Religious Life IN GENERAL
Meditation on Obedience
Created after God's image, man is called to become perfect as his Father is perfect. The life that was breathed into man's nostrils on the morning of creation, according to the beautiful image in the Book of Genesis, is capable of an unlimited growth. Man, therefore, is not only called to live in plenitude but he also carries within himself a God‑given growth‑dynamism.
There lies the foundation of any ethics. Man came into being by receiving a participation in divine life. Everything that respects and fosters the growth of that seed of life within him is good. Everything that prevents or hinders that growth is evil. The aspiration to life is the will of God written in each human heart; sin is the refusal to live or to grow, the attraction toward death. 'I came,' Jesus said, 'that they might have life and have it to the full.'
God created man free. He put him in the world and established him as master of his creation, itself a fruit of his overflowing life. He gave him the responsibility of building his life and his world, and of choosing the means to foster and orientate the growth of that life. Free and responsible, man ought to be ready to answer for each of his choices. Nobody, not even God, will ever make those choices in his place, or respond to them.
As soon as man, in the earliest times, became aware of that dynamism of life within himself and began to experience his relationship to a Source of Life beyond the world of his sense perception, he elaborated sets of myths, beliefs and rites to express and nurture that experience and to be a memorial of it. He felt called to enter into deeper communion with that Reality to which he sometimes gave the name of God, but often he was also frightened by it.
Moreover, because of his failures, man was more and more afraid of his own freedom, And so, the God whom he had first experienced as the source of his life, the most intimate reality within himself, he began to perceive as an authoritarian master and as a law‑maker. By this shift, man was giving up his responsibility for making his own decisions and his own choices, expecting God to make them for him. By religion which was born of the perception of the source of his freedom he was making himself a slave.
The religious experience of Israel, unique in many respects, grew up in that historical and religious context and disengaged itself from it only gradually and partially. Yahweh was first perceived as the law‑giver, dictating his will to his people. But there was something really new in the religious experience of Israel: God was perceived as a God‑with‑man, as an Emmanuel, meeting man within human history, fighting the wars of his people, establishing with them a covenant.
Later on, the great prophets of Israel knew and represented Yahweh as a loving father or even as a mother or a jealously loving spouse. They even foresaw and announced a new era of human history when, as in the beginning, man would read God's will no longer on tables of stone, or on the scrolls of his law‑makers, but in his own heart, in the deepest aspirations of his being created in God's image and animated by his Breath. This liberation of man from his self-imposed slavery would be fully realised in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
In Jesus, the seed of life placed in man on the morning of creation has grown to full flower. Everything in him is fullness of life; there is no refusal to grow, no sin. Son of man, born of the earth, he is Son of God, one with the Father. He has no other rule of life than his Father's will. That does not mean that he obeys 'orders' received from his Father. It means rather that he has one will with the Father, so that his most personal will is identical with his Father's will. His own mission is one with his being and his being is one with tile Father. He is therefore radically obedient, that is, obedient at the roots 'of his being. He is the human being in whom liberation from any exterior law or alien will is totally realised.
The great and beautiful mystery is that Jesus lived that obedience within the experience of normal human growth. He discovered his mission gradually. He had constantly to make human choices, using the same means of discernment as any other human being. He had to decide at some point whether he would continue to be a carpenter in Nazareth or take to the roads of Galilee and Judea. He had to decide whether he would conform to the teaching of the Doctors of the Law and their religious system or not; whether he would go up to Jerusalem for the Pasch or not, etc ... If he always did the will of his Father on each one of those occasions, it was not because of a special revelation of the Father's will, but because in each case he made the choice that was in fidelity to his mission, that is, to his own deepest being, one with the Father.
A moment of supreme importance in the discovery of his mission was certainly when, at the time of his baptism, he heard the Father's voice, 'You are my most beloved son'. Hut perhaps the real turning point of his life had been a little earlier, when he had left Nazareth and adopted a completely new mode of existence. Was not that kind of break in his life, freeing him from the dictates of the socio‑cultural environment and launching him into a solitary journey, the radical step that opened his human consciousness to the full perception of his mission at the time of his baptism?
