Dissecting a typical conversation about the vow of obedience

Dissecting a typical conversation about the vow of obedience

By Matthew R. McKenna C.S.C., c

Many vocation ministers have told me that they struggle when it comes to talking about the vow of obedience. Specifically they talk about experiencing a disconnect between the young people with whom they are communicating and the message they are trying to deliver. Since I’m in my 20s and within the age group of their target audience, vocation ministers often ask for my input. They assume the problem has to do with how my generation views the concept of obedience or the cultural environment in which my generation finds itself. They think if they could understand young adults more fully, then they would be able to communicate their message about the vow more effectively.

This is a worthy goal. Yet I believe the source of this disconnect is rooted more in a difference of theology between the vocation ministers and their prospects than in a difference of culture or generational understanding, though certainly those factors play a role. To compound the problem, the manner in which vocation ministers engage in conversations about the vow of obedience seems to exaggerate these theological differences, making the vow less understandable and accessible.

To demonstrate my point I’d like to reflect theologically on a conversation I witnessed. “Sister M” is a woman religious in her early 50s who works full time time as a regional vocational promoter and contact person for her religious community. The “prospects,” in this case were three college students, two males and one female. The five of us were eating dinner together when the subject of religious life and specifically the vow of obedience came up. One of Sister M’s community members, called Sister T, was about to move to a different city to take on a new ministry. The students knew Sister T. This information led to a discussion about the vows and, in particular, the vow of obedience. The exchange was as follows.

Student 1: So with the vow of obedience, if someone tells you to move, do you just pack your bags and move?

Sister M: Well there’s a little more to it than that these days. It used to be, when I entered, that each year our superiors would post a list telling you where you’d be for the coming year. They wouldn’t talk to you about it or anything. You were just expected to obey, pack your bags and move. Nowadays there is a lot more consultation and dialogue. It’s healthier.

Student 2: So, Sister M, could you tell them that you didn’t want to move?

Sister M: Well there’s a bit more to it than that. The whole point of the approach to obedience these days is to see how you can best use the gifts God has given you. In the process of dialogue you can find how your gifts can best be used to meet the needs of the community.

Student 3: What you’re saying is that, basically, you can pretty much do what you want, huh?

Sister M: It’s a bit more complicated than that. You see obedience is about discernment. It’s not just what I want, but what God wants from me.

Student 1: So, Sister, your superiors can’t just tell you to move?

Sister M: Well, actually, we don’t have superiors anymore. We have a president with a leadership team made up of our regional coordinators.

Student 2: Sister M, I’m confused … if you don’t have superiors, then how do you obey? I don’t know … I guess I just don’t understand this stuff about the vows.

After that comment, we were interrupted by a phone call and never got back to the obedience topic. I chose this exchange for reflection because, from my experience, it is typical and paradigmatic. I have participated in discussions just like this one time and again with the same outcome: the vocation minister exasperated and the prospects confused.

What happened?

Let me try to shed some light by beginning with a few questions. First, what was the goal of the conversation, and was that goal accomplished? Second, what means did the minister employ for achieving the goal, and what were the assumptions behind those means? Third, how did those being ministered to respond, and what does that say about their needs and assumptions? Finally, what was the central theme of the conversation or ministerial event?

Considering the first question, it seems that the primary goal of Sister M was to take advantage of the situation that presented itself—young people asking about religious life and in particular the vow of obedience. She wanted to present an accessible and relevant view of the vow of obedience. Her minimal desired outcome would have been a response of something like, “I see, Sister M. That makes sense to us.” Her maximum desired outcome would have been a response of something like, “Wow, Sister M! That is inspiring. I too want to live a life of such obedience! Where do I sign up?” However, the students did not show any appreciation or understanding. Thus Sister M did not meet her goal.

Second, the chief means that Sister M employed during this event was to try to reframe the context of the question posed by the students. This is to say, instead of answering yes or no, she tried to educate the students to get them to see her point: that obedience is not about following orders but about discernment in the context of communal dialogue. Of the four times Sister M spoke, three were prefaced by the phrase, “Well there’s a bit more to it than that,” or some variation thereof. Thus Sister M was clearly trying to broaden the students’ horizons. Further, in response to the students defining obedience as black-and-white obeying, the sister raised the themes of dialogue, the best use of one’s gifts, discernment and leadership. In this way she greatly expanded the concepts that were put into play by the students.

