Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The "O" Word

As a child, I had a list of things I would begin to do and no longer do when I became an adult. It included going to bed when I pleased (my bedtime was so strict, during daylight savings time, I was in bed before the sun set), eating dessert instead of dinner (dessert was usually the most edible and certainly my favourite part of the meal) and never again wearing hand-me-down clothes (in eleven years, I was bought perhaps five or six new skirts or dresses). My list grew with each injustice that I suffered, real or perceived. Adulthood was the halcyonic time when I could do as I pleased, when there would be no one to answer to, no constraints. I imagined that then everything would make sense. That there would be no more bizarre requirements, no more cruel limitations. I looked forward to that time with great longing and hope, spent quite a lot of time imagining what I would do, how life would be on that glorious day.

I was not an obedient child. Though he excelled at issuing commands to anyone within earshot, I knew my foster father had no right to tell me what to do, knew that I had no responsibility to listen to him. He tried to compel me, actually spoke of “breaking me to his will.” I would not be broken. I did what I was told except when I found some way to avoid doing it. As I grew older, I found more and more ways to avoid doing what he wanted and did as I pleased as long as I could do so without provoking him to violence (and how often I failed at that). I was not at all obedient.

Obedience has two etymological roots: ob audire (to listen to, as well as the person from whom one hears or learns anything) and also, obsequor (to follow, to accommodate ones self to the will of, to give ones self up to). Without the totality of meaning inherent in both roots there can be no obedience. There must be someone who in some way extends the invitation, “Follow me!” and, if I am to be true to myself, all I can do is walk the path he sets before me; I must eagerly desire to learn from him, must wholly give myself over to him. Obedience is the way we actually live out love. Obedience is love. Obedience is relationship.

My foster father did not love me nor I him. He tried to possess me, to own me. I could not be owned. I struggled to survive and finally escaped him with my life and most of my sanity intact but without much experience of obedience, without much experience of relationship, without much experience of love. I am still endeavoring to learn now what I did not learn as a child. Certainly I’m not the most selfish person around. In fact, there are those who will insist that I’m not terribly selfish at all. Even so, I struggle with obedience, struggle with relationship, struggle with love.

And I am not unique. So many of my contemporaries were deprived as I was. Many of them could tell their own stories of abuse. Many others were simply never invited, never had the opportunity to give themselves over to someone because no one asked. Others would tell different stories but ultimately, all our stories attest to the fact that many, many of us learned to cringe away from rather than follow after on light, joyful feet, that many, many of us believe that obedience is doing as we are told.

But now we have grown up and there are fewer and fewer people who tell us what to do and we are left free to do as we please, free to fulfill every desire we have listed, free to be single, free to be alone. We seek relationship as long as it doesn’t require the “o” word. But obedience is not optional. Every relationship we enter involves listening to, learning from, following, giving ourselves over to – requires obedience. And we simply cannot be fully human without it. Were that not so, Jesus would never have been obedient to his parents, never have “bec[o]me obedient unto death.” He followed after us, gave himself up to us so we could follow after, give ourselves up to him.

The “o” word is difficult to write about: I’ve been working on this piece since I made my last post. And though I’ve had a some interference from health and work, that hasn’t been enough to explain such a lengthy delay. But I knew I must delve into the “o” word early on, no matter how hard the struggle. Since obedience is essential to being fully human, we cannot be open to marriage, open to any sort of consecrated state, without it. If we are to fulfill our vocation to love, we must love today; we cannot avoid obedience now with plans to pick it up once married or otherwise consecrated.

Once again I find I haven’t got all the answers, find that even after much time delving and thinking and praying and conversing, I’ve got little more than a few reflections that may or may not be useful. One thing I have come to see these past weeks is that obedience requires I rip up the list of things I will and will not do. Maintaining that inventory is tempting but means that I am still looking forward to the day when I can do as I please, still limiting obedience to the minimum. But limiting myself to no more than is absolutely necessary limits my ability to give myself over to someone, someone to whom I want to respond with eager joy as he extends the invitation, “Follow me.”

* It has been pointed out to me that marriage is a consecrated relationship.