Obedience is a word we are often fonder of pronouncing than practising. We value our autonomy, and if we have come to a view, we are often reuctant to give it up. The days when those ‘in authority’ could force us to do so have left a mark, and our self-will often feeds on that; it is, we say. our ‘right’ to think such and such in religion, and no man can command us otherwise. Yet it is there is the prayer of prayers – ‘thy will be done’ we pray. St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on Luke writes:
‘Why then did he command the saints to say … “Your will be done …?” This petition is worthy of the saints and full of praise … We request that power may be given to those on earth to do the will of God and imitate the conduct practiced in heaven by the holy angels … The will of God over all is that those on earth should live in holiness, piously, without blame, being washed from all impurity, and diligent in imitating the spiritual beauty of the spirits above in heaven.
As fallen beings, we go astray; in the words of the old general confession in the BCP: ‘there is no health in us’. That is precisely why we pray to do God’s will, and for the Grace to do it. St. Paul spoke for us all when he wrote: ‘For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.’ Left to ourselves, we find ourselves where Paul was. Why then do we value our own will so much? Satan speaks to us as he did the Eve: we have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and we are like God. At the very moment we think that, we fall into the same trap as our first parents.
If the Spirit is in us, then obedience is no dry, unwilling service wrung from slaves, it is our ‘faith working through love’. This type of obedience is a living reality that can’t be reduced to a list of things we should and should not do, or to a typology of sins. We need, as the roots of the English word imply, to listen well. In the words of Our Lord as recorded by St. Mark, we need to ‘Repent, and believe in the gospel’. If we could see the perils ahead, we should probably not have the courage to begin, but in loving obedience to the Spirit, we go onward.
For Catholics, this is an especially troubling time in matters of obedience. For decades now, under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, those of even a moderatel traditionalist point of view have been able to cite obedience to the Pope to ‘cafeteria catholics’, confident (most of the time) that they were taking the line the Pope would take. But with this Pope, they are challenged. Those who were once on the receiving end of mini-sermons on obedience, now (perhaps even to their surprise) find themselves quoting the Pope at those who until recently used to do so at them. To say, as we might, that the Pope is not a Catholic is a poor form of obedience, and we may justify it to ourselves by thinking we are truer to the Catholic tradition than the Pope. But that, too, is a poor form of obedience.
It is best to trust in the Church, which is, after all, in the hands of the Spirit. Let us pray for all those at the Synod – and that ‘His’ will is done.