From absurdity to obedience
By Phileena Heuertz
We live in an age when technology makes the realities of the remotest places on earth available to us. At any given time, through radio, television, internet and smart phones we are informed of the disparities, oppression and violence that plagues our planet. Certainly, in the West we are informed. We know. Given the technological advances that most of us are privy to, there’s no excuse anymore for being uninformed. Faced with some of the most horrific injustices, we can no longer say, “Oh I wish I had known, I would have done something.” We know, but do we hear? Do we listen?
Children’s dreams, ambitions and gifts sacrificed because of poverty and injustice. In the name of “globalization,” “progress” and “development” men, women and children lose their homes, their connectedness to the land and one another, and at times their very lives. The world moves on having trampled on the vulnerable to move “forward.” So called “progress” and “development” and yes, even “the American dream” comes at a cost. Do we hear the cries of that cost?
Knowing and hearing are very different. Our neighbors at the margins are too often silenced. But make no mistake. They are not voiceless. They are not silent. Being deaf to their cries, we silence them.
It can be crushing to be as informed as we are about the problems of our planet. We are afforded so many options to live and express ourselves in the world; it can be overwhelming to know what to do with our privileged lives. We want to make a difference. We want to change the world. For people of faith, we want to obey a God who knows better than us our created purpose. But in our desperate world, what does it really mean to obey?
Learning to Listen
Obedience is profoundly difficult for us to embrace apart from relationships of trust and mutual submission. Life is full of examples of forced obedience void of trust and mutuality. Obedience that is demanded from an abusive form of power is unjust. In WMF we encounter this reality all of the time: the young girl who is forced to obey her captors and submit her body to man after man—rape; the child abandoned on the streets of an urban center who is forced to obey the police officer and submit all his pocket change—extortion; the young boy caught up in a civil war who is forced to obey the commander, receive a drug injection and take up arms—enslavement.
Our community witnesses abuse of power and violently imposed obedience almost daily. And I imagine you see similar versions in your immediate context, too. With righteous anger we rise up with our friends and cry, “No! This is wrong! We will not obey these powers!” Certainly there is a righteous call for civil disobedience.
But obedience is our loving response to the grace of Jesus, and our vision for transforming communities into relationships of trust and mutuality makes celebrating obedience possible.
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest and one of the greatest spiritual writers of all time helps us redefine and celebrate obedience. During his lifetime, he presented the option for us to live an obedient life or an absurd life. In his lectures and writing he pointed out that the Latin word from which the English word obedience is derived, means “to hear;” the Latin word from which the English word absurd is derived means “deaf”. It follows that an obedient life is one that hears the voice of God, while an absurd life is deaf to the voice of God.
Hearing the voice of God begins with trust—trust in God, in ourselves and in one another. Trust is essential for us to obey. In a trusted community where there is mutual submission and a dialogue rather than a command, we can hear and listen to the voice of God and find support to obey that voice.
God knows best and wants the best for us and all humanity. And often God speaks to us through each other, especially the most vulnerable among us. Do we hear God’s voice? Do we hear what God is saying to us through the young girl forced to exploit her childhood, her body, her sexuality?
In WMF we realize we’re not much different from children who exert their personal will against that of their parents. We are inclined to make choices that lead us to isolation from our true self, from one another, and from God and the created world. Cultivating a celebration of obedience is crucial to our survival. Void of a trusted community where relationships are vulnerable and accountable, we often echo the Apostle Paul, “I do what I don’t want to do and what I don’t want to do I do” (Rom 7:15). In WMF we are learning to trust those with whom we’ve chosen to be in community with as they speak into our life. And we are learning to discern the voice of God.
In order for obedience to be inviting rather than dreaded, the relationship must be grounded in trust. This implied submission is something our community believes in and also celebrates. Submission within a relationship of mutuality creates the climate for a celebration of obedience.
In WMF we are committed to each other. There are various rings of responsibility within our community, but mutual submission is affirmed among us all. We acknowledge that the perspective of one is often limited and can be skewed. Hearing the perspective of the other is essential in moving forward, whether it be for personal formation, community or mission.
The one who carries a greater scope of responsibility for the community can be burdened with the challenge of what is best for the individual and what is best for the whole. Often these two entities can seem to be in conflict with one another. How then do we find our way? Mutual submission is central. Mutual submission rather than mutual exclusion is the way of listening. Our friend, Fr. Bert, admonishes us that “Obedience is listening and responding generously.”
When we have taken time to build trust between us—affirming that the spirit that is within me is the spirit that is within you—we are less prone to defensiveness, feeling as if we need to protect ourselves from the other. We are freer to listen and generously respond to one another.
Our generous response is that of obedience. Trust and mutual submission are the keys to an obedient life. An obedient life stands in the face of abusive forms of power, exploitation and oppression and declares there is another way.
There are no voiceless people, but there are deaf ones. How often do the cries of the world’s vulnerable people land on our deaf ears? Deafness leads to the absurdity of over-consumption, greed, selfishness, material idolatry and relational disconnectedness. Clearly, throughout Scripture God identifies with people who are poor. When we listen to them, we listen to God. Listening requires first of all trusted relationships—with God, ourselves and one another.
Jesus offers us the clearest illustration of an obedient life. Through his obedience, a new way is opened up before us as well as for the one who exploits and abuses. Jesus hears and obeys God’s call on his life to be the Beloved Son and to love unconditionally. He trusts not only his Father, but also his friends. He submits to life and relationship with a motley crew of people—even in the face of betrayal. His trust and submission led to His crucifixion— the most generous response one could ever offer. And the cross becomes the very way in which we find freedom. That way is marked with vulnerability, forgiveness, peace and love.
Lives obedient to love transform violence, oppression and injustice and make way for a new heaven and a new earth. Now that’s something we can celebrate.
Phileena enjoys the peaceful things of life like sunsets and seasides. The natural world speaks deeply to her of the enormous love of God.