The paradox is that, for a superficial observer, Jesus practically ceases to be an obedient man from that moment on! Up to that time if we except a minor prank at the age of twelve Jesus had conformed to all the demands of his cultural and religious environment and had been formed by them. The way his fellow‑citizens expressed their surprise when he began to behave "strangely", shows that he had been up to that moment a very normal, faithful, and unnoticed observer of the social customs and obligations of his people as well as of the traditional teaching of the doctors and the scribes. But suddenly, moved by the inner perception of his mission, he undertakes a solitary journey, beyond all these beacons, guided solely by the ardent light of his heart.
Henceforth his obedience will be radical fidelity to that vision and to his perception of God irreconcilable with that of the spiritual leaders of the people. That fidelity will lead him to death, for as soon as he begins to live as a fully free man, he becomes troublesome and threatening for the powers, civil and religious. After all, slavery has also its advantages and men do not easily accept the call to freedom, especially those who are slaves of the power they themselves hold. How could they let Jesus disrupt a system so painstakingly set up?
Others had the same experience before and after Jesus. Paul of Tarsus is a good example. Up to his conversion, he was perfectly obedient, the most faithful observer of all the religious traditions of his people. The socio‑religious context in which he lived constituted a secure framework for his personal existence. But one day he has the grace to fall from his high horse. He meets Christ and discovers his own heart. He becomes at once a very humble man, and, at the same time, a most irritatingly free person. What he has seen, he cannot deny and he acts accordingly. He will be disturbing for everybody, beginning with the Christians themselves. Those from Damascus will be only too happy to put him in a basket and drop him outside the walls of the city and those of Jerusalem will quickly dispatch him to Tarsus. For his own safety, of course! But it is interesting all the same to read the conclusion of this narrative in the Acts of the Apostles: ' ... they took him to Caesarea and sent him off from there to Tarsus. The Churches throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peace… He, too, will be obedient unto death.
That radical break in the life of Jesus and Paul, marking the beginning of a solitary personal journey, beyond what the support of the prevailing religious culture could offer, is not a reality exclusive to them. It corresponds to a pattern of human experience, the history of which we can trace back almost two thousand years before Jesus. Any culture and any religion is a system that forms and leads individuals to a certain type of human and religious experience. But in every culture, there are individuals who, at some point in their evolution, feel called, out of fidelity to their being, to a type of experience beyond the one fostered or even permitted by the cultural environment. If they happen to meet other solitary seekers, or if they have disciples who came to be formed by contact with their experience, they elaborate a sub‑culture within the prevailing culture, as a 'cadre' meant to generate and foster a specific type of experience. So were born all the forms of monastic life, in India, in Greece and Israel before Christian monasticism.
What all these people seek, in one way or another, more or less consciously, is the discovery of the will of God through the discover of their own heart. In this regard, the answer of the elder Palamon to the young Pachomius who comes to be 'made' a monk, is very revealing, " ... with God's grace we will strive with you until you get to know yourself."
Jesus was totally under the guidance of the Spirit. The rest of men do not have only the Spirit of God within their hearts, but also seeds of disintegration and death sown by the evil spirit. And it is often difficult for them to make a distinction. This is why experience has always shown that anyone who wants to make a serious spiritual journey needs a guide, that is, some experienced person who will prevent him from deceiving himself.
When the first Christian monks went into the desert to live that experience of a solitary journey in search of their own heart and of God, they soon discovered the dangers and the pitfalls of that lonely struggle with the forces of evil and the need for a spiritual guide.
They put themselves under the guidance of elders, that is, of persons who had. Cone through the struggle before them and who were possessed by the Spirit of God. When they gathered in communities, they elaborated a kind of Christian sub‑culture, a life‑style according to a Rule and under superior.
In both cases, either the submission to a spiritual father or the entry into a community, there is no question of divinely instituted ways of life, but of means elaborated by men in their search for the will of God through their own spiritual growth. The motivation and the aim are specifically Christian. But the means used belong to a long multisecular human tradition. What is, then, the nature and the meaning of the obedience to a spiritual master or to a rule and a superior?
