Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Rector's Conference II

by Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB


As I continue my rector's conferences this fall, I would like to spend some time, as I indicated in the first conference, looking at the question of obedience. Fr. Ron Knott has said frequently that obedience is the issue most often overlooked in seminary formation. I agree.

I also agree with Fr. Knott's assessment that it is often the sticking point in the perseverance of a vocation. This morning I would like to look at the Rite of Ordination, which is, for me, the primary theological source for considering questions of Holy Orders. I want to look at the rite to give us insight into this question.

Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors? This is the bishop's question to the man to be ordained. It is a question that is followed by a gesture, the first time this takes place in the rite of ordination. The bishop clasps the hands of the man to be ordained. In doing so, they hold on together to the life force, represented in the pulse of the other. The bishop holds fast to me and I hold fast to him.

It is a symbol of what must happen as a result of the promise being made. The bishop holds fast to my life force. And I hold fast to his and, in holding fast to his, I gain access to the life force of what he represents, namely the life of the Church, its historical character and precedent, its living persons around the world. My life as a newly ordained person will stem from the transfer of vital energy from the hands of the bishop to my hands.

And he receives from me my life energy, not to be held or hoarded, but through the handiwork of his office to be connected vitally with the life force of the Church, of other priests, of deacons, lay ministers and all of the People of God whose lives are inextricably bound up with his. The promise of obedience is made in holding fast. And I will need to hold fast if I am to fully live this charism of the Church.

What is the essence of obedience? The Latin word, obedire, means two things, to hear and to listen. In English, there is a slight difference in the meaning of these two words. Hearing is essentially a passive event, involving sound waves moving over the auditory mechanism of the person. As long as my ears are working properly, I can hear. But hearing requires no response. Again, it is passive.

Listening is another thing entirely. I listen when I process what I have heard, when I place it in a context, when I, at least at some level, understand what I am hearing. Listening is an active concept; it requires attention and it is dialogical with that which is heard. Passive or active, however, obedire places us in a particular context, the context of relationship.

These actions require relationships of varying depths. When I hear, I am in a kind of relationship with something outside myself, be it ever so feeble, perhaps nothing more than mere sound. When I listen, I deepen that relationship. I am in a contextual relationship, an intentional relationship with the other who makes the sound.

Philosophically, I would say the essence of obedience is relationship and by extension the recognition of a necessary relationality in the person, that is, the desire to recognize that relationship is essential to who I am as a person. I am, in this way, obedient to the anthropological truth. There are a number of ways in which this relationship can be understood.

Now I am thinking about the book of Fulton Sheen mentioned by Cardinal Collins a few times in his Day of Prayer conferences, The Priest is not His Own. Most of you have that book on hand. Go back and re-read the chapter on "The Spirit of Poverty." Here I think Archbishop Sheen is making some roundabout comments on obedience in his discussion of the life of the priest.

First, the spirit of poverty recognizes what we have. What are the riches of the priest? Here we do not think grossly about possessions, but about things like the gifts God has given us, and the challenges. Obedience requires us to name our gifts, realizing that they may take the form of handi-capableness. When I am weak, then I am strong. But can we be obedient to that? Can we find that in our brothers? Can we learn to put up with their foibles and realize that we are so irritated by them because they represent us in such a raw way?

Sheen says, so beautifully: "The function of all ownership is to extend personality. What I have determines who I am. Do my possessions free me or do they bind me?" This is where we see the connection of possessions and obedience. The rich man is not free for obedience because, like the man in the Gospel, he cannot leave it behind to follow the Lord. "Sell all that you have and give it to the poor." Jesus said this and the man went away sad because he had many possessions.

Are we in a relationship of obedience with our possessions, with our machines, our games, our favorite websites and blogs? Do not give your obedience to Paul or to Apollos, or to Siri or to Rocco. Give your allegiance to Christ; follow him alone and the possessions will either fall into line or they will fall behind. Give your crap away. That's how I would say it, and that is why I am not Jesus.

But impoverish yourself this way. Give your blues away. Give your guilt away in confession. Give the degeneracy in your personality away. Give your obsessions away. Give your past away. Give your present away. Give your future away. When we are free of these possessions, we can take up the mantle of discipleship. We can take up Elijah's cloak without losing it in the whirlwind of the ascent of riches.

What does Archbishop Sheen recommend in the courting of Lady Poverty? Give away. Not only your riches and vices, give away your virtues. Virtue is only virtue; a gift is only a gift if we give it away. What God has given me is not my own.

Sheen instructs in this way: Give away your time and talent. "The lazy priest always has less time than the zealous priest because the former is thinking in terms of the interruptions to his leisure, while the latter is seeking the opportunity to be another Christ. The priest's time is not his own, it is our Lord's. The more we enrich ourselves with time the more we impoverish the Kingdom of God."

