The Obedience of Faith

Through him we received grace and our apostolic mission to preach the obedience of faith to all pagan nations in honor of his name. You are one of these nations, and by his call belong to Jesus Christ. To you all, then, who are God’s beloved in Rome, called to be saints, may God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ send grace and peace.

Romans 1: 5-7

St.Paul describes his call to preach, in these beginning verses of the Letter to the Romans, as an “apostolic mission to preach the obedience of faith . . . .” Paul must be speaking of his own call to preach obediently in light of the faith that he has received. Yet, he is also clearly speaking of a call to “the obedience of faith” in his listeners. Obedience is not a concept that registers easily with us. For those of us who are older, obedience carries with it some very unpleasant connotations of being asked to submit to the power of others who, far too often, wielded that power in an arbitrary and arrogant way. For those who are younger, I suspect that the term has a certain antiquated and meaningless sense about it.

In its truest sense, however, faith includes obedience as a core component. Pope Francis reminds us often that to live in faith means to live discerningly. To be faithful is to live in fidelity to what we are asked to be and to do from moment to moment. It is to respond obediently to what reality, the truth of things, is asking of us “in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.” While due to aspects of past experience we might tend to think of obedience as constricting our living creatively, in truth it is only in faithful obedience that we can come to recognize and realize what is most unique and creative in us.

Since creation is unfolding anew in each moment, the true call of the moment, what response the present moment is asking of us, is always new as well. What this means in practice is that from the perspective of a life lived from “the obedience of faith” life is ever changing and ever new. The opposite of “the obedience of faith” is prideful arrogance and attempted autonomy, what Adrian van Kaam calls “autarchy.” To live from the “id,” from the infra-conscious dimension of consciousness, is to live repetition rather than newness. Because the view of the world from this perspective is always reflected through one’s own unconscious needs and drives, each moment looks like a repeat of what preceded it. Living in this way, in obedience to our unconscious drives and needs rather than to the reality before us, life is merely repetition.

As I “googled” repetition this morning, I discovered a quote from an American businessman by  the name of Bill Drayton. He is quoted as saying: “Every successful organization has to make the transition from a world defined primarily by repetition to one primarily defined by change. This is the biggest transformation in the structure of how humans work together since the Agricultural Revolution.” Although most would find this point incontrovertible, we are well aware that most organizations and businesses have relatively limited life spans because they fail to recognize, in practice, its truth. There is security in repetition. It is to live, to work, to act in service of a fragile and vulnerable sense of self. Faith, on the other hand, is an abandonment in trust and appreciation to the mystery of life and world. Whether we term this Mystery the Tao, or the Law, or the Lord God, it is a willingness to be a slave of Reality, in the way that Paul speaks of himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus.”

The religious congregation to which I belong is attempting to set out on a path toward reformation and transformation. This is based on the real experience of being at a crossroads, where things cannot go on in the same way that they have. It is a recognition of the need, if we are to survive, of a deep and profound change. No less than any other group, however, we are discovering how difficult it is to practice the words of our Fundamental Principles that call us to engage with each other in discernment of what we are called to do and who we are called to be.

As you prayerfully reflect on the past,
assess the present,
and ponder the future with your brothers,
be considerate of this history
and of this ministry.
Yet, like Ryken,
foster an attitude of openness
to the needs of the Church and your world,
and a willingness to follow Christ
wherever He leads.
You are called
to a life of constant searching.
Let the developments and changes
of your times
be a source both of confidence and challenge to you.
For as your Founder wrote:

The Holy Spirit
does not let himself be bound
by rules and models
but works where and as He wills.

As most religious congregations in the west, our membership in Belgium and in the United States is quite aged. The vast majority of us are now past the working retirement age, and so have developed the attitudes and qualities of a significantly older population. Yet, the Fundamental Principles tell us that we have been called “to a life of constant searching,” a life which in faith is called to allow “the developments and changes of [our] times [to] be a source both of confidence and challenge to [us].” When we gather, however, we experience the human and spiritual truth of how difficult it is to live in such faith and trust. So much of our initial speaking is filled with the hurts and resentments of the past, on the one hand, and the arrogant self-justification of our fragile egos on the other.

