is that I will go to my death peacefully, shriven of my sins, anointed with oil, Communicated, surrounded by prayer; but if I die in my sleep, or alone and in agony, it can still be a good death. What matters is that one’s own death is united with the death of Christ our Saviour. I say this from a position of faith, aware that to many — even to many good Christians — it may not make much sense; so it is important to stress that it is not a ‘feeling faith’ I am talking about, but a willed faith. St Thérèse of Lisieux experienced great darkness and spiritual isolation before she died, but she died a good and holy death.

Most of the death-beds I’ve attended have shown me someone dying as they lived: with grace and humour for the most part, but sometimes with fear and confusion. It can be very painful for the onlooker, but one needs to remember that the act of dying is as important as the act of being born. It is a mystery, with depths we cannot yet fathom. Much must be taken on trust; but whenever, wherever and however we die, we die as part of the Church, as a member of the Body of Christ. We are never completely alone, never completely helpless. It is no accident that the commonest prayer to Our Lady, the ‘Hail Mary,’ contains the petition, ‘pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ It is a good prayer to pray for the dying, for one day we shall be among their number.

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