This is the end of almost a week of slow reflection, through a series of quotes and ideas, on the place of the virtue of obedience in the Christian walk.
Penance and mortification are good for us; but it is common for the saints to emphasize that a single small act of obedience is worth more. Why? What is this thing called obedience that makes it worth more than mortification? Obedience means turning our will over to another. Mortification and penance don’t necessarily mean this.
When Christ died on the Cross, was it the external or the internal that was greater in suffering and in merit?
Ultimately, Christ came to do his Father’s will, the will of the one who sent him (Jn 4:34; 6:38). It had exterior manifestations and requirements; the nugget was to do another’s will. There is, in the Old Law, a sacrifice of the exterior. In the New Law, though it was not entirely absent from the Old also, there was a sacrifice of the interior. But the greatest value is not on an interior sacrifice, but an interior activity of another. Jesus’ food, goal, desire, and mission was to do another’s will.
Thus it is with obedience. When our will becomes little, it is so much, so much, easier to unite to the will of God. There can easily, in things or ways unsuspected, be a tinge of self-will or pride in our desires for and choices or mortification. Marcel Văn realized this on one of the rare occasions when he wanted to impose his own penance and mortification, and then figured that this would not be as good:
that I let myself be consumed by the fire of Love, rather than let my own will destroy my body.
Pride and self-will in choosing or letting go of the choice itself? This question it can occur over and over again throughout our life; when we fail, spiritual writers classify it as a common fault of so-called spiritual “intermediates”, those who have started the dark night and been stripped, to a greater or lesser extent, of inordinate attachments to sense gratification; but whose deeper spiritual roots and still quite intricately attached to their own will.
But because obedience reaches right into the spiritual depth of our will, it is not possible to be both obedient, in a true and interior way, without getting to the heart of the matter: our relationship with Jesus Christ, his Father, and his Spirit. Obedience goes deeper. It goes so deep that Saint Hildegard of Bingen gives to the virtue of Obedience the words, “Love is my matter,” love is all that I am made from, my nurturing mother and the very stuff of my existence. While mortification can be good, it has never been traditionally seen to be that good. Indeed, on the tradition of the Church and especially in line with the thoughts of a John of the Cross, obedience is simpler, closer to the spiritual point of union with God, and less susceptible to basic errors in judgment than a more prudential, particular judgment like mortification. In a sense, obedience is close to the “better part” (Lk 10:42) chosen by Mary.
Let’s look for ways to obey. Without leaving mortification undone, as it suits us in our circumstances, let’s aim for the thing we should not have left undone also!