Recently, Michael Sean Winters published an article entitled “How will a synodal church embody the virtue of obedience?” He shows that the Paschal mystery is accomplished through the obedience of Jesus, and indeed, the Church itself exists in through the obedience of its members, beginning with Mary’s reply to the angel, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”

This obedience comes through discernment. As Winters points out, “Fundamentalist Christians do not mediate the demand for obedience. They believe they follow Jesus’ biblical teachings without qualification. The biblical text is the sole authority. They do not, and cannot, admit the possibility that sometimes one demand of the Lord’s many teachings might conflict with another.” They find God’s directives in Scripture, and they believe that the guidance of Scripture is enough. They do not accept that God’s will can come through the mediation of another human person.

Catholics, on the other hand, see the Church as the continuation of the Incarnation, and, just as God’s salvific will was made known and accomplished in and through the man, Jesus Christ, so we believe that His will continues to be made known through the members of His mystical body. The form this mediation takes is established by Jesus words “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[1]

This is a straightforward declaration of a clear line of command. Apparently, the line of obedience that fundamentalists find in Scripture is found by Catholics in the ordinances of the successors of Peter and the apostles. What they say is what we follow.

But Jesus’s confirmation of Peter and the apostles as His spokesmen to the Church is not His only statement on the subject. He also said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything…When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”[2] We have thus two guides to follow: the Pope and the Holy Spirit. How do we reconcile these two forms of guidance?

This is the question that Michael Sean Winters poses in his article. He ends with the question: “How will a synodal church incarnate the necessary Christian virtue of obedience? It is a question that might best be answered derivatively, as a consequence of making other decisions, as was the case in the Amazon synod. Or it might necessarily be faced head-on. But it is a question that must be posed and answered.” As a religious with a vow of obedience, this practical question is one that I face daily and even hourly. The very writing of this article is an exercise in what I shall call “discerning obedience.”

First, I want to make quite clear that, by “discerning obedience” I do not at mean “discerning if or when I will obey.” “Discerning” is a participle that modifies the noun “obedience.” It does not replace it. It is the noun that matters. Obedience is a given. Discerning obedience is a specific type of obedience that concerns obedience to God’s will. It is the prayerful pondering that enables me to know how to obey — how to do God’s will in a specific situation. For me, there is never any question about not obeying, just as for Jesus and Mary there was never any question about not obeying. For them, obedience was absolute. Like Jesus, I may plead, “Father, if it is Your will, let this cup pass away from me,” but I will always add, “Yet not my will but yours be done.” The obedience to God’s will is always definite, always total.

Then where does discernment come in? As I wrote, discernment enables me to know how to obey. It shows me what steps to take in order to do God’s will. It can begin by presenting me with an idea that seems to be at least in accord with God’s will, such as writing this article. In discernment, I prayerfully ponder the idea to see if it holds anything that would show that it might not be God’s will. As I write this article, am I presenting anything that is not in accord with revelation and the teaching of the Magisterium? Am I expressing any attitude, such as bitterness or resentment, that would show that an unholy spirit is at work in me? Am I writing it in peace with a love of the truth that makes me judge each word carefully in the light of faith?

If through my prayerful pondering I conclude that the idea I am pondering may well be in accord with God’s will, I then present it to my superior. She will also ponder it prayerfully. We may discuss it if either of us has any questions. When we have both come to a conclusion about whether my idea seems to be God’s will, then she will make the final decision. Discernment exists for making a decision. Her decision may be “Yes, go ahead,” or it may be “No, don’t do it.” Whatever her decision is, I know what to do: obey it. If she says not to publish this article, then I know that it is not God’s will to publish it, and why would I want to endanger anyone spiritually by injecting into their minds something that is not from God?

If my idea is indeed from God, then He will see that it bears fruit in His time. Henri de Lubac — whose cause for canonization is being introduced — and Yves Congar were both silenced by their superiors, but they were reinstated by St. John XXIII when he called them to prominence at the Second Vatican Council. God’s will is accomplished in God’s own ways and times.

