This past week, I was invited to serve as guest lecturer for an undergraduate class at Purdue University. In introducing myself, I felt it appropriate to briefly summarize who I am as a Catholic religious brother, including the three vows we profess. As difficult as celibate chastity may be to understand fully in its lived dimensions, it is also the hardest to misunderstand at the surface level: a rudimentary understanding requires nothing more than a basic grasp of vocabulary. What we mean by our vows of poverty and obedience on the other hand is less immediately clear.
When offering the briefest of summaries, I begin by clarifying that for us the vow of poverty does not mean a life of deprivation but rather one of shared resources: no personal bank account, no personal car, etc. I feel a similar need to shed light on the vow of obedience. As we understand it, obedience is owed not primarily to any particular human being, but rather to God. When speaking with a crowd that may be less spiritually inclined however, I say simply that it is about not letting my own will and preferences have the final say in my decisions. What does this look like in practice though?
Some recent reading I’ve done suggests that seeking to know God’s will in particular situations may be a futile task—unless you really think of God as a micro-manager. God’s more general purpose though should be very clear for those of us who seek it through prayer and reflection. We are meant “to do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with God.”
The story of Jonah serves as a great example. God tells Jonah to go preach in the city of Nineveh so that its citizens might recognize their wrongdoings. Jonah, however, would rather see the Ninevites suffer the ill effects of their choices than give them the chance to learn from their errors. He runs away from his mandate, only to have God intervene with a radical course correction. Jonah eventually goes to Nineveh after all, pouts when its people repent, and is rebuked for his feelings of resentment when they avoid catastrophe.
I think we human beings generally share the tendency to seek the path of least resistance when making our choices. The problem is that we often mis-identify which path that is. At first it seemed easier to Jonah to avoid the task appointed to him and forget about his mission to the Ninevites. When all the forces of the universe were aligned to point him in that direction however, he was like a man trying to ski uphill.
Saying an authentic “yes” to the universe always involves discerning the right times to say “no” to ease, conformity, and complacency. The joyful struggle that comes with pursuing genuine purpose ends up being surprisingly less torturous than the neurotic inertia that avoids external risk and conflict while never succumbing to the music of the cosmos. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it.”
The Hudson River near the Marist Brothers’ Center at Esopus is deceptively treacherous because at that point the river is actually an estuary: the river current and the ocean tides interact to form a dual current system. While the tides bring some salt water inland however, the seaward flow invariably predominates. Nonetheless, to swim or row in accordance with this greater flow of the river can sometimes require going against the lesser ocean current.
Getting in the flow and staying with the flow will not always be as effortless as it sounds. In the long view though, it is the only way to go. As hard as it is for the salmon to swim upstream, would it not be harder still for it to resist its ancient instincts?
In many ways then, a life based on obedience ends up being about attentiveness to all the signs and voices around me in order to determine which serve to guide me into or keep me in the current that is meant for me. Other sources of input are merely distractions.
Both the “ear candy” and “brain food” this week engage different ways of looking at obedience. Take Lord Receive is a song that movingly depicts the sentiments behind the vow of obedience as professed by religious such as the Marist Brothers. The short article this week has more to do with a cosmic kind of obedience—ways of checking in to notice whether you are going with the flow or swimming upstream (or going with the flow even though you feel like you’re swimming upstream).
Ear Candy: “Take Lord Receive” by The St. Louis Jesuits
Brain Food: “Synchronicities: A Sure Sign You’re on the Right Path” by Gregg Levoy
Come back next Saturday for a new post!