And that is obedience. That is true listening to the cries of those in need, in the world, in our parishes, in this very place. Time spent building up the other, or building up myself for service to the other is the only time well spent.

Obedience means we can seldom trust the voices speaking to us internally about our own desires and needs. Again Archbishop Sheen: "We are worthless servants when we have done our best. What are we then when we fail to do our best? We become unworthy to be his … priests."

I like very much Robert Moore's lecture series on The Archetypes of Initiation. In his reflections on "Sacred Space," he talks about the ways in which a space can become de-sacrilized. The one way, found in many cultures, is the consistent use of a space set aside for sacred activities being used for non-sacred purposes. There is something within us that finds it an affront if someone were to ask us to hold a raucous dance in the church. At least, I hope that is within us.

We find it distasteful when church buildings are sold off to become restaurants or condos. Even more distasteful is when someone desecrates a sacred space through acts of violence. Yet, are our bodies not temples of the Spirit? Are not our people, those very sanctuaries for the presence of God? How can we use our bodies for non-sacred purposes and think it is permissible when we are appalled by the same treatment to a building. I go back for a moment to the collect for the dedication of a Church:

Almighty ever living God, pour our your grace upon this place and extend the gift of your help to all who call upon you, that the power of your word and of the Sacraments may strengthen here the hearts of all the faithful.

Now compare these words to the collect for ordaining priests or for marriage and you will see the same sentiment expressed. We are the church, the church is us. The building is important, it is vitally important, but so are we. Remembering this essential connection is also an act of listening and obedience. 

And if obedience is essentially about relationship, human beings have relationship written in the core of their being. St. John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body, renewed this insight for our contemporary western cultural situation. In the modern and postmodern ideal, we are told that we do not need each other, that we can be lone rangers, that we should be completely independent and isolated from the mentality of the "herd."

For the late pope, this cultural message was conflicted because it denied the essential nature of the person as one necessarily in relationship with the other. Relationship is an anthropological truth, and many of our modern woes have grown out of an attempt to deny the essential nature of this truth.

Obedience, as an expression of essential relationality is the recognition, at a very basic level, of what is true about myself. Obedience is telling the truth. Obedience is the expression of the truth that is written in the very fiber of my being. I cannot live authentically without an understanding of obedience. At its heart, this obedience is an intentional hearing of the call of relationship that naturally resounds within me and responding to that call by actively pursuing the authentic nature of relationship.

Obedience is also an expression of piety in the classical sense of being true to form, true to who I am as a person. It is an acknowledgement of my need for others, a need that is intense, a need that is absolute, a need that cannot be denied without damaging my nature. Obedience is also an expression of humility, of knowing the truth and living the truth of my reality. Obedience is an expression of my anthropological aptitude.

How do we understand all of that? How do we do all of that? I would say not always very well. So be it. Last week I was reading a little book called The Square Halo. It is a book about iconography. It is not very deep and not too philosophical or theological, in other words, just right for me.

There is a good bit of discussion in the book on the different types of haloes found in Western art. For example, there is the triangular halo, only worn by God the Father and obviously representing the Holy Trinity. There is the octagonal halo worn by human personifications of the virtues. There is the symbolic halo, found quite often in paintings by Leonardo DaVinci, in which he uses the composition, say the room in the Last Supper, to create the halo effect around the heads of Christ or Mary.

DaVinci also is rather daring in using symbolic halos for his secular subjects, usually in the form of a juniper tree. Side note: The juniper tree is a symbol of great journeys because of its twisted and convoluted form. That is something for us as well. There are also round halos, which in paintings are perfectly round to demonstrate the perfected state of the saints who wear them in heaven.

Then there is the square halo. These are worn in art by living people, folks who are "on the way." Unlike its counterparts, the square halo is not finished yet. Earth is imperfect; so are squares. Squares still have points that can jump out and stick people. Squares are harder to live with and keep on your head. Squares are who we are. We wear square halos.

We are not yet perfect, but as is the case with our appropriation of obedience, we are on the way. We will never achieve perfect obedience in this world; the points of our halos, which often transmogrify themselves into little horns, get in the way. But we are on the way. Thank God, we are on the way. 

And as we move forward, we are given a little push by those round-haloed folks, the saints whose prayers in heaven for us keep us anchored on the journey. Brothers and sisters, let us push forward in faith amid the vicissitudes of this world's many challenges. Let us push forward on the path of obedience through our love and concern for each other.

Let us agree to be there for one another as we take risks, casting all our care on Christ who bore and bears so much of our lives of sin and compromise, and on his Blessed Mother into whose arms we cast ourselves daily as we say: Hail Holy Queen …

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.