Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Middle Voice of Obedience

During my last week in Ireland, I saw Father Padraic several times: once after mass on Sunday, once for coffee on Monday, once for lunch with the seminarians on Wednesday, and once for gin-and-tonic before I left on Thursday. Over coffee, we talked about (among other things... Fr. Padraic never pushed or even brought up the issue) my interest in the Catholic Church.

“I’m just imagining myself standing next to my little sister on her wedding day,” I tried to illustrate what the thought of being ‘out of communion’ with Protestants looked like for me, “whose diapers I had once changed and who has grown into my best friend, and abstaining from communion just because the Catholic Church wants to make a point that the Protestants’ little crackers and grape juice are not what they never claimed that they were. I understand the issues of Church division that are behind it, but the actual action itself nevertheless feels nasty and divisive. The thought just breaks my heart.”

Fr. Padraic had been listening patiently, every now and then amending my impression of the Catholic view of Protestants with a kinder, gentler (more Irish) view, but at this point he let my difficulty stand.

“Then you’re not ready,” he stated simply and gently.

I was taken aback, and didn’t particularly like the answer. “I’m not ready just because the thought breaks my heart?” I asked dubiously.

“Yes,” he answered confidently, “because God is gentle.”

I chewed over his reasoning a bit. I could never imagine any of the pastors I had known giving this sort of statement to someone knocking at the door of a church wanting to come in.

“God is gentle,” he repeated. “He does not expect all of us to be St. Paul with a dramatic conversion experience that happens all at once. Those exist, but for most of us, conversion—whether that be the conversion from atheist to Christian or from Protestant to Catholic or from Catholic to... Catholic [he chuckled, thinking of his Irish flock]—is a journey. God knows your stamina, and will not ask for more than you are capable of.”

“But Fr. Padraic,” I protested, feeling surprisingly upset at his suggesting I might not be ready to do what he obviously thought was ultimately the right thing to do, “I don’t think the thought could ever not break my heart.”

He shrugged in his happy, Irish way. “Then it might not ever be time.”

I didn’t plan on posting this anecdote (I have no intention of turning my listening-blog into Em’s Catholic Adventures), but it has been stirring deeply in my spirit for the past six weeks since it happened, and applies to the broader scope of how I look at the entire journey of following God. Then last week when I met with the Monsignor of the church back home in the States where I attend, he told me more or less the same thing. Obedience, he insisted, is not enough if it is a mere begrudging obedience; obedience must be coupled with freedom and joy. And, lest I should go out and try to conjure up freedom and joy as if they are the next task on my journey, he insisted that they are the Holy Spirit’s work, and would come at whatever point he wanted. In the mean time, I could only wait.

It’s an entirely foreign picture of obedience for me. I always thought obedience was a matter of seeking out the right thing to do and doing it no matter what at any cost to oneself, believing that even if it was excruciating now it would be the best thing in the end. I never thought to question an action based on anything other than some Platonic notion of whether or not it seemed in keeping with the Good.

But for Fr. Padraic and the Monsignor alike, obedience seems to be something quite different, more passive than I would ever expect something active like obedience to be. Obedience, they seem to say, in my case involves seeking out the right thing to do and waiting for God to prepare the way. That looks almost entirely passive to a doer like me.

Might obedience be conjugated in the middle voice as well, like my seminarian friends suggested of faith over the summer? Might it be the Holy Spirit’s work, not my own?

Might it be, as Fr. Padraic had insisted to me repeatedly, that the almighty, holy God whom I have tried to follow relentlessly for 26 years... is gentle?


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Beautiful thought. And God is, I think, gentle.

It's good to see your Catholic-ish peregrinations. Reminds me, sometimes, of how I feel about the surety of my Eastern Orthodox friends. As Gandalf felt about the shire, it is good to know there is sure footing, even if I may never place my foot there again.

(Not sure if this makes any sense.)

Eric said...

This is a really excellent post. While I'm not remotely attracted to Catholicism I find your thoughts on obedience relevant and thought-provoking.

Smoochagator said...

Oh my goodness. Thank you. I arrived at a similar conclusion recently about my own faith journey - that if I am struggling to take that step that really seems to be the right step, maybe I should stop struggling and wait. God isn't pushing me, why do I push myself? Just wait until it is no longer a struggle, wait until it is a joy. And if the thought of taking that step is always painful, if it never brings me peace, perhaps that step is not right after all. And that's okay.