So why did she do this—what assumptions did Sister M make? Fortunately, after the conversation I asked Sister M about her assumptions and she had two. First, she thought that the students had a truncated notion of the vow of obedience. She perceived that the students thought the vow meant simply “to do what you were told to do.” Yet the sister understood the vow to mean much more than that. So she tried to broaden the students’ understanding of the vow. Secondly, she assumed that the students’ narrow vision of obedience was making the prospect of the vow, and thus religious life, unattractive. She assumed that people the age of the students in question would not respond to a message of “do what you are told to do.” By broadening the students’ vision of the vow of obedience, Sister M was trying to make the vow and religious life more attractive for them.

In regard to the third question (how did those being ministered to respond, and what does that say about their needs and assumptions?) the students did not respond the way Sister M had hoped. Instead of indicating that they had a greater understanding of the vow of obedience, they were confused. Further, instead of responding in a way that showed their horizons had been expanded and that a new, more attractive vision of obedience had been presented to them, they responded with sharp, disbelieving questions. The exchange is a good example of the so-called “disconnect” that vocation ministers often experience. Sister M is correct that the students seem to assume that the vow of obedience means “do what you are told to do.” They held firmly to this assumption throughout the conversation.

The fact that the students collectively had such a strong idea about the meaning of obedience and that they refused to expand their idea indicates, I believe, that they perceived Sister M as being inauthentic. For this discussion, being authentic means congruence of beliefs and behavior. Whether or not Sister M actually is living congruently is not the issue, but the perception is. Thus, perceived authenticity means that one acts in congruence with the beliefs that others have formed about one’s own beliefs. The students believe strongly in their “do what you are told to do” vision of the vow. This idea had been ingrained in them from the time of their youth in the church and in the culture at large. For them, Sister M’s words (her behavior) are incongruent with, not only their belief structure, but also their perception of Sister M’s belief structure. Thus, Sister M’s words do not ring true. In this way, authenticity, or the lack thereof, is the central theme of the conversation.

Looking a little deeper

The distinction between abstract and operative theology can help clarify the issue at hand in regard to the vow of obedience and authenticity. In terms of the great spiritual tradition of Christianity and religious life, the abstract theology of the vow of obedience can be articulated as “to surrender the exercise of one’s own individual will so as to join one’s sisters or brothers in the communal discernment of God’s will and to faithfully adhere to that communal discernment.” Though I grant the specific nuances of that articulation vary among religious communities and time frames, I think it is a fair, general statement. It has three parts: the surrender of one’s own will, the joining together for communal discernment of God’s will, and the faithful adherence to that discernment.

Though this was, and is, the abstract theology, the operative theology of the vow of obedience in the past was different. Again I shall generalize. For many religious communities, as Sister M states in her conversation with the students, the practice of obedience was decidedly a one-sided affair. It was not unusual for religious to suddenly be informed through a memo posting, an announcement after morning prayer, or in local chapter that they would be reassigned—without consultation or forewarning. Many older religious tell stories of digging pointless holes and watering tree stumps because they were told to do it. The theological symbol held before religious in the past was Mary’s fiat: an unquestioning and unreserved consent of obedience. Thus the operative theology of the vow of obedience during the formative years of the majority of religious alive today can be articulated as “do what you are told to do.” This operative theology was a truncated version of the more robust abstract theology. The operative theology emphasized the aspects of selfsurrender and faithful adherence at the expense of the aspect of communal discernment of God’s will. Further, the operative theology was incongruent with the abstract theology.

This sense of truncated-ness and incongruence led the then young generation, now the Boomer generation, to seek a more authentic practice of the vow in the years following the Second Vatican Council. In returning to the great spiritual tradition of religious life and to the spirit of their specific founders, religious communities sought to reform their operative theology and the practices and structures that flowed from it. In terms of obedience, that meant recovering the three-fold dimensions of the vow of obedience: self-surrender, communal discernment and faithful adherence.

Yet, as with the church as a whole, religious life experienced two fundamental challenges during this renewal. The first challenge was a new truncation or a new extreme. The enthusiasm of the renewal of the Second Vatican Council went to the heads of many, and the result was, at times, poorly considered practice and, at other times, abuse of the situation. While there has been much focus on such external matters, little attention has been given the true culprit: operative the abology. In terms of the vow of obedience, with the rise of didactic and consultative models and more circular, that is, less hierarchal, leadership structures, the operative theology of the vow of obedience in many communities could be articulated as “to discern God’s will.” While this seems harmless enough, it must be noted that it is also truncated, emphasizing the discernment aspect at the expense of the self-surrender and faithful adherence aspects. Further it truncates the discernment aspect itself in that it neglects the communal component. In more extreme cases the operative understanding of discernment was framed as “to discover what I really want to do.” Religious life in general is still wrestling with this pendulum swing of the operative theology of the vow of obedience.

