(an excerpt from “Humility of Heart” by Father Cajetan Mary da Bergamo)
In reality, the malice of pride lies in the practical contempt which we show for God’s Will by disobeying it. Thus it is, says St. Augustine, there is pride in every sin committed, “by which we despise the commandments of God.” And St. Bernard explains it in this way, that God commands us to do His Will: “God wishes His Will to be done.” And the sinner in his pride prefers his own will to the Will of God: “And the proud man wishes his own will to be done.”
And it is this pride that so greatly augments the grievousness of sin; and how great our sin must be when, knowing in our minds that God deserves to be obeyed by us, we oppose our will to the Will of God, Whom we know to be worthy of all obedience. What wickedness there is in saying to God, “I will not serve,” (Jeremiah 2:20), when we know that all things serve Him (cf. Psalm 119:91).
To give an example of this, let us imagine a person endowed with the noblest qualities possible, such as health, beauty, riches, and nobility, and with every natural gift and grace of body and soul. Now, little by little, let us take away from that person all those gifts which come from God. Health and beauty are gifts from God; riches and rank, learning and knowledge, and every other virtue are all from God; body and soul belong to God. And this being so, what remains to this person of his own? Nothing, because all that is more than nothing belongs to God.
But when this person says of himself, “I have riches, I have health, and I have knowledge,” etc., what is meant by this “I”? Nothingness. And yet this “I,” this nothingness, that derives all it possesses from God, dares to disregard this same God by disobeying His sovereign commandments, saying to Him (if not in words, most certainly in deeds, which is far worse): “I will not serve! No, I will not obey!” Oh, pride, pride!
But, O my Soul, obey! “Why doth thy spirit swell against God?” (Job 15:12-13). Am I not right in preaching and recommending this humility to thee? Each time thou sinnest, thou art like the proud Pharaoh who said—when he was told to obey the commandments of God—”Who is the Lord… I know not…” (Exodus 5:2).
The mistake lies in our having too high an opinion of what the world calls honor, esteem, and fame. For however much the world may praise or honor me, it cannot increase my merit or my virtue one jot; and also, if the world vituperates me, it cannot take from me anything that I have or that I am in myself. I shall know vanity from truth by the light of that blessed candle which I shall hold in my hand at the hour of my death. What will it profit me then to have been esteemed and honored by the whole world, if my conscience convicts me of sin before God?
Deuteronomy has summarized the spirit of obedience to God and trust in Him: “See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: a blessing, if you obey the commandments of Yahweh our God that I enjoin on you today; a curse, if you disobey the commandments of Yahweh your God and leave that way I have marked out for you today…” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).
Religious Obedience Is Based on Faith
Obedience as a Christian virtue is based on faith. A superior is obeyed because the authority of God is recognized in the superior. For religious brothers and sisters there is the added motive of a vow. But every Christian has to practice this virtue according to the person’s vocation. Children practice it by obeying their parents. Servants obey their masters. Teachers in a school obey their head teacher or principal. Priests obey their bishop and other diocesan officials appointed by him. Religious obey their superiors. Let us reflect more on this last point.
Obedience to Superiors by Religious
By the vow of obedience, religious brothers and sisters offer to God a total dedication of their own wills as a sacrifice. In this way, they unite themselves with greater steadiness and security to the saving Will of God. They follow the example of our Master, Jesus Christ, Who came to do the Will of the Father (cf. John 4:34, 5:30; Hebrews 10:7; Psalm 40:9).
The Holy Spirit helps religious to see in their superiors the representatives of God. Through the sacrifice of their wills, they make themselves more totally at God’s disposal and at the service of their brothers and sisters, at the service of the Church, and on the road to full growth in Christ (cf. Vatican II: Religious, n. 14).
The Duty of Superiors
It is not only those under authority who have a duty in this matter. Superiors have a duty also. They are to realize that to be put in a position of authority is to be called to serve others. It is not a position for rest, or enjoyment, and much less one of domination. A person is in authority, not to do what he likes, but to look for the Will of God and to transmit it to the group which he is appointed to serve. The superior is the minister or mediator of God’s Will to the brothers or sisters.
