A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 15 : The Grandeur of Obedience

Obedience is the highest of the three evangelical counsels, just as the pride of life is in itself a graver disorder than the concupiscence of the flesh and that of the eyes. Pride, which was the sin of the rebellious angel and of the first man, is the source of all deviations because it turns us away from God to put our trust in ourselves. In this sense it is a more serious sin than other more shameful sins which incline us toward vile things, but which turn us less directly away from God.(1) Cold, hard pride, which leads man to refuse to adhere to the word of God or to obey Him, is a more serious sin than inordinate attachment to the pleasures of the senses or to earthly goods. For this reason Christ said to the Pharisees who were led astray by their pride: "Amen I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the publicans and the harlots believed him: but you, seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him." (2)

We know these things theoretically, but in practice we forget them. We think more readily of the manifest disorders which arise from the concupiscence of the flesh or from that of the eyes, and we do not adequately recognize that the great sin is the sin of him who said: "Non serviam, I will not serve." This is the principal sin of the world that calls itself "modern," while claiming to separate itself from the Church. It still desires indeed to repress gross instincts, to struggle against avarice, to labor for the amelioration of the lot of the working class, but it intends to do all this by itself, without the help of God, of our Lord, and of the Church. Only too often it wishes to obey only its own reason, its own judgment, its own will, and this rationalism leads it to disobey reason rather than to obey God. Its own reason leads it, like the prodigal son, into dishonorable, debasing servitude, occasionally into real tyranny, that of rebellious popular passions and that of criminal, unjust laws, put into effect in spite of the protests of conscience, in the interest of the party in power. Obedience to the commandments of God and of the Church would free society from these servitudes which oppress the best and lead society into disorder, confusion, and ruin. Such an evil can be cured only by a holy reaction in the direction of profound, humble, Christian obedience. Yet the grandeur of obedience, even in relatively good circles, is too often misunderstood.(3)

The better to see the value of this virtue, we shall consider first of all from what servitude it delivers us and what are its spiritual fruits with regard to union with God.


Obedience delivers us from a twofold slavery: that of self-will and that of our own judgment.

Obedience to God, to His spiritual and temporal representatives, daily assures the conformity of our will with the divine will,(4) It thus delivers us from self-will, that is, from a will which is not conformed to that of God, and which through pride goes astray, acting contrary to the current of grace and refusing to act in the true direction.

Self-will thus defined is the source of every sin. For this reason St. Bernard says: "Take away self-will, and there will no longer be any hell." Self-will is particularly dangerous because it can corrupt everything. Even what is best in man becomes evil when self-will enters in, for it takes itself as its end instead of subordinating itself to God. If the Lord sees that it inspires a fast, a penance, a sacrifice, He rejects them as Pharisaical works accomplished through pride in order to make oneself esteemed. Without going that far, we must admit that we cling greatly to our own will. Occasionally we hold to our way of doing good more than to the good itself; we wish it to be done, but by ourselves and in our way. When this egoism becomes collective, it may be called esprit de corps, a corruption of family spirit; it is the source of a great many unpleasantnesses, partialities, defamations. Sometimes a certain group wishes to promote a good work, or it hinders one from being developed. It is like wishing to smother a child who seems to be one too many, when as a matter of fact it may become the honor of the family. Evidently such a course of action can only displease the Lord.

In religion, the vow of obedience assures the mortification of this dangerous self-will which turns the soul away from salvation. That it may control self-will, the vow must be practiced with a spirit of faith, seeing in the orders of superiors, in spite of their imperfections or defects, orders given by God, from whom all power comes. Religious obedience should be prompt and universal: that is, it should extend alike to little and great things; it should obey all legitimate superiors, whether they be amiable or not, particularly prudent or less enlightened, holy or less perfect, because it is always God who speaks, as long as the order given is not contrary to a higher law and does not exceed the limits of the constitutions which the religious promised to observe. Such obedience is a deliverance, for it assures from day to day the conformity of man's will with God's will, and by that very fact it greatly fortifies the will while rectifying it.

Obedience delivers us also from the servitude of our own judgment, that is, from an excessively subjective judgment not sufficiently founded on truth, not conformed to the judgment of God. Our own personal judgment is in this sense the source of singularity in conduct and stubbornness which leads to nothing and impedes the good which others wish to do. It is a hasty judgment springing from our prejudices, our evil dispositions, our self-love, our pride. Occasionally the enemy of our soul is the one who suggests it to us or confirms it when we ourselves have already formed it. Following Aristotle, St. Thomas often says: "According as we are well or ill disposed in our will and sensible faculties, a given end seems good or evil to us." The proud man judges that what flatters his pride is excellent, whereas the humble man judges that humiliation is good for him.