We can draw some light from what the Scripture says about obedience to the *established powers', and especially from Jesus' own attitude toward them. In Jesus' time Palestine was under Roman domination. As in every country under foreign domination, there were people who compromised with the foreign power and there were rebels. There were, on the one hand, the publicans or tax‑collectors, considered by the 'pure ones' as public sinners. On the other hand, there were the Zealots, a kind of guerrilla band trying to overcome the invader. Jesus chose his disciples from both sides and did not seem to care on which side people were. But he expected them to be honest and consistent with their choices. When asked whether it was lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, he asked for a piece of Roman money and said: 'give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.' The answer means: if you accept to live under the Roman authority, if you use its money and profit from its services, then you have to be honest and consistent and pay the tribute. The obedience to the Roman authority is not presented as the obedience to some delegated divine authority but as sincere, honest human behaviour within a given social situation. You can accept or refuse to accept that situation. It is a question of human choice. Then you ought to be consistent and accept the consequences of your choice. Then you must always submit to God from whom you constantly receive life.
Jesus' attitude toward the religious system of the Pharisees and 'the Doctors of the Law is the same. He asks those who have chosen .to follow that system and to‑ profit from the religious and psychological security it offers, along with its other advantages, to follow their teaching. But he and his disciples have taken another path and he does not feel obliged to observe their interpretation of the Law and their prescriptions, any more than to pay the tribute to Caesar. He refused decidedly to be part of their system.
In the same manner, when Paul asks slaves to be obedient to their masters, he does not pretend that the slave‑owner's authority is of divine origin. He is just advocating what seems to be a logical, consistent attitude within a concrete social context at a certain moment of its evolution. In his recommendations to wives to submit to their husbands, we must not see the expression of a divine law concerning man‑woman relationships but simply prudent advice conditioned by a limited cultural context.
As for the social structure within the group of his disciples, the Church, Jesus gave only one specific precept: ‑that they should serve each other. Beyond that, they are to use human means, themselves derived from divert social systems, to respond to that precept.
In Scripture, obedience is always referred directly to God. It is the conformity of the human will to the divine will. Nowhere is the submission of a man to another shown as being virtuous in itself; and nowhere is it said that, in his search for the will o: God, it is more virtuous for a man to obey the decisions of another person than to make his own decisions according to his own discernment. Obedience to any human authority, to a spiritual father or to a rule and a superior, is a matter of being logical and consist, with oneself in the use of the means chosen to discover and carry the will of God.
The law of God, the will of God, for each man, is written in his own heart. The way to God goes through the way to one's own hear. ‑To discover God's will, man has first of all to get in touch with his own heart, to become conscious of his own self, his true self. This requires a long effort of purification and of detachment from everything that is the false self. For a man to be obedient cons in discovering his vocation or his own mission; that is, lie must become conscious of his own personal and inalienable mode or relationship to the Father, accepting the consequences of this awareness w all the ruptures and the deaths implied thereby.
In that process of purification and growth, of search and realisation of God's will, man has to choose some means, some of which will be better for him than others. That choice is his responsibility God does not make it for him. Although this choice is free, it is of course, largely conditioned by his historical and sociological context.
When he reaches adulthood and a certain degree of maturity, man has to choose first a type of relationship with civil society and the religious institution. He will get married or remain celibate; he will choose a solitary journey, asking eventually to be formed or guided by a spiritual master, or he will join a community. If he chooses to dedicate himself to a specific type of service, he may do it on his own or join a group that has assumed and organised such a service; or again he may ask a bishop to integrate him through ordination in the pastoral service of the institutional Church, etc. Once such a choice has been made freely and consciously, fidelity to himself and to the other persons involved will require him to be faithful to that choice and to accept it with all its implications and its dimensions.
If I confide myself to a spiritual father, like the first monks of the desert, or the Buddhist and Hindu monks before them, it is in order to become, by that means, a free and detached person, to become master of my passions and to get to know my heart, so that I may begin to discover God and his will, to love him and live in union with him. I confide myself to that master because I trust that he can lead me through that process. I will put myself totally into his hands and I will do everything he tells me, not because I think that his decisions are automatically the will of God for me but because I trust his charism to guide me to growth in Christ. I trust that lie is enough in touch with his own heart to help me to discover mine. He may ask me to do silly things at times; and if I am humble enough to obey, it is not because I don't think these are silly things, or because I think this is God's will, but simply because I trust that through those silly acts the experienced guide knows how to lead me to detachment, freedom and spiritual growth. For me it is a question of being logical and consistent with my choice of this specific means of human and spiritual growth.