The superior must not mistake his whims and caprices, his likes and dislikes, and his funny ideas, for the Will of God. Nor must he call for blind and foolish actions in the name of obedience. The superior is to be a model in seeking the Will of God, in humbly bowing before it, and in simply transmitting it to the brothers and sisters.
The superior should, in faith, humility, and love, respect the persons of those whom he is appointed to serve. These persons have some God-given fundamental rights and dignity. Truth and justice are necessary virtues. Just as those who disobey are wrong, so those who give orders can be wrong too. Everyone will one day appear before the best Judge and be examined according to truth. God is no respecter of persons.
The Second Vatican Council wisely says to superiors: “As one who will render an account for the souls entrusted to him (cf. Hebrews 13:17), each superior should himself be docile to God’s Will in the exercise of his office. Let him use his authority in a spirit of service for the brethren, and manifest thereby the charity with which God loves them. Governing his subjects as God’s own sons, and with regard for their human personality, a superior will make it easier for them to obey gladly” (Vatican II: Religious, n. 14).
It follows that a spirit of dialogue should be normal in religious houses, and indeed in any other society, with the necessary adaptations. But dialogue is often misunderstood. It is not a session for the announcement of what is to be done, although announcements have sometimes to be made. It is not a meeting to allow the superior merely to hear the views of the others before deciding. It is not a gathering in which occasion is provided to attack the superior legitimately. It is not endless filibuster in which the tactic of the members is to talk, and talk and talk, and argue, and argue and argue, until the superior surrenders out of sheer tiredness.
Dialogue is a meeting of minds. It is a discussion in which people speak and also listen. It is a sincere exchange of views in which each person is willing to give and to receive. It is a common effort to identify a problem, to assess the difficulties, and to search together what would seem to be the best answer. The participants in a dialogue do not have the ready-made answer before they begin. They have their views. But they are prepared to change their ground in the light of better information. It is a fool or a stubborn person who refuses to change his views when the contrary arguments are clear and overwhelming.
Dialogue suggests that no one should be silenced. Even a person who is not very intelligent can sometimes propose a very wise solution. No one is wrong all the time. Even a clock that does not move is correct two times a day. No one has a monopoly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom, or even truth, of a proposition does not depend on the dignity of the person who propounded it.
Both the superior and all the other participants in a dialogue should be looking for the Will of God. At the end of the dialogue session, the superior should be able to speak like the Apostles at the end of the Council of Jerusalem. “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden beyond these essentials” (Acts 15:28). The superior wants to transmit the Will of God. Obviously, no matter how many hours the dialogue may have lasted, and even when there is no dialogue, the authority and responsibility of the superior to decide what is to be done and to give directives or orders, remains intact.
If a religious considers that what he is asked to do is really above his strength, or will do damage to him, to others or to the Church, it is his right, and sometimes even his duty, to explain his difficulties to the superior. He should be ready finally to abide by the decision of the superior.
Some Ways of Disobedience
Man, being a member of a fallen race, has throughout history found excuses for disobedience or invented ways of not obeying. Some religious or priests who are given appointments which they do not like, first try to find out how the superior or bishop arrived at that decision and who advised him. Others impute motives to the superior, generally without hearing him. There are others who resort to murmuring, which has been called the last refuge of the coward.
But some others who disobey are more active and militant. They demand dialogue in the sense of tiring the superior with endless arguments and threats until the superior surrenders in order to avoid a bigger evil. They lobby around among all those who they think can influence the superior to decide matters in the way it would suit them.
It is clear that priests can also disobey by setting aside the directives and liturgical rules of the Church for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and other sacred rites and engaging in what some call “spontaneous or creative liturgy.” Hypercriticism, by which some theologians disregard directives of the Church or make fun of the teaching authority of the Pope and the Bishops, is also a form of disobedience. So is the taking on of secular employment by priests or religious without, or worse still, against the approval of their bishops and superiors.
To obey is to make of our wills an offering to God. Obedience is better than sacrifice. The one who wants to follow Christ will have to learn to follow a Master Who was obedient unto death, and death on a cross.