May 2011

Resurrecting the true meaning of obedience

Obedience does not come from a battle of opinions or a superimposing of one will over another, but from a place of profound humility and respect, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

At the time of the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the media commented that Kate was not including ‘obedience to William’ in her vow formula, but rather publicly, she stated “I vow to love, honour, comfort and keep”.

Considering the changes in gender relationships that have taken place over the past 50 years, one can readily agree with her response. Any form of obedience in a marriage ought to be mutual and expressed by both parties. But perhaps there is some underlying assumption in the media’s coverage about marrying a future king, a ruler of his nation. In a hierarchical framework, is it expected that all will obey the king?

Language is dynamic. Words change their meaning over time and within differing cultural contexts. This word ‘obedience’ gets some pretty bad press in our current democratic and individualistic society because ‘obedience’ is seen to imply subservience, the giving over of one’s own will to the power and domination of another. It is seen as a sign of personal weakness.

The Catholic Church itself with its medieval and hierarchical structures can also distort the true meaning of obedience. In such a structure of power and dominance, reinforced by a divine legitimacy, obedience can be seen to be simply saying yes to the ‘magisterium’ or the ‘lawful’ authority, in an unthinking and unintelligent manner.

The Latin foundational word for ‘obedience’ is oboedire, which correctly translated means – “to hear or to listen”. This translation implies a relationship of mutuality where members of the community are listening to one another.

In our Benedictine tradition, this word is constantly before us. It is in our human relationships that we come to God, and it is in these relationships that we come to obedience to the Word of God for ourselves, and for one another within and for this community.

The word ‘obedience’ in the spiritual tradition of the Christian Church calls for a deep and informed response from a conscience well formed by the community and by the sharing of the Word of God in a spirit of listening.

In obedience there will always be a tension as we discern God’s preferences in the real and challenging situations we find ourselves. Obedience does not come from a battle of opinions or a superimposing of one will over another, but from a place of profound humility and respect.

So I believe it is worth resurrecting the true meaning of this word ‘obedience’ in our daily experiences of living community whether that be a marriage, a friendship, a religious community, a church or a nation. If we could but listen more attentively to one another within our various communities, the decisions that are made would offer a greater sense of rightness and of peace in our lives and in our world.

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence. In 2022, Clare was awarded an Honorary Doctor of the University from Australian Catholic University.

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