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Obedience - Listening


Michael Fallon MSC began his fifth retreat presentation for our 2011-2012 Marist retreat looking at the roots of the word 'obedience' - in Latin 'ob' means 'right up against' and 'audiens' means 'listening'. Jesus and John at the Last Supper, when John leaned on Jesus' breast, exemplify this experience of listening.  In Greek, obedience means 'humble listening' and in Hebrew 'listening, heeding, obeying'. On the other hand a contemporary dictionary definition would be 'doing what you are told'.

'Listen' is the first command of the Torah. The Book of Revelation states: 'Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me' (Rev 3:20). The best way we can live, is to follow the energy of God's love. As an aside, Michael pointed out that in Japanese, 'too busy' means 'heart destruction'.

Michael then looked at obedience in Scripture.  In John "My food," Jesus said to them, "is to obey the will of the one who sent me and to finish the work he gave me to do' (John 4:34); "I can do nothing on my own authority; I judge only as God tells me, so my judgement is right, because I am not trying to do what I want, but only what he who sent me wants' (John 5:30). Also in John we have 'So he said to them, "When you lift up the Son of Man, you will know that 'I am Who I Am'; then you will know that I do nothing on my own authority, but I say only what the Father has instructed me to say. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, because I always do what pleases him" (John 8:28-29).

Luke has two references to the obedience of Mary: "I am the Lord's servant," said Mary; "may it happen to me as you have said (Luke 1:38)" and "Elizabeth ... said in a loud voice [to Mary] '... How happy you are to believe that the Lord's message to you will come true!' (Luke 1:45).

The mystics speak about obedience. Teresa, for example, says 'Want only what God wants' (Interior Castle 11.1.7) and 'Prepare yourself with determination and every possible effort to bring your will into conformity with God's will' (Interior Castle, 11.1.8). John of the Cross asks 'What does it profit you to give God one thing if he asks you for another? (Sayings of Light and Love, 73).  In her book 'Heaven in Faith' Carmelite sister, Elizabeth of the Trinity, in the early twentieth century stated: 'The soul must surrender itself to the Divine will completely, passionately, so as to will nothing else but what God wills'.

The former Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, when relieved of his leadership position by the Pope, said calmly 'More than ever, I now find myself in the hands of God.  This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. And this is still what I want.  But now there is a difference: the initiative is entirely with God.  It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in his hands, in the hands of this God who has taken hold of me'.

Michael Fallon then addressed the topic of community in the context of obedience quoting Bernard Lonergan's book 'Philosophy of God and theology'. 'The person is not the primordial fact.  What is primordial is the community.  It is within community, through the inter-subjective relations that are the life of the community that there arises the differentiation of the individual person ... .  If persons are the products of community, if the strongest and best of communities is based on love, then religious experience and the emergence of personality go hand in hand'. Hence, as Religious, having healthy community is a key role. Michael also quoted Scott Peck's book 'The Different Drum': 'If we are going to use the word community in a meaningful way we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learnt how to communicate honestly with each other, where relationships go deeper than their masks of composure ...'. 

Michael then addressed the topic of obedience and the heart. God does not want us to obey blindly or automatically without engaging our heart. God's will is discovered in the circumstances of our lives, but always invites a response from the heart. This is what we mean by conscience: an attentive listening to the movements of our heart that are inspired by God. If we are attentive to our heart and listen to the directions of God that are picked up by our conscience, and if we humbly and faithfully respond from our heart to these inspirations, we are promised a special blessedness.

Michael referred to John of the Cross' reflection on Listening to others: 'God is so content that the rule and direction of human beings be through other human beings, and that we be governed by human reason, that God definitely does not want us to bestow entire credence upon supernatural communications, or be confirmed in their strength and security, until they pass through the human channel of the mouth of another human being. As often as God reveals something, God confers upon the soul a kind of inclination to manifest this to someone appropriate. Until this is done, we usually go without complete satisfaction, for it is not received from another person like ourselves' (John of the Cross Ascent II.22.9)

On the road to Damascus, Paul asked Jesus: 'Lord, what do you want me to do?' (Acts 22:10). Jesus told him to go to Damascus and he would be told. Paul, like us often, had to wait. Michael acknowledges that obedience can be difficult for the following reasons: our cult of individualism, relativism, our focus on externals, the seeking of immediate gratification, setting our hopes on what appears to be for our own benefit, wanting to avoid suffering and a fear of what might threaten our well-being. Michael concluded with the observation that the greatest sin occurred at Calvary where Love was crucified.

John McMahon

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