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Talking about the dirty ‘o’ word – obedience

Obedience and freedom

Freedom: “This Dominican understanding of freedom is clearly opposed – diametrically – to the notion of ‘freedom’ that has been embraced by many people today – the idea that ‘freedom’ is the total absence of any restriction on my personal autonomy.”

OBEDIENCE is, in fact, the only vow a Dominican friar takes.

On the day of his profession, with his hands placed within those of his superior and upon the constitutions of the order, he vows obedience to God, the Blessed Virgin, St Dominic, the Master of the Order and his successors according to the Rule of St Augustine and the Institutions of the Order of Friars Preachers.

As poverty and chastity are explicitly enumerated within the constitutions of the order – along with a great many other things – those evangelical counsels are automatically entailed in the friar’s profession of obedience.

Yet it seems that obedience – along with the notion of “obligation” generally – is a concept that has gone out of vogue.

Perhaps for some, it has even become a dirty word.

I cannot for the life of me fathom why this is the case.

If professed obedience implied a mindless abnegation of personal responsibility, such distaste would of course be justified. Yet it implies no such thing.

If professed obedience aimed at stunting an individual and entailed an inherent repression of a person’s being, then it would appear a particularly cruel and pointless exercise. Yet it does no such thing.

If professed obedience brought about the extinction of an individual’s God-given freedom, then in-principle opposition would be understandable. Yet, again, it brings about no such thing.

Several members of my immediate family would say – have said – that their decidedly mixed feelings about my entry into religious life revolve primarily around one idea – that I will not have any “freedom”.

In the free-wheeling exchange of ideas which inevitably follows upon any discussion of religious matters among my family members, it becomes abundantly clear that – at base – we have vastly different notions of what “freedom” is and what it implies.

“The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Those are the words of Christ Himself, and clearly show that there is an intimate connection between truth and freedom.

Given that one of the mottos of the Dominican order is Veritas – Truth – it will surprise absolutely no one when I say that, for a Dominican, it is impossible to conceive of freedom otherwise than as intimately connected with the truth.

From a Dominican perspective, faithful to Scripture and the writings of our brother St Thomas Aquinas, “freedom” is ultimately and essentially my capacity to act in accordance with my true nature and purpose: to choose the good.

Every human being has an innate hunger for truth and goodness: ultimately a desire for the Truth and Goodness that is God.

As a creature created by God with this innate inclination towards the good and the true, and created for a purpose, freedom is thus manifested in those choices which result in the greatest fulfilment of my God-given being.

These choices, ultimately, tend me towards the ultimate and highest good – God.

Thus every choice can be said to be an exercise of freedom to the extent that it accords with or derogates from this truth.

And this understanding of freedom has one very important consequence: not all choices are equal.

Not every act is in accordance with my God-given nature and inclination towards truth and goodness: some actions are contrary to the good, to my good, and to the nature with which God has endowed me.

To the extent that my actions turn me away from a life of virtue and the ultimate fulfilment of my being and purpose in God, they are not “free” by virtue of the simple fact that they are untruthful: they do not reflect the reality of who I am.

It is now easy to see whence our arguments around the dinner table arise.

This Dominican understanding of freedom is clearly opposed – diametrically – to the notion of “freedom” that has been embraced by many people today – the idea that “freedom” is the total absence of any restriction on my personal autonomy.

In this understanding, it is a matter of indifference as to whether a person chooses to do the good or not.

This position is of course intertwined with the other great lie of our age: that there is no such thing as “good” and “bad”, “truth” and “falsehood” – that all things are relative.

For those who sincerely believe this – and I actually think they can be but few in number – it is a matter of complete indifference whether someone who has the potential to be a marvellous concert pianist chooses to spend hours every afternoon practising Prelude 21 or spend those same hours picking fluff from his navel.

All choices are equal and all are expressions of “freedom”.

Yet I am compelled to point out that one of those choices does indeed imply a mindless abnegation of personal responsibility.

One of those choices does stunt the potential of that individual and result in a repression of their true being.

One of those choices does represent a movement that derogates from the truth of that individual’s being and their true good. One of those choices is not an exercise of freedom.

In the memorable words of Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers, what we are dealing with in these two opposing views is essentially the difference between a “freedom for excellence” and a “freedom of indifference”.

Freedom is much more than a choice between alternatives: it is a decision about who we are and not just what we do.

Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master of the order, has characterised this as a participation in, “God’s own unimaginable freedom which demands the transformation of what it means for us to be alive.”

In a religious community, our superiors have the obligation to note the gifts which the Holy Spirit has brought to the order in the various friars and employ them for the good of the Church.

We are not always the best judge of our own character, nor do we always have the greatest insight into the needs of the Church beyond our own limited perspective.

Through our vow of obedience, the various superiors placed above us help to broaden our perspective and insight.

They help us to achieve true excellence, to fulfil our God-given purpose and nature.

Speaking from personal experience, not simply within the context of religious life, in the past I have found that those things I was initially least inclined to do – yet did nonetheless because I was so obliged – often turned out to be the most interesting and rewarding.

If I truly wish God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, then I will occasionally have to apply myself to tasks which I am perhaps initially disinclined to undertake.

I am not God, and I harbour few illusions as to how close a correspondence exists between my personal will and what God may actually wish me to do over the course of my life.

My superiors in religious life have similarly not yet been favoured with divine status: but their overview and insight gained through many years of experience is hopefully a better gauge of the needs within the Church and of my capacities and abilities than my own limited perspective.

We choose to vow obedience because we believe it to be an act towards the good: a fulfilment of our God-given nature as men called to priesthood within the Dominican order, the greatest expression of who we are.

This is a true exercise of freedom: a freedom for excellence – a freedom for God.

Br Sebastian Condon is from Brisbane. He is undertaking a novitiate with the Dominican order in Hong Kong.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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