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The Life of Virtue - Obedience

Friday, July 24, 2009
Dominicans only make one public vow when they make profession, and that is the vow of obedience. This is because the other two evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity are covered by one's primary attitude of obedience. Unsurprisingly, then, for St Thomas Aquinas, obedience is the most "praiseworthy" of the moral virtues because obedience means that our will is directed towards God's will and his laws.
Robert Profession
Indeed, St Thomas likens obedience, by which one prefers God's goodness to all other goods and wills this before all other things, to martyrdom. Again, this is not surprising given the character of the ascetical religious life which arose in the Church after (and as a substitute for) the era of persecution and martyrdom in the early Church. As such, there is a strongly ascetical element to obedience. After all, it is easy to 'obey' if it is the fruit of discussion and one comes to some kind of consensus. That is a certain ideal pro-pagated by some, but it is not often practicable. Rather, obedience requires us to let go of our own fears and plans, and to trust fundamentally in the one whom we are obeying. Thus, the friar who makes profession prostrates himself and asks for mercy from God and his brothers, entrusting his life into their hands.

From the foregoing, we can see that obedience is a virtue that is directed not just to God alone, but also to superiors (and secular rulers) who act, as it were, on behalf of God, and have our salvation and the common good in view. However, this also means that one is only bound to obey in things which are not contrary to God's law and which do not violate the common good. Thus, St Thomas distinguishes three levels of obedience: "one, sufficient for salvation, and consisting in obeying when one is bound to obey; secondly, perfect obedience, which obeys in all things lawful; thirdly, indiscreet obedience, which obeys even in matters unlawful". The last of these is thus not an act of virtue but falls short of the good that motivates all virtuous acts.

Of course, the obedience that we offer to God is ultimately inspired by the obedience of the Son to the Father. Jesus' will was perfectly attuned to the Father's because he loved and willed that which the Father willed: the salvation of the world. Thus, the Dominican Constitutions say: "by this profession in a special manner we imitate Christ who was always subject to the Father's will for the life of the world, and thus we are united more closely with the Church, for whose growth, together with the brethren and under the leadership of superiors representing God in their human ministry, we are dedicated for the common good of the Church and of the Order".

Obedience is probably the most difficult of the three evangelical counsels, for our will and our pride is always strong and we have a certain 'instinct' for self-preservation. Obedience seemingly runs contrary to this and requires us to empty ourselves of what we want (and think we need, even) and to sacrifice that for the greater good. As St Gregory said: "when we humbly give way to another's voice, we overcome ourselves in our own hearts". The sacrifice that Christ offered to the Father is thus so perfect because He, who was equal to God, humbled himself and became obedient even unto death. We too can do the same if we follow his example and place our trust, our hope, and our faith in God, and in those whom His Providence raises up as superiors and leaders in the Church and the world.

Lawrence Lew OP


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