So I needn’t worry if my superior is mistaken in her decision. God is in charge. Every superior is only human. A superior can make mistakes, a superior can act in bad faith. Does that annul my obedience? Not at all. I just need to keep the line of command clear in my mind. That is one piece of advice that I give to our novices is: “Keep your chain of command clear. You do not need to do what I tell you; I am not your superior. You do not need to do what the other nuns tell you; they are not your superiors. You need to do what the Prioress and the Novice Mistress tell you because they are the channel through whom God leads you.” If I mistrust the persons who are my legitimate superiors, then I mistrust God’s channel of communication. I am cutting myself off from His voice. I have rejected Jesus’s statement “Whoever listens to you listens to me,” I have joined those who reject the ones whom He has sent.[3] I no longer believe in His incarnation in the Church, and I have made myself deaf to His voice.

The directions from my superiors and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are like the coordinates of latitude and longitude on a map. The two meet at only one spot. They nail down that one precise point on the globe. Without latitude, I can wander thousands of miles around the world seeking the point on the longitude that I need. Without longitude, I can wander the same way in another direction. With both coordinates, I know where I am. With discernment and the decision of my superiors, I know what I am to do. I remember a statement by Yves Congar (I am quoting from memory) who wrote: “The Holy Spirit acts directly and immediately in the human soul. He acts indirectly and mediately through the Holy Father.”

But what if my superior tells me to do something wrong? “Wrong” is a vague word. My superior can tell me to do something illegal or something imprudent or something distasteful. When I am told to do something sinful, I must resist. If I question whether an order is sinful or not, then I must seek advice. Even obedience does not justify a sin. If my superior tells me to give conferences outside of my cloister, I would be right to refuse, for I vowed to live by the Constitutions of my Order, and our Constitutions state that we live papal enclosure which precludes any outside ministry.

Yet what is sinful and what is distasteful are not the same thing. To say that the Cross was distasteful to Jesus is a woefully inadequate understatement! Yet being crucified was not a sin, and Jesus obediently accepted the agony. There is much in the Church directives that I can find distasteful, but that is not enough to justify rejection. We can be asked to do things which are distasteful, but which are not sinful. My likes and dislikes are no valid reasons for refusing to obey. This is why St. Teresa of Avila advises, “What it seems to me would be highly beneficial for those who through the goodness of the Lord are in this state [the Third Mansions], (for, as I have said, He grants them no small mercy because they are very close to ascending higher) is that they study diligently how to be prompt in obedience. And even if they are not members of a religious order, it would be a great thing for them to have — as do many persons — someone whom they could consult so as not to do their own will in anything. Doing our own will is usually what harms us. And they shouldn’t seek another of their own making, as they say.”[4]

One person objected that priests and religious take a vow of obedience, and so they are bound to do what their superiors command, but lay persons have no such vow, and therefore they are not bound to obey. This is far from true. All Christians freely bind themselves to obedience. They do this by a public witness at every Mass when they recite aloud the Our Father. There we proclaim “Our Father, who art in heaven… Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” We bind ourselves publicly to do God’s will. This binds us in a way beyond what any superior can order.

So, to return to the title of this article, how do I get what I want? That depends on what I want. If I want my own will, then I can use whatever methods and skullduggery I find effective. If I look hard enough, I can always find impressive reasons to justify whatever I choose to do. I can even convince myself that I am being virtuous in disobeying.

If I want to do God’s will, then the way is quite clear: discerning obedience is the way Jesus took. It is the only way for His disciples. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”[5] God’s will is infinite love, infinite beauty and joy, eternal salvation. Why should I want anything less?


[1] Matt. 16, 18-19

[2] Jn 14, 26 & 16, 14

[3] Lk 10, 16

[4] St. Teresa of Jesus, “Int. Castle,” III, 2, 12

[5] 1 Tim. 2, 4

Image: Adobe Stock. By Allistair F/peopleimages.com.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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