Traditional teaching on obedience was ‘wrong’ and ‘damaging’
Obedience proved the disempowering of me in my youth. It was touted as a virtue, to obey your parents, obey your teachers, obey the policeman and the priest, obey the rules, obey. Being a biddable boy, I very easily acceded to this demand. It was not a problem for me. You were greatly admired and greatly praised for your willing obedience to all bona fide superiors in your life, to all your elders.
But this call to obey, in the culture of the Catholic Church, came wrapped up in a complex package with other hand-me-down wisdoms. And if you entered religious life, as I did, at the age of eleven, obedience became a locked room and I did not possess the key that would let me out. And just to make sure that you did not try to do so, you were fed a spirituality that informed you to take no notice of your feelings. If you were unhappy or sad, that is what is known as the cross, just like the one that Jesus carried. Use your mind and your intellect to learn the way of the faith. Use your will to follow as you are directed, but do not give any value or mileage to your feelings. They just come and go. This was not the warmth of following the Lord. This was stoicism.
This teaching was and is totally wrong and extremely damaging. For our feelings are the indicator to us of the good or harmful issues that make up our life. We get feelings about people, feelings about situations, feelings that murmur to us from our depths, telling us that this is good, or this is not very clever. My feelings tried to tell me how unhappy I was, trying to faithfully pursue the road to priesthood, but I discounted those feelings, burdensome though they were, and ploughed on. A friend of mine likened me to a Lancaster Bomber, taking all kinds of flak, but determined to fulfill the mission set out for that flight.
Living within the confines of the religious enclosed world of Seminary, there were no other voices getting through to tell me that life could and should be different. Between the culture of religious obedience and the disavowal of all my natural feelings, I was wrecked as a lively emotional being. When I was ordained, I couldn’t care less about anything.
Today, I have a son of twenty years. As he got ready to go to University this morning, I told him always to listen to his body, to his mind and to his feelings. Our first port of call in order to know and understand life lies within ourselves, in our soul and spirit. God has made us that way. Our first obedience is to that inner voice, to our own self. To thy own self be true…
I offer these thoughts, not as a self-promotion, but as a possible parable for what happens in the church, and, indeed, in any institution. The priests I knew in those days did their job obediently as teachers and parish priests or missioners, but how often did they examine or question the things they did? We often do the things we are trained to do – obediently – and no more. Did no one ever think to find out how a young student was faring?
The real ‘changers’ in life are the people who ask the real questions. Is the church adapting to the needs of people today? Do I understand what people are like today? How they feel? What they seek? Do I go out to people and risk my own self with them? Or do I simply do the tasks I was trained for and leave it at that?
I work as a mediator for separating people, helping them to have the conversations they need in order to make peaceable arrangements for their children. Over the past ten years the nature of the clientele has changed. New situations and new problems are emerging, such as the anger of alienated young men. Our Service needs to study these things and develop new ways of addressing these urgent issues, and we are doing this. It won’t do just to keep on doing the stuff I was trained to do. I must develop, or else I become irrelevant.
Many years ago, Brian Redhead, the popular presenter of Radio Four’s Today programme, asked the question, “What is the Fire Brigade for? Is it to put out fires? No. Its purpose is to save lives. Putting out the fires is just one of the methods it uses.”
So with the church and all of us, its members. We often forget our real purpose – to save human lives – and instead settle for one of the methods, saying our prayers, or harking back to the old methods, frightened to look at the new.
As a student of Moral Theology, I was delighted the day I found out that the word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin ‘ob –audire’, which means to listen intently. It really is about listening to what the heart of another is saying, listening out for the voice of God, speaking heart to heart. This understanding gives to obedience a majesty and a dignity that I had never come across before. Until then obedience conjured up the face of angry Sergeant Majors, of stern teachers and exasperated parents, of priests giving out from the pulpit, and people not having room to turn round.
Now here was a meaning and a vista to savour. To obey means to listen lovingly to what comes to us from the loving heart of God, and to put that in to practice. No robots here. Just sons and daughters of God.
Brian Fahy, an English man of Irish parentage, was a religious and priest who later got married. His wife has recently died.