“Submit yourselves one to another, as in the Lord,” says St. Paul, and then he follows his command with a list of applications, involving relationships among husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, citizens and their magistrates, and all Christians and their elders in the Faith. The Christian life, as the saints and the great theologians and the poets have seen, is a life of obedience. That is not supine submission, but a giving of self that causes the soul to expand, sometimes despite the trials that such giving entails, but often with downright joy.
Allow me to give a couple of examples. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the blessed angels lay their crowns at their feet as they sing glory to the Father and to the Son, then they take up their crowns again. It is clear that God wishes to confer authority, even royalty, upon the angels and upon Adam and Eve, who, apart from the sole commandment, “sole pledge of their obedience,” are “Lords of the world besides.” It is also clear that obedience, far from being a check upon their authority or upon their individual initiative, is in fact the ground of both. Obedience is the virtue that allows the obedient to share in the authority of the commander. So Milton shows us the “stripling” angels Ithuriel and Zephon, encountering Satan in Eden as he attempts to insinuate evil dreams into the mind of the sleeping Eve. They accost him, defy him, and take him prisoner, all while Satan sniffs contemptuously at them and their apparently being too low in the angelic hierarchy to recognize him at once. Zephon reminds Satan that he does not look the same as before he fell, and then — in service to the welfare of Adam and Eve, and in obedience to God and to the angel Gabriel, theirs chief — issues this order:
But come, for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.
Such is the “youthful beauty” of the angel’s rebuke, and his obedience, that Satan is momentarily taken aback:
Abashed the Devil stood
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined
Milton was a Protestant poet who saw the Catholic Church as the whore of Babylon and the pope as its “triple tyrant,” but in this regard he wrote exactly what his predecessor, the Catholic poet Torquato Tasso, wrote. Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered is centrally concerned with what a truly Christian authority looks like, and therefore also a truly Christian obedience.
Early in the poem, God looks down from heaven upon the chief warriors of the first crusading army, and sees in most of the men a divided loyalty. Bohemond has forgotten Jerusalem, it seems, and is only intent upon establishing a new (and just) law for the city of Antioch, which he now rules. Rinaldo is intent upon winning glory in battle, and hangs upon his uncle’s lips to hear stories of the great warriors of old. Tancred is distracted by his love for a beautiful woman. It is notable that none of these warriors is as yet committing any sins, but they have not wholly submitted themselves to the greater good of setting Jerusalem free. In other words, they are each, in part, still guided by their own vision of what is good, rather than seeking first the good that is the will of God.
Only Godfrey, says the poet, sets his heart upon Jerusalem, and is therefore enflamed by God’s will, which, far from extinguishing his will, makes it leap the higher, “as a spark enveloped in the flame of fire.” Godfrey, the poet is careful to show, is a worthy and effective leader of the Christian army, precisely because he is obedient — and we see him in fact submitting to the spiritual direction of Peter the Hermit, who recommends, at a crucial moment in the poem, a solemn procession, followed by Mass and the Sacrament.
But these were Renaissance poets, someone might object, who had not yet experienced the glories of democracy. Well, first of all, those glories are debatable. Malcolm Muggeridge, who in his old age embraced the Catholic Church, had been saying for several decades that the 20th century, with its various ideologies of human perfection, had produced unimagined bloodshed and degradation, with very meager compensatory rewards in art and music and poetry. For centuries in the English-speaking world, Bunyan’s wise and sane Pilgrim’s Progress was the most popular book after the Bible, truly a book from and for the common people. What has taken its place now? The inanities of The Da Vinci Code?
Meanwhile, if we attend to the wisest among the Christian authors of the last century, we find them saying just what Milton and Tasso said, and in particular that obedience is essential not simply to a Christian life, but even to any admirable pagan life. In The Lord of the Rings, the aptly named Samwise proves to be the one who saves Frodo, not because he considers himself Frodo’s equal, but because he submits his own welfare to Frodo’s; his leadership consists in his obedience. Examples from that trilogy could be multiplied many times over, but we could also turn from the Catholic Tolkien to his Protestant friend, C. S. Lewis, and see the same deep truth at work. It is everywhere in his work. One example will suffice: At the end of The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan the Christ-lion assembles all the talking animals to give them commands for their own benefit, and then takes Frank and Helen, a mere cabbie and his ordinary wife, and crowns them the first king and queen of Narnia. Frank and Helen, in obeying Aslan, will lead the other rational creatures, but in a sense will be submitting themselves to them also, because they will be leading them toward the common good for each one singly and for all of them together.
And what about the lives of the saints? Mother Teresa was a persistent and headstrong woman, but her letters show that at every moment of her ministry she submitted herself to the generally sensible direction of her more cautious spiritual directors and her episcopal overseers (for that is what a “bishop” literally is, an “overseer”). Dorothy Day, for all her economic radicalism — which was, to a certain extent, but the radicalism of an agrarian Catholic who took the gospel most seriously — was scrupulously obedient to the teachings of the Church on those matters of greatest controversy during her lifetime: human sexuality, marriage, and abortion. When someone asked St. Francis, a layman, what he would do if he met a priest who had besmirched his calling with some terrible sin such as homicide, he replied that he would fall to his knees and kiss the hands that were blessed to give him Jesus in the Eucharist. No, when it comes to obedience, the fruit of that fundamental virtue of humility, the saints speak unanimously, even more by their actions than by their words.
But is obedience always a virtue? What happens when one’s abbot or priest or spiritual director turns wicked or heretical? Should the Germans have obeyed Hitler? Here the moral theologians assist us by making distinctions. We properly obey the one who wields authority over us when we obey the cause for which such authority is established in the first place, and the Person who is the giver of that authority. So we do not disobey, but obey, when we refuse to comply with a wicked command; but that line of reasoning can never justify us in refusing a command or a prohibition which is not in itself wicked, on the usually self-serving grounds that we think we know better. So the faithful Catholic may not, even under orders, assist in the murder of an innocent human being; but he also may not, regardless of his thinking of the matter, permit himself the privilege of using contraception, merely because he happens not to see what is wrong with it. In both cases he must be obedient, even though an inattentive spectator might not see that the same virtue is at work.
Obedience is indeed a liberating and beautiful virtue. It frees me from the stranglehold of my self-will, which is another way of saying that it pries the talons of Satan from off my throat, so that I might breathe like a human being and a child of God. It frees me from having to determine, from my own limited store of experience and my limited grasp of eternal verities, the principles whereby human actions are good or evil; and that means that I am free to delve the more deeply into those verities, discovering more and more within them, dwelling within them, meditating upon them like the Psalmist pondering the beauty of God’s laws at night upon his couch. Obedience sharpens my hearing and my sight, as Jesus Himself has promised, for those who keep His commandments will be beloved by the Father, and He will bring them light.
The saints move from obedience to obedience, and therefore from light into light, and in that obedience and that light they are brought into the life of God, which is the ultimate in freedom and power and authority. “Know you not,” says St. Paul, “that we will sit in judgment upon angels?” For there is an inner harmony between obedience and love, one that the world strenuously denies, because in the world’s eyes love is all about getting what you crave, and obedience, alas, is but the grudging deferral of what you crave. But the true lover desires to obey. “Only the lover sings,” wrote Joseph Pieper, and what should he sing about, if not the surpassing and commanding beauty of the beloved?