It is difficult to see the call of the changing reality before us because we are either mired in our own hurts or obsessed with our own rectitude. Most of the time, we have opinions about what “should” happen or change, but those opinions are but repetitions of our sense of hurt and betrayal or else our demand that the world of the present conform to our insights of decades ago.

Many years ago, when attempting through therapy to understand the difficult dynamics that I always seemed to create in relationships, a therapist pointed out to me that, as an only child, I was always creating triads in my friendships. I was always seeing relationship as a contest and so conflict between myself and two others. I kept repeating the triad of my childhood in an attempt to finally get it right. As long as I continued to do that, my relational life would never change. I would never see the truth of others, but only know them within the place in the triad I had given them.

What we do as individuals, we also do as groups. As we attempt to actually practice the call to “prayerfully reflect on the past, assess the present, and ponder the future with your brothers,” we are discovering how difficult it is. How do we, who by default and unconsciously are self-centered, fearful, and self-justifying engage in a shared discernment of what the needs of the world are asking of us in the present?

In the Letter to the Hebrews we read of Jesus that “Son though he was, he learned obedience by what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Individually and together we must be willing to suffer the truth if we are to learn “the obedience of faith.” First, we must suffer the reality of our own unconscious. It is painful to realize how much of the truth, how much of creation and reality we miss because of our self-centeredness. We resist change because we fear it. At any age, but especially late in life, it is not easy to face how and when we have failed the call to live and to give our unique life and call to the world in obedience. Yet, it is only in the truth that we are free, that we can “experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.” That liberation and freedom, however, must always be preceded by a journey into the dark. We don’t really know ourselves, and to open to all we don’t know is terrifying, and probably without faith impossible. Is there any other way for a process of reformation and transformation to begin at the individual level without self-honesty and repentance?

This is true, similarly, in terms of our shared lives. As coal companies can seek to assert their own short term self-interest in the face the truth of things to the contrary, so we can continue to assert our own imaginary narrative of ourselves as a group, leaving out our own responsibility for where we may have failed to be obedient to our charism and call. It is understandable but somewhat astounding to gather and to have the same conversation that we had 35 years ago. No less than individuals, a group has an “id” of its own. A part of its “psyche” will always be resistance to conversion and change. And so, we can look to our past as that which ratifies and justifies our life, rather than ask ourselves how, in the obedience of faith, we are called to offer our unique gift to the world in the present. We can avoid our own personal responsibility for our lives and rather see our “common life” as something for whom others are now responsible. We, as members of the body, can be more concerned with nursing and justifying our own resentments and grievances than in learning obedience from these sufferings.

There is a certain starkness to the sense of “the obedience of faith.” If we live in faith, we shall be committed to obedience to that to which “the truth of things” is calling us. The choice is always obedience to God, to Reality or to our own repetitive narratives that we live in support of our own illusions. At the end of our lives, we shall be called to face the truth of how we have lived out our obedience to our own and the world’s deepest truth. To seek individually and together to do this throughout life is to live in constant openness and availability to change. Faith and obedience always call us to confront the refusal to reform, to transform, to change in us. In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-52, we read:  “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Creation is not stagnant; it is constantly changing and renewing itself. The question for us is whether to be obedient to that Reality or rather to hide and so atrophy within the stagnant structures of our own creation.

Fidelity is a gift. The Father bestows that gift on us through the Holy Spirit if he sees in us the form of his Son, his beloved one. Our receptivity for this gift depends on our concession to the form of Christ hidden in our soul. The gift of fidelity enables us to become a manifestation of the Christ form of life. We are called to mirror God’s promise in the plainness of daily endeavors.

Divine faithfulness manifests itself in a rich variety of forms of creation. All disclose infinite fidelity. “Bless Yahweh, all his works/ in every place where he rules./ Bless Yahweh, my soul” (PS103:22).

Adrian van Kaam, The Music of Eternity, pp. 21-2

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