We’re all taught as children about obedience and being obedient to our elders and betters. And what we’re taught is that you do as you are told.
It’s not just about doing what you’re told. The actual meaning is that it’s to do with listening. So we listen to the request made to us, and the person making the request should listen to our response.
It’s also about how you do things. It’s about sticking to decisions made. In my case, one thing it is about is trying not to pull faces when pudding turns out to be stewed fruit, and getting on and eating it without kicking up a fuss. Even though there are a number of things I’d rather do than eat gooseberries!
It’s also about how you deal with a request to take on a job – any job – and how you respond to one that you feel you really can’t do. You don’t ask “why do you think I can do this?” The response is either “yes, I can do that” or “please may I have some time to consider this?” And then, taking the time to consider the task and whether it is feasible, making a list of valid reasons as to why you feel you both can and can’t do it.
For example, when it comes to the placing of Sisters in Branch Houses. The Prioress is the one who makes the decisions, but if a particular Sister feels that she isn’t suited to the work in that particular House, she has to say why not. Practicality is also taken into account. If, for example, a Sister was asked to go to a particular House where the only bedroom available to her would be up a steep, narrow flight of stairs which she would have trouble negotiating, then that would be a valid reason for asking for the decision to be reconsidered.
One great example of Religious Obedience comes from our Foundress, Mother Margaret. It is documented in “The Whitby Sisters” and “Fulfilled in Joy” that when she was a Novice, with the Society of St Peter, Horbury, she was the headmistress of their school, St Hilda’s. However, as the time of her Noviciate came to a close, it was felt she had not spent enough time living with the Sisters (there was at that time only one other Sister on the school staff). For a period of I think about 4 months, Novice Sylvia (as she was known; SSP already having a Sr Margaret meant that Mother Margaret used her middle name there) lived in the Convent with the Sisters and took on the work of SSP at that time, which was prison visiting. It is recorded that one of the pupils at St Hilda’s School said “Novice Syliva’s getting so interested in the penitents she’ll have clean forgotten about us!” or words to that effect. However, for Mother Margaret, the school was her first love, which is why when SSP decided that they would not be able to continue running it (because of the announcement of World War I), she felt moved by the Spirit to leave SSP and found her own community, who would continue running the school. Essentially, St Hilda’s School simply moved from Horbury to Whitby. (Also, for reference, the Society of St Peter at Horbury is now known as the Community of St Peter Horbury.)
My point about this is that Mother Margaret, as Novice Sylvia, rose to the challenge presented to her. There is no record of her grumbling (or mumuring, as St Benedict puts it) about having to leave the school.
I could pull other examples from other OHP Sisters, but those are not my stories to tell. (The above story about Mother Margaret has already been published in “Fulfilled in Joy”, so it’s already in the public domain.)
I think one of my own stories of obedience comes from my Branch House experience. Every novice spends 3 months during her second year in one of the other houses, to learn about the other work that OHP does. I had looked at the houses we are currently running, and knew that my options were out of two houses. The house I would have loved to go to is our pastoral centre/retreat house, St Oswald’s. Where I got sent was the other house, Dormanstown, which is in Redcar, a bit further north up the coast from Whitby and not far from Middlesbrough. I think that actually, in going to Dormanstown I learned a lot more than I would have done if I’d gone to St Oswald’s, as the Sisters there work in two very different parishes.
In the Rule of Life, Poverty and Celibacy are quite clearly defined. Obedience isn’t. We are simply given Jesus as the standard, and that He “learned obedience through the things he suffered. This deeper obedience is hard…”
This is is because it’s hard to define things that involve the heart. It’s easy to say “keep what you need and no more”, but it’s rather less easy to define obedience. It’s a bit like asking someone to define what love is, because it means something different to every different person.
So thus concludes my musings upon the three vows. I have other ideas about things which relate to Religious Life, the hospitality of the monastery and the discipline of the daily office being two of them. They won’t be posted until after Easter, as next week we will be in Retreat or in silence because of it being Holy Week, which also means no internet access.