If I join a community, it is not because God has made that choice for me. I myself choose this style of community life as a means that I consider good for me in order to pursue my search for the will of God. This is true for any community, for those we call active as well as those we call contemplative. In the case of active communities, there is an additional dimension. I choose to undertake a service in the Church in communion with a community founded for that service rather than undertaking it on my own (which could also be a legitimate choice, although perhaps less appropriate for me). Here again, it is a question of the choice of means. Religious life, in its divers forms, is a style of Christian life meant to foster a type of experience of God and, in some cases, to constitute a context fostering a specific type of service. This life‑style, elaborated by men, has been tested by a long tradition and has been confirmed by the approbation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is not therefore a 'divine institution. The motivation and the aims of the Christian religious are specifically Christian and rooted in the Gospel. The means used, or the life‑style, constitute an institution, the history of which goes well beyond the historical and geographical boundaries of Christianity. It is a system that can produce its fruits only if it is accepted as a whole. Here again, once 1 have chosen that means, it is simple consistency and honesty that require me to conform to its legislation and its hierarchical structure, etc.
The tree must be judged by its fruits, though. Needless to say, each one of the choices mentioned implies risks. A situation of "obedience", apt to foster the growth of such and such a person, would be disastrous for another. Total and, as it were, 'blind' obedience to a master can be an excellent means of growth, as is demonstrated by the experience of all the great religions of the world. But it can also lead to terrible failures, especially when the master is not as charismatic as he is believed ‑ or as he believes himself ‑ to be. Even in the 'golden age' of Christian monasticism in Egypt, if many monks were led through that technique to high degrees of union with God, others had their psychical as well as their physical health wrecked by incompetent self‑made masters. History has often repeated itself to our own days. Such is the case also for community life; it can lead to interior freedom and foster a fruitful apostolate just as it can prevent both, if it has hardened or. is badly oriented. If great harm has often been done by authoritarian superiors who were simply convinced that they spoke continually in the name of God, still more harm has often resulted from the resignation of the 'subjects' who renounced their personal responsibility while pretending to renounce their 'own will', as they say.
When novices come to our communities, we often try to discern by all kinds of means whether they have a 'vocation' as if the latter was a kind of virus that could be detected by appropriate tests. That attitude supposes a relatively recent conception of vocation that implies a direct intervention of God in the choice of $means'. We find the same attitude, basically, in those who when they leave religious life, say that they have discovered that they 'did not have a vocation'.
The attitude of the Desert Fathers seems to me healthier and wiser. To a new‑comer the elder would describe his way of life and say: examine yourself and see if you want this way of life and if you can bear it. Likewise Benedict wrote his monastic Rule for whoever wished to return through the way of obedience to God from whom he had departed through disobedience. I do not think either that Saint Bernard submitted to lengthy tests the throng of novices he brought back to Clairvaux after each one of his preaching journeys.
It seems to me, therefore that, when a novice comes to a community, the important thing is not to try to discover whether he belongs to that particular group of human beings who are supposed to *have a vocation' but to discover what he really wants and to make him want it more consciously and sincerely. When novices abandon the noviciate, to say that 'they did not have a vocation' might very well be an easy way of refusing to admit our inability to give them the formation they were looking for.
I think that most of the failures in religious life ‑ and by 'failures' I do not necessarily mean the departures ‑ come from the fact that people entered religious life without having ever chosen it deliberately. They came to it because they had been convinced by somebody, or they had convinced themselves, that to do so was God's will or God's decision ‑for them. They had accepted that decision but had never wanted it themselves. Actually, in many cases, they had never reached enough self‑knowledge to know what they really wanted. It might well be that the form of religious life where they had landed has prevented them from reaching that stage.
The will of God for every man is written in his own heart. Any form of obedience that alienates man and leads him to a mechanical submission to exterior laws belongs to that long series of religious means that man has invented through history in order to refuse to accept his own responsibility, asking the gods to make his decisions in his place. The only truly Christian obedience is the one that leads man to the discovery of his own heart, that is, of that part of himself where he is one with God. That obedience can bear its fruits only in the one who has chosen it freely and accepts sincerely and honestly all its implications and consequences.