The second challenge that religious life experienced was in catechizing the rank and file faithful of the church and those in leadership within the church about their rediscovered abstract theological tradition. Certainly the church at large shared this struggle. This process is difficult because it challenges people’s operative theology. In terms of obedience, the faithful, clergy and religious through the centuries had gathered the impression and formed an operative theology that the vow of obedience was “to do what you were told.” The simple fact of the matter is, for both religious life and the church at large, this process of catechesis on the vow of obedience was and is incomplete and spotty. The reasons are many: too much change at once, too many abuses and flaky experiments that scared off the hierarchy, stubbornness of the faithful, etc. Yet, the fact is, for many the old operative theology remains.

The result of this old, lingering operative theology is that it gives rise to the problem of authenticity. In terms of the vow of obedience, the operative theology for many of the faithful, clerics and even some religious has remained the same: obedience means “do what you are told to do.” This belief statement is not congruent with the practice or even the words of many religious. This is what happened with the students in their conversation with Sister M. Due to this incongruence, Sister M’s message was perceived as inauthentic— just as many in the church view religious with their theology, practice and structures of obedience to be inauthentic, whether rightly or wrongly.

In this way, the tension between abstract and operative theology is related to the problem of authenticity. Religious of the former generation strove and are still striving to be more authentic by reconciling their abstract and operative theologies. Yet this very quest has created a problem of perceived authenticity on the part of the younger generation. At issue is a difference of theological perspective and practice of which neither party seems to be fully aware.

What can be learned?

If this is so, what lessons can be gleaned from this analysis that can help Sister M and other vocation ministers to talk with young adults about the vow of obedience? I offer two points of integration. First, vocation ministers need to gain a handle on their own abstract theology and operative theology. The former can be found in studying the tradition of religious life and in examining their own rule or constitutions. The latter can be articulated through reflection. Professional peer reflection groups can be a great help, as can spiritual direction. In this vein ministers can reflect upon their own experience of the vow of obedience, of the tension between abstract and operative theology and the quest to be authentic. Such a reflection should extend to their community members as well in order to determine how those dynamics are played out in the corporate forum. This will help ensure that vocation ministers are aware and able to wield their goals and argument effectively.

Second, vocation ministers could pastorally assess the operative theology of their prospects and respect it. Pastoral assessment is a big key and is normally a part of vocational assessment. Without proper assessment, it is likely that vocation ministers will talk right past prospects. This is common sense. What is not so common is the part about respecting the theological perspective of others. Failure to do so will result in confusion and miscommunication. For example, Sister M rightly assessed that the students had a truncated notion of obedience. She just did not respect it. Instead she clumsily barged ahead, trying to enlighten the students. This does not work. It is not that Sister M should not have attempted to catechize the students, for if not her, then who? Instead, the question is about where to start—and most ministers would agree that the place to start is with the faith that is there.

Sister M might have had a better chance of meeting her goals if she had responded to the very first question differently.

Student 1: So with the vow of obedience, if someone tells you to move, do you just pack your bags and move?

Sister M: Well simply put, yes…. Here, let me explain to you about the vow of obedience. The vow of obedience is about surrendering the exercise of your own will in order to join your sisters in the common discernment of the will of God. And we then commit to faithfully stick with that common discernment. So, if the community, through the sisters, Sister T and the leadership team, discern that Sister T is to move and start a new ministry, then Sister T packs her bags….

While this approach doesn’t promise to make the rest of the conversation problem free, it does do a number of important things. It acknowledges the theological starting point of the students, which makes them less defensive and makes what follows come across as more authentic. Also this approach immediately sets the abstract theology in front of everyone. This will help ensure a focused conversation. Further, by taking the initiative, Sister M is catechizing and broadening the vision of the students, which is her goal. Finally this approach is congruent, for Sister M immediately places the operative practice of obedience for her community within the framework of the abstract belief with truncation.

All of this is not to say that even with a better understanding of the theologies behind our conversations about obedience that the vow will be easy to articulate— or that young adults will embrace it. Yet I offer these thoughts with the hope that they might provoke some new insights and perhaps help vocation ministers to become even more effective. After all, the vows, which have endured through many centuries, must be introduced and embraced by a new generation if religious life is to have a future.

Matthew R. McKenna, CSC, is a temporary professed brother of the Southern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. After completing his master’s of divinity at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, he served for two years at a Holy Cross parish in Monterrey, Mexico. Currently he lives and works in Austin, Texas, developing resources for Holy Cross heritage and spirituality.


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