Our Way of Doing Things

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On December 6, 2013, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear fathers and brothers:

Last time I gave you a couple of reflections on the role of the Father in the Oratory. I said that St Philip’s maxim that he who would be obeyed perfectly must command little, did not entail the consequence that the Father should never command at all. This morning I would like to continue this line of thought by offering you a few considerations as to how, in my view, this question of command and obedience should be viewed in an Oratory in the 21st century.

In the first place, there is no doubt that the rhetoric of obedience has become, more than a little, what the French would call, fade – insipid, unsavoury, or stale. It is difficult, today, to say anything about the idea of obedience that doesn’t sound either just plain crooked, or half false, or at best strained and somehow a bit unreal. Whether that is a breath of honesty blowing in the musty corridors of officialdom, or a deplorable state of affairs, that, it seems to me, is the way things are.

Where do we go from there? We might start by asking why St Philip and so many other saintly founders of religious orders, were so strong on obedience. First of all, there is the perfectly obvious answer, based on natural reason, that you can’t have a group of men, even if they are like-minded and reasonably intelligent, working together without some guide-lines, or rules. Then, it seems to be the case, given human nature, that these guide-line or rules have to be enforced, They have to be enforced, because there is human weakness, there is sometimes bad will, and men just goof off, and don’t do what they should be doing. Such behaviour, if unchecked, ends up by harming the common good – work either doesn’t get done, or is unfairly divided up so that some are doing more than his fair share. That, in its turn, creates resentment and resentment; a sort of bad will and resentment that is inimical to getting the work of the House well done. Eventually, it can even destroy the House itself.

It is the responsibility of the Father to see that what is expected of every member of the Community is clearly known, and then that what is clearly known is in fact done in the real world. What does that mean? One thing it does not mean is that there should be a book of regulations which covers every conceivable sort of activity. On the other hand, it must mean more than an appeal to exercise a version of the virtue of what Aristotle called practical wisdom, or St Thomas terns prudence: that is the habituated application of a rule to the hic et nunc of daily experience. It must be more that this, because what is being applied to the here and now, is not only a moral principle, [even if it is based on moral principles] but the basis of what is being applied is everything summed up in that rich, but maddening Oratorian phrase: our way of doing things.

Our way of doing things provides, on the one hand, the basis of a responsible exercise of a version of practical wisdom; that is, it should free all of us from a petty-minded obsession with rule-keeping [often, when this goes wrong, the rule keeping, or the lack of it, of other people]; and on the others, it should provide a safeguard against arbitrary and unreasonable orders on the part of those in authority.

So where does obedience fit into this? First of all, what is required of all of us is obedience to our way of doing things. That entails trying to be faithful, and not be continually providing oneself with dispensations, on the grounds that I have been here for a long time, or, even worse, I have decided that doing, or not doing such and such is pointless. Again, very importantly, it certainly does not entail the pernicious effort at self-justification that the particular thing we are dispensing ourselves from is not written down.

Secondly, obedience must also mean, from time to time, doing what the superior asks of us. Ideally, this should be something clearly based on the largely unwritten, but essential element of our life: our way of doing thing, our customs. Sometimes, it may be more than this. We may be refused something we want, or told to do something we do not want to do, and we can see no clear connection between the Fathers injunction and the customs we all live under. Obedience then becomes a matter of trust – I can’t see why I should not do this, or why I should do this, but because I think obedience is an aspect of Oratorian life then I will do what I am told.

The tricky part in this rather bland formulation of the matter is to find out exactly who, and what it is, I am trusting. I will try to say something about this next time.