The Significance of Trust

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On October 4, 2013, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear Father and Brothers:

I think that one difficulty in reaching a clear idea of what obedience should mean in the Oratory is that we go about looking for an understanding of obedience in the wrong way. We tend, I think, to try and find a definition, or general theory, of obedience that covers all sort of instances of commanding and obeying, and then see how Oratorian practice measure up to our definition. One such theory can be presented like this: God the Father, created all things, and, as their Creator, is entitled to the obedience owed by the created to its Creator. Even, or perhaps especially, Christ, obeyed the Father in all things. Christ founded the Church in which lawful authority shares in the divine right to be obeyed; an obedience that Christ himself practised, and which he expects us to practise in the here and now of our lives. ‘He who hears you, hears me’, and so when we obey our superiors we are obeying Christ, the obedient Son of the Father.

This strikes me as over-kill. It takes the exceptional case and makes it the norm. The life of St Teresa of Avila is full of stories of enthusiastic Carmelites who make extraordinary acts of obedience. For example, Carmelites who couldn’t swim, jumping into fishponds because they thought the Santa Madre had commanded it. Of course, they came to no harm because they had done their jumping under obedience. You all know I am not one to mock, or deny, the possibility of the incursion of the Divine into the ordinary course of events. But this sort of thing seems to me to be tempting God: that is, demanding of God that he act in the here and now because I am about to do some extraordinary – not to say pointless – thing; but doing it under obedience.

There is probably a lot more that could be said in favour of jumping into fish pools under obedience, but surely. at least, it can be said that such saltatory activities ought not to be taken as examples of ordinary obedience writ large. Obedience, for Oratorians, anyway, is to be understood within the warp and woof of our ordinary, daily lives. Rather than looking on obedience as something extraordinary which the more zealous amongst us practice, from time to time, in an obvious, and might I say, rather stagey way, it ought to be something we all do, most of the time anyway, without thinking about it. This is part of what I wanted to convey last time when I said:

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, though, obedience must also mean, from time to time, doing what the superior asks of us.
Ideally, I said last time, 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.

I still think this is on the right lines. It does, though, leave an enormous question untouched. Who, or maybe what, is to be trusted? I don’t think there is any getting away from the truth that for us [Oratorians] it involves an element of personal trust in the Father and other men in charge of various aspects of our lives. On the classical theory, this personal aspect is discounted as irrelevant, or even harmful. Thus, some of the books used to say there was more virtue in obeying a bad superior than a good one. Well maybe, from the point of view, of some of the individuals in a House, but not for the good of the House as a whole. The Blessed Anthony of Fermo was elected a Superior in his thirties, and died in that office in his eighties. When criticized for not being strict enough, he said he didn’t know how to be something different than he was. Obviously, the mix worked, and Newman was able to say, in one of his chapter addresses two hundred years after the Saint’s death, that the House of Fermo [even in Newman’s own day] had the reputation for being a holy house.

But the obedience that helped to make the Fermo Oratory a holy place, must have been based on more than trust in Anthony Grassi. It must have been based on something deeply supernatural that accomplished a greater miracle than jumping in and out of fishponds. And what was this greater miracle? It was the miracle of God’s grace which enables capable men of yielding up themselves to the practice of, another Teresa’s, Little Way. `The Blessed Anthony became,’ wrote the formidable Lady Amabel Kerr in her biography, `a saint by the faithful performance of apparently insignificant duties towards God and man’. That is what is required of us. It’s a different world from the jumping into fish ponds – but it is our Oratorian world.