The challenge of obedience

The challenge of obedience

By Gertrude Foley S.C.

Why in the world would any young American be attracted to a way of life that requires a vow of obedience? A question from an antagonist? Actually no. I’ve put the question bluntly to call attention to one of the many challenges faced by the vocation director: explaining the meaning of the vows to inquirers who, though serious, often do not have any reference points for the discussion. It is likely to be the vocation director, after all, who will hear the most spontaneous reactions to the demands of religious life; in the novitiate, the questions are likely to become more pious!

It is crucially important for vocation directors to deal adequately with the vows, particularly the vow of obedience. Basic vocation discernment is just the beginning, after all, of the journey through initial formation, which we hope will end with the person making perpetual vows. While not charged with the intricacies of the formation process itself, the vocation director, nevertheless, has a powerful responsibility for focusing the attention of a serious inquirer on what lies at the heart of religious life.

Beyond ministry: a call to communal living

The vocation director will often need to help sharpen and clarify what the inquirer may be experiencing only vaguely as “call.” This clarification sometimes focuses easily on the topic of ministry and on the personal background and gifts the person might have for the apostolate. It’s all right to start there; after all, we do look for evidence of Christian zeal in the inquirer, and such experiences are more readily shared. Apostolic ministry, however, is not what distinguishes the call to religious life from the baptismal call for all Christians. What distinguishes the religious life is the vowed life lived in community. Total commitment to Jesus Christ is constitutive of religious life. Sandra Schneiders describes it as “the commitment to love Jesus Christ totally, absolutely, and forever and to express and embody that love (which is the calling of all the baptized) in the complete and exclusive self-gift of consecrated celibacy (which is not the calling of all the baptized).”1 The vocation director can help inquirers clarify the meaning of their call by talking concretely and seriously about the nature of religious life itself and of the three vows that characterize it.

The vow of obedience, with the vows of celibacy and poverty, are “world-creating metaphors.” “They intend,” Schneiders states, “by their literally impossible extravagance … to capture the totality of the commitment being expressed.”2 The vows, she says, have a “poetic and prophetic character.” Vocation directors will certainly want to employ these kinds of inspirational insights when talking about the vowed life to inquirers. However, they should also be able to talk in quite practical terms about the world these metaphors do in fact create, and what it might take to live with freedom and integrity in that world.

The wholeness of the commitment is the context within which to explore each vow in itself. Obedience is one of what Schneiders calls “the three fundamental coordinates of human experience: sexuality and relationships; material goods and ownership; freedom and power.”3 As such, obedience presents challenges for us intellectually, psychologically and socially. The vocation director needs to understand to some degree the historical and theological reasons why obedience has persisted in religious life through the centuries. In the life of a congregation’s founder are concrete examples not simply of obedient acts but of an obedient life. An authentically obedient life isn’t passive and weak; it is heroic. Far from seeming just merely quaint, such stories presented well will find resonance in the heart of one genuinely called to religious life.

Prepared to live obedience?

Vocation ministers not only present the meaning of the vow, they also must explore whether inquirers can live it. To do so they must consider a few psychological factors. Like the other two vows, obedience requires developmental maturity if it is to lead to holiness. Knowing the nature of the journey, vocation directors must first start with the experience of the inquirers. The attitudes, the mental models, the conditioning that will make religious obedience a burden begin to develop early in life: unresolved issues around authority, an undeveloped sense of personal authority and responsibility; self-defeating powerlessness. In conversations with an inquirer and in observing how the person reacts and interacts in group situations, a competent vocation director, while careful not to assume the role of counselor, can often detect developmental issues that need to be addressed.

In their eagerness to present new candidates to the community, vocation directors ought not to ignore these signs, which ought to be addressed before potential candidates enter the formation process. To avoid the mistake of dismissing these signs, the various stages of the incorporation process must provide for honest dialogue about the readiness of the candidate.

The major superior and council must also call for periodic dialogue with vocation and formation directors to assure a coherent, honest and fair process of incorporation. Integrity must characterize all facets of the incorporation process: the vocation and formation directors themselves, the goals and methods of the formative process, the articulation between each stage in the process, and the appropriate involvement of those in congregational/provincial leadership.

Social pressures affect the vow

While it is crucial to assess a candidate’s personal readiness to live the vow of obedience, the larger cultural context must also be considered. Like the other two vows, obedience must be lived out within a social context that may be supportive or not of the values implied by the vows. Supportive or not, the social context poses questions. In an earlier time the social context may indeed have supported the values underlying the vows, but only as social norms or economic necessity. For example, Victorian attitudes toward the body, Depression era frugality and ideas of a woman’s “proper place” have sometimes masqueraded as the virtues of chastity, poverty and obedience. Internalizing the vows, however, demands much more than mere conformity to social norms or economic necessity. Our own times pose other questions. In the United States today and in other so-called developed countries, the social context aggressively supports values contradictory to those implied by the vows. While railing against a cultural bias toward privacy and individual rights that has practically no common good context, however, we cannot deny how much these values influence contemporary religious life.

In such a context one can understand why vocation directors might be tempted to soften the contradictions posed by the vow. They might try to assure prospective members that obedience is not really a big deal anymore. They might go out of their way to emphasize, in fact, how much the community is willing to do to accommodate the newcomer’s dreams and desires. They might tell the inquirer funny stories to show how far we have come from the days when Mother or Father or Brother Superior said, “Do this,” (no matter how far-fetched) and we submissively did it.

