On Obedience

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On March 21, 2014, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear Fathers and Brothers:

I have been talking about the role obedience plays in Oratorian life, and today I want to finish up with the topic for the time being. Writing these addresses has, I hope, sharpened up my own thinking on this subject. And, what I have said, may also, I trust, have contributed to your understanding. I have not been trying to produce a theory of obedience that fits all forms of life, religious or secular, but I have confined myself to seeing how the notion works out in our own unvowed life as Oratorians. St Philip was determined to found a new sort of society in which vows played no part. I have been talking only about the Oratory – and these talks have not been concerned with, much less have they been a criticism of, vows in religious orders.

The rhetoric of obedience has become, I said early on in these talks, more than a little fade – insipid, unsavoury or stale. It is difficult today, I continued, 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. One of the sources of this unhappy state of affairs is a kind of over-heated supernaturalism which is great on the fact that religious obedience must in the end be based on Faith, and pushes this to such extremes that the fact that it is human beings who do both the commanding and the obeying, is forgotten.

A tentative conclusion that keeps returning to me is that one of the things that has contributed to an air of unreality, if not a good worse than that, in thinking about obedience, is precisely this effort to understand human obedience as a kind of analogue to what we owe to God. It is one thing to adhere, as I do personally, to a spirituality such as that of de Caussade which is shot through and through with the notion of accepting the sovereign will of God as it shows itself not only in exterior matters, but in internal ones, as well; but, so it seems to me, it is quite another thing to base a theory of religious obedience on this theological take on our individual relationship to God – and of his to us. Superiors to do not really stand in the place of God, and their orders are not a sort of surrogate for providence. Many classical theories of obedience recognize this, at least implicitly, because the notion of conscience – not as a legislator, but as a judgement, hic et nunc – is often introduced to deal with the pretty obvious fact that superiors are neither infallible nor impeccable. I don’t claim this is a particularly new observation, but I do propose that the obedience we owe to a religious superior, or to the community, is really not an analogy of what we owe to God.

With this possibility, that perhaps it is misleading, to put the matter no more strongly, to assume that religious obedience is an analogue of what we owe to God, I have dealt with some of the arguments which seek to base the need for obedience on reason. For any community to exist and flourish, there has to be rules. Furthermore, if rules are to be kept they must be clear and also, from time to time, anyway, be enforced by some sort of authority. That is true, but for us the situation is a bit more complicated because the rules are not all codified in a book, but are conveyed by that rich, but maddening, expression, our way of doing things. The ordinary enforcer of our way of doing things should not be the superior, but the members of the Community itself. The member of the Community itself, not looking in the first instance, anyway, at others but at himself. Here, the motive for conforming to our way of doing things need not be all that spiritual or disinterested – it may be only, as I am afraid I may say too often, be one of self-interest. This is my community, and if I value it, [as I value it?,] I have to try to obey our way of doing things, because if I don’t then, before long, there won’t be any Community. If there is no Community I will have to find somewhere else to live, to be fed, and somewhere else for my days off. Of course, I would lose other things as well, but that is a beginning.

St Philip said that he who wishes to be obeyed must command little. Well, the superior of an Oratorian Community that is functioning well should not have to command much. That is so, because ideally the Community should be self-regulating. I think for the most part we pass this test.

‘For the most part.’ That is where the business becomes tricky. It becomes tricky for two quite different sorts of reasons. One of these is based on the fact that new situations arise which require new ways of doing things, or, which I suppose amounts to the same thing, experience from time to time shows that an aspect of our way of doing things has to be changed. Obviously, here, some sort of intervention beyond what we usually do must be brought into play. Again, none of us thinks all the time about our own best interests: people get tired, fed up, or bolshie and then they go on to ignore or even discount the validity of any sort of external control. In these circumstances, someone has to step in and try to straighten things out.

An example of the first sort of need for the intervention of authority would be our decision to change the obligation of dong a day of recollection every month. Many of us teach during the week, and then have a heavy weekend of work in the parishes. To follow our way of doing things in this case often meant giving up our free day, or splitting up the day of recollection so it ceased to be a day. Either that, or not following the rule. That seemed to me a clear case where change was required. So, the Father brought up the matter to General Congregation and we changed the Rule.

The second case of intervention of the Father arises when there are obvious infractions of the Rule. That requires discretion in government, as the Excellences puts it, but it also requires obedience on your part. There is no way around this: every now and then I have to gird up my loins and say do and don’t. You, on the other hand, must try to do what is asked. This is not easy on either side. It is often much easier for the Father to be silent, and not do anything; it is often easier for you to circumvent our way of doing things in any number of hidden ways, in addition to overt carelessness, not to mention downright disobedience. In the end, though, this is self-defeating. It is also, in some way contrary to what St Philip wants for us; want for us as a House, and wants for us as individuals. There is, after all, a supernatural dimension to all of this, no matter how badly this dimension may often have been abused.