Thursday, January 16, 2014

Under the Surgeon's Knife

How can you be poor unless you are obedient? Obedience is a surgeon’s knife that prunes that self that remains even after the sword of the Spirit has done its work. Even after the fire of the Holy Ghost continues to do its work and the light of the Holy Spirit illuminates the dark depths of our souls.

Then the husbandman, the farmer, the gardener, who is God the Father, moves in Himself. Now He begins slowly, expertly, to strip all that stands in the way of the soul of man becoming truly another Christ, or I should say, enhancing the likeness of men to His Son, for the Catholic and the Christian is the Body of his Son and must bear the marks of His Son. In this lies the holiness of the body, for it has its being in Christ and Christ in it.

So the husbandman comes. God the Father arrives with the pruning knife and strips, and the only way He can do that is to wield that knife of obedience. Here we have to pause and face ourselves, because here the gigantic, titanic struggle of man and God takes place, I should say, perhaps, between Satan and God, with man having the final word, because he has freedom. Freedom of will. Freedom of soul. Freedom of choice.

Shall I, or shall you, be obedient to God’s will or to our own will? Shall we twist God’s will into our own will? Shall we totally reject God’s will, or shall we rationalize it nicely away, so that we can put it in the compartments of our soul, according to our filing system, and then rest in a nice, almost psychiatric forgetfulness — blocking our conscience as to what we have done.

Which shall it be? Are we going to let ourselves be stripped to the nakedness of a tree and allow God to take, through obedience, through the pruning, all that He wants to take from us in His mysterious and strange way, so that we can be grafted in truth unto His Son. Which shall it be? How hard it is to tell our modern generation the freedom of obedience, for unless we stand there and allow Him, the great Husbandman, Gardener, Farmer, to prune us this way, or the great Surgeon to cut out the cancerous parts of our being that may remain in those mansions, those caverns in our soul, we shall never be free. We shall be always bound by the illusion that we create in ourselves. We shall say to ourselves, “Obedience depersonalizes”, ‘‘Obedience makes me an automaton”, “Obedience keeps me a child” — not childlike, but childish. Does it? It is up to you.
 Catherine Doherty, Spiritual Reading, April 1, 1967

Reflection – One more day here of Catherine Doherty on the scintillating subject of poverty, obedience, love, freedom, and the heart of the Gospel, taken from the material I used for my seminary retreat in Long Island.

We have to go deeply into this business of obedience and its place in the spiritual life. It is worth noting here that Catherine always understood obedience to God to be mediated through obedience to a spiritual director, a confessor, or at the very least, obedience to the right authority of the Church. It was never for her simply some interior reality of merely following one’s own conscience. That comes into it, but that can too easily become the very rationalizing away of obedience to God’s will she cautions us against.

No, the judgment of conscience always needs to be checked against an external voice. If one is blessed to have a spiritual director, that person. If not, then at least we have to safeguard our unity with the Church and its teachings on faith and morals, and exercise our obedience to God through that obedience.

I think that part of why this ‘freedom of obedience’ is so hard for modern people to hear and accept is that there are so few examples being modeled. By this I mean that there are so very few consecrated religious around, at least in North America. And so many of the ones there are, are not especially visible because they do not wear habits, or do not really practice obedience in a particularly concrete way.

I believe that one of the great gifts consecrated life is to the Church is the visible, vibrant presence of men and women who surrender their goods, their sexual expression, and their autonomy to God out of love for Him and His Church, and so are a visible sign to the whole church of the goodness and beauty of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The wholesale collapse of consecrated life in the last fifty years has been a spiritual and pastoral disaster for the Church and for the world, to a degree I don’t think we realize.

Well, that’s where it is, until God moves and generous young men and women respond to that movement of God. Meanwhile, we need to ponder what Catherine writes here – that obedience is essential in the deep purifying work of God in the human soul, that obedience is the place where the radical choice for or against God comes to its most acute crisis, that the fundamental choice of self and ego vs. God and love hinges on whether or not we are going to embrace the freedom of obedience.

These are fairly heavy and serious questions, and so I leave them with you on this fine winter day. Meanwhile we do our best today: ‘God, may I do your will and not my own today. Teach me to obey and to be free. Amen.’

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