This approach can be harmful in several ways. First, it offers an interpretation of the vows that is merely reactionary to mistakes in the past. This approach also dismisses the serious and essential lifelong dynamic of the vows in consecrated life. Consequently this approach deprives the newcomer of the possibility of embracing a choice that is worth one’s life: knowing, loving, and serving God revealed to us in Jesus Christ as infinite, self-spending love. Evelyn Underhill states it well: “To enter the Divine order, then, to achieve the full life for which we are made, means entering an existence which only has meaning as the channel and expression of an infinite self-spending love. This is not piety. It is not altruism. It is the clue to our human situation.”4 The vow of obedience might not make sense to the postmodern world. The vocation director, however, must assure that the vow of obedience is not perceived as nonsense.

Obedience in everyday life

In conversations about the vow it is important to surface and challenge some common perceptions of obedience that can block understanding. One such perception is that obedience is only for children, the immature, the mentally handicapped or prisoners. Children can’t see the good or the need of certain actions, and so they must be told what to do. Those who are mentally handicapped, of course, probably will always need direction. For prisoners obedience is part of their punishment. Adults, on the contrary, don’t need to be told what to do; they know what to do. Adults do not so much actually obey; they do what they are supposed to do because they see the good of it, the need of it.

Experience tells us quite the opposite from this popular notion of obedience. Every day, quite mature, selfactualized adults find themselves obeying the grand patterns of life itself. Day after prosaic day, spouses learn the meaning of their commitment to “love, honor, and obey.” Parents, whether or not they feel great about it, find themselves obeying the demands that children bring into their lives. Employers and employees fulfill the contracts they made with each other, even on days when they hate their jobs. Most drivers stop at red lights and observe speed limits. Shoppers accept the wait at the checkout counter, even if they’re short on time. In other words, the common good requires all of us to obey many expressed and unexpressed rules, usually without much reflection about larger meanings. If obedience means to listen—not to some mysterious “voice” but to the situation, the needs of another, the larger-than-self reality all around us— then it is not a stretch to call these behaviors obedience. Authentic obedience, in fact, is a mature response rather than a childish one. Even a society that touts independence, autonomy, privacy, and individual rights requires authentic obedience for the sake of the common good.

Against this backdrop of the common obedience of everyday life, the vocation director might profitably ponder the following questions about the serious inquirer. How does this woman or man deal with the grand patterns of life itself? What is the attitude of the inquirer toward the requirements of his or her job, his or her employer? How does she or he keep the current commitments made in personal relationships? What has caused him or her to break these commitments? Is this person used to making an authentic response to something larger-than-self in his or her life? How does she or he experience limits?

In addition to exploring these questions, vocation directors sometimes will invite candidates to profession ceremonies—our rituals for accepting the vows. Such occasions are important for experiencing a community at its best. The profession ceremony, however, must become a teachable moment that introduces substantive discussions about the implications of professing each of the three vows.

A free embrace of limits

Any religious vow, including the vow of obedience, carries profound implications. In a recent issue of America, Richard Gaillardetz discusses the implications of baptism by drawing some insightful parallels between marital and ecclesial commitment.5 Making a vow, he notes, is a “free embrace of limits.” To Gaillardetz’ pairing of baptism and marriage in this regard, we can well add the vows of consecrated life. In the vow of obedience I freely embrace limits on my personal freedom and power. In both the church itself and in marriage, Gaillardetz wisely notes, “We do not vow ourselves to an abstraction. We vow ourselves to God, in Christ, by the Spirit, but these vows are enfleshed in community, and this community imposes its own limits upon us. Like our spouses, our church inevitably changes over time.” The vow of obedience is the free embrace of limits, a commitment not to an abstraction but to a life lived in a community that inevitably changes over time. In religious life, one does not embrace these limits as some kind of mindless penance or as the price one pays for temporal security. As is true of any authentic vocation, the limits created by the vows are the corollary of one’s commitment.

To communicate the richness of the vows, vocation directors themselves must have a profound grasp of the nature of consecrated life. They must themselves be grappling with the daily call to fidelity—on any given day perhaps feeling more challenged than on others. From within this visceral understanding of the consecrated life, vocation directors meet those inquiring, often with hesitance, about the possibility that God might be calling them to this life.

The mutual discerning of a possible vocation cannot be simply a matter of faith-sharing by candlelight or dinner invitations from local communities. The incorporation process, in fact, begins with the vocation director. Discussing with inquirers individually and in groups the serious kinds of practical life issues described above will allow the vocation director to assess the inquirer’s capacity to freely embrace the limits of obedience. Ultimately the future of the congregation depends on successfully communicating the vows and assessing whether inquirers can live them.


1. Schneiders, Sandra M. Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001, p. 81.

2. Ibid, p. 108.

3. Ibid, p. 109.

4. Underhill, Evelyn. The School of Charity. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1991, p. 10.

5. Gaillardetz, Richard R. “Marital and Ecclesial Commitment,” America, Vol. 189, No. 3, August 4-11, 2003, pp. 8-11.

Gertrude Foley, SC is Executive Director of the Department of Education and Spiritual Formation for the Diocese of Greensburg. She has served in various leadership roles in her congregation, the most recent being nine years as General Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.


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