Obedience: Mk 10:35-45

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.  Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.  But it shall not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”

This experiment in obedience is getting harder.  It makes me think of this Gospel story, which is commonly labeled “The ambition of James and John.”

The verses above are an afterword to the key dramatic event of the story, which is basically a conversation.   After stewing a while on Jesus’ many miracles, brothers James and John decide to ask Jesus for their own desire: to sit in triumphant glory with him, one on the right and one on the left.  They do this privately, knowing that it will anger their friends.  And so it does!  Furthermore, judging from the way I hear this passage referred to in scripture classes and homilies, the audacity, and even mendacity, of James and John in trying to secure a backdoor entrance into God’s glory, still has the power to inflame indignant disciples of Christ.

Recently, though, I’ve started to see myself in James and John, in the most surprising area: my attitude toward obedience.  In an attempt to discern whether and how my vocation might be a Jesuit one, I have embarked on what I hope will be a series of experiments.  This first experiment is a chance to live in a maternity home, a community that 1) seeks God’s will and has a clear mission: to reverence, love, and serve pregnant women and their babies; 2) engages completely with Church tradition and teaching; 3) needs me to make it my first priority outside of my own paying job; and 4) gives me the chance to live almost entirely from the generosity of others, and importantly, to discharge student debt in order to be free for further missions.

One of the key qualms I’ve heard expressed with regard to the idea of Jesuit women, is that the Society of Jesus is founded in total obedience, and that women are not, by nature, obedient in the manner of men.  (Let’s hold off for now on whether there is truth in this…at some point, I will post all of the fears and objections I’ve heard to the idea of Jesuit women, including this one, and we can examine them gently together, one by one.)  Suffice to say that hearing over and over again from both women and men that I am not, by nature of my sex, obedient, only amplified the sense of romance that I already had around perinde ac cadaver, Ignatius’ way of expressing in the Constitutions this quality of total obedience: to be directed by a superior “as if one were a lifeless body” in fulfilling a mission.  Total self-abnegation has always held some romance for me – the peace, power, and freedom from sin that it promised.  “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” – Rom 7:15.

So I entered into this arrangement 6 weeks ago, with high hopes, high romance, a sense of purpose, and a frank and simple notion of obedience: I expected that my community’s director would tell me to do things, representing Christ, and I would do them.   She would tell me to be there, and I would be there.  She would tell me whether and when I could go to class, or to the rec center, or on retreat, or on vacation, according to the needs of the house.  And once this practice of obedience had smoothed away my rough edges, my rebelliousness, my urgent need to call the shots, then I would be humble and gentle and ready for the “next stage” of spiritual development.

The attraction of this frank, literal obedience is that it promises to make things very simple.  Hard, perhaps, but simple – achievable, through willpower and prayer.  And the real benefit of this type of commitment to obedience is that it certainly reveals the rough edges.  With these self-imposed boundaries in place, it is possible to see one’s self and grow in a way that can be difficult without the boundaries.

However, there are a few elements to obedience that I didn’t see at the start.  First, obedience has to include some element of personal authenticity.  After the first few giddy days, there is something that rings false about just running around obeying everybody, in the sense of doing what they say or what they ask.  And it also rings false not to be authentic with the other, to show them who I am.    I have heard from Jesuit men in formation that their vow of obedience, to be fully observed, assumes a vow of representation – that one must, in order to be fully obedient and fully discerning, also be aware of and candid about the movements of one’s own heart – one’s desires, joys, inspirations, and opinion on the next best step.  (The Commonweal post linked above to offer a preliminary explanation of perinde ac cadaver contains a wise description of this process, from a person who seems to have had plenty of experience in it.  Here are his words on their own, for your consideration.)

Beyond this authentic representation, a key element of obedience is trust.  And for strong trust to develop, there seems to be a need for that mutual authenticity, plus a certain gradualness to the relationship.  I skipped over the trust element in my eagerness to be here (“zeal without knowledge?”), and hoped it would work itself out.  Recently, that haste endangered the experiment as I was caught in a situation where my fragile trust was wounded.  But I am beginning to see that trust, like the authenticity in which it is founded, takes attention, intelligence, time, and bravery.

So back to the sons of Zebedee.  How is a Maggie like a James or a John?  It’s this: that the ambition of James and John resonates with the challenges in formation of any disciple and apostle of Christ.  Like James and John, she begins with an idea of what the goal is, of what it means to “be with” Jesus.  And usually that idea is simple and frank, and involves some worldly metaphor – sitting at the left and right hand of a powerful lord, or taking orders from a powerful boss, or sitting as a sage in an ivory tower, close enough to touch God in the white clouds.  Or she may have a fixed idea of what it means to be a servant, to be the slave of all.  She is willing to do anything to arrive at her idea, and this leads to confusion about where the path actually is.

Fortunately, I have a sharp spiritual director.  She is my age, learned and wise, and has a two year old son, which might contribute to her humility and patience.  Last week she wondered gently, “Can a person make an idol out of obedience?”  And again, “What about this is life-giving for you?  And what isn’t?”  And once more, “Do you remember what brings you joy?”  “You mean what brings me joy about my work in the home?” I clarified.  “Nope, just what brings you joy,” she smiled.


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