Permission to Die?

This week we will give a consideration of what consecrated life teaches about poverty, chastity and obedience how all can live these no matter their vocation.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

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In 1794, at the peak of the Reign of Terror, the innocuous sounding “Committee on Public Safety” arrested 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiegne, France as traitors. On July 17 of that year they were brought to the scaffold for execution. The superior of the community, Mother Teresa of Saint Augustine, stood at the foot of the scaffold. Before ascending the steps to the guillotine, each sister in turn asked the superior, “Permission to die, Mother?” And to each, Mother said, “Go, my daughter.”

Rarely does obedience find such a drastic expression. But all men and women religious vow the obedience so shockingly displayed by the Martyrs of Compiegne. The nuns’ seemingly absurd request for “permission to die” reveals the depth and power of the evangelical counsel of obedience. Certainly, obedience is necessary to some degree or other for any organization. But when consecrated men and women vow obedience they do so not as part of an agreement or contract, nor merely for the smooth functioning of the community, but as a gift of themselves to the Lord. It is, in fact, the summit of the counsels. By poverty we surrender our possessions to the Lord, by chastity our body, and by obedience that most personal dimension of us: our will.

What obedience looks like varies according to the community or religious order. A Jesuit missionary thousands of miles away from his superior will not feel the demands of obedience as much as a Benedictine living in close quarters with the other monks. But all religious vow it. Of course, in a culture that exalts the autonomous self and does not recognize any authority over us, obedience seems ridiculous. And for precisely that reason the world desperately needs to encounter those who live obedience radically. In them we see the heart of the Christian life, surrendered completely to God.

As with poverty and chastity, there is a “negative” side of obedience — something it fights against. The something in this case is our deepest spiritual wound: self-will. Ever since the fall of Adam, we have become little devils — faintly echoing the protest of Lucifer himself: Non serviamI will not serve (cf. Jer 2:20). We want our own way, for our own reasons, on our schedule. We recognize no authority over ourselves and reject anyone telling us what to do. Obedience takes direct aim at this wound of self-will and commands the most rebellious part of us to surrender its arms.

More importantly, of course, obedience imitates Jesus Christ. From start to last He was obedient. Coming into the world He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). In the Garden He prayed repeatedly to His Father, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Mt 26:39). His obedience was to the Father’s will, and it brought Him to the Cross. It seemed absurd to those around Him. Peter tried to keep Him from it (cf. Mt 16:22) and the chief priests mocked Him for it (cf. Mt 27:41-43). But it was His obedience that won for us salvation. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:8c-9). His obedience was not ordered to gaining popularity or money, but to manifest and express His absolute trust in the Father.

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As regards the family, all parents would certainly welcome increased obedience in the home. How much more peaceful, calm and efficient home life would be if children were obedient! But, as pragmatic as that thinking might be, it misses the point about obedience. Yes, parents should desire that their children learn obedience — but for their children’s holiness and salvation, not for themselves. A child should be obedient for the same reason that an apprentice obeys his master: so that he can someday be the master. More importantly, children need to obey their parents — God’s representatives — as training, so that later in life they will be able to hear and to heed His voice.

Thus, the inculcation of obedience is a matter of training a child’s will, not crushing it. Parents should desire their children be strong-willed but not self-willed. And this requires that the children see in their parents a worthy example of obedience. Children know when their parents are disobeying their superiors, especially when parents display an attitude of rebellion against our Lord and His Church. A powerful example for children is mom and dad in the confessional line. It shows the children that, despite their failures, mom and dad are holding themselves accountable — that is, obedient — to the One above them.

“Permission to die, Mother?” That display of obedience reveals in fact the freeing power of this counsel. The nuns were not losing their lives, but giving them. They had already given their lives with the vow of obedience. Then, at the scaffold, that gift of self became complete in martyrdom. How fitting that especially at the point of death one should be most attentive to obedience.

Tomorrow on Encourage and Teach, we consider what the consecrated life teaches about conversion and stability. 

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