Our own judgment often leads to rash judgment, contrary to justice and charity. In it there is servitude, slavery; we are the slaves of our egoistic prejudices, and they lead us away from salvation and union with God.

Obedience delivers us from this slavery by assuring the conformity of our practical judgment with that of the representative of God, who has the right to give us an order in His name.(5) It may be that this representative of God is mistaken on some point or other; he is not infallible like the pope speaking ex cathedra, but as long as the order given is not manifestly contrary to a higher law and does not exceed the powers of the one who commands, we are obliged to obey, and our practical judgment is not deceived in obeying. Sometimes the messenger of Providence may limp, but he is still God's messenger; he brings us a letter or an order of divine origin.

The effective practice of the counsel of obedience is found especially in the religious life; it is a much surer road for reaching perfection more rapidly by progressive conformity to the will of God even in the depths of our will and the details of daily life.

But we must at least have the spirit of the counsel actually to reach Christian perfection, that is, the spirit of detachment from self-will to which we cling. As a child should obey his father, his mother, and the teachers who train him, every Christian should obey all who are for him the spiritual or temporal representatives of God. There is the obedience of the wife to her husband, that of the soldier to his leaders, of the servant to his master, of every subordinate to his superiors, of every Christian to the Church and to the constituted authorities in the Church. If this obedience is practiced, not merely in a servile, mechanical, exterior manner, but in the spirit of faith, it greatly forms the will, renders it flexible, and fortifies it while subordinating it daily a little better to the will of God, of the living God who vivifies us. It is well to recall often that "there is no power but from God," (6) that one cannot obey an equal, but only a superior, and that, in short, it is God who is obeyed.

Similarly we must obey events so far as they are signs of the divine will. Theology teaches that the divine will is manifested to us not only by the precepts and the counsels, but also by events willed or at least permitted by God.(7) Nothing, in fact, happens unless God has willed it (if it is a good), or permitted it (if it is an evil). To be perfect our obedience should take into consideration these signs of the will of God. For example, legitimate success in an examination gives us a position that makes possible for us the accomplishment of a more extended good; let us not compromise this good by imprudent or cowardly acts. On the contrary, we are humiliated by a failure, or by an illness, which sometimes show us that the way we are engaged in is not what God wishes for us.

There are particularly significant events which, from the temporal point of view, change the situation of a family or the organization of society. We must know how to draw the greatest spiritual profit from them and not wish at any cost to revert to an order of things which was useful in the past and which probably is no longer willed by God in the period in which we are living. One does not go back up the course of life or that of history; the old man does not return to adolescence; and our century cannot return to what existed in the thirteenth, though it should seek to profit by all the good handed down by past ages in order to prepare a future in which God truly reigns.

In all these forms of obedience to all that manifests the will of God, in obedience to the duty of the present moment from minute to minute, the Christian ought always to have before his eyes as his model the Savior, who was "obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross." (8) Thus the martyrs and all the saints obeyed, finding their joy in dying to self-will that they might feed on that of God according to the Savior's words: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me." (9)


To comprehend the grandeur and the fruits of obedience, we should remember that it is more perfect to offer God one's will and judgment than to offer Him exterior goods through voluntary poverty, or one's body and heart through chastity.(10) It is also more perfect to offer Him one's will than to sacrifice to Him exteriorly a lamb or a dove, as was done in the sacrifices of the Old Testament. With this meaning, Scripture says: "Obedience is better than sacrifices: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat of rams." (11)

The fruits of obedience are chiefly the following: it gives a great rectitude of judgment, great strength of will, the highest liberty of spirit.

The greatest rectitude of judgment comes from the fact that obedience makes us participate in the very wisdom of God; it renders us more wise than the wisest, more prudent than the ancients: Super senes intellexi. In the most difficult and the most complicated situations, it brings us the solution that is practically true for us here and now. Practically, we do not make a mistake in obeying, even if the superior is mistaken. By humble obedience a simple lay brother, Blessed Martin de Porres of Peru, did more for his country than statesmen who do not think of praying to obtain light.

As a reward for fidelity, perfect obedience obtains from the Holy Ghost, even here on earth, the inspirations of the gift of counsel that direct us in the most hidden things of the spirit which a director or a superior could not state precisely and which our prudence could not succeed in settling properly. The gift of counsel is particularly necessary for those whose duty it is to command, that they may do so supernaturally; for this reason if a man does not begin by obeying well, he will never know how to command. God gives His lights to the obedient.

Obedience also gives great strength of will. Naturalism declares at times that obedience weakens the will; on the contrary, it strengthens the will tenfold. When, in fact, there is no reason to doubt that an order comes from God through the intermediary of a legitimate superior, it is also certain that by divine grace the fulfillment of this order is possible. As St. Augustine says: "God, in fact, never commands the impossible; but He tells us to do what we are able and to ask Him for the grace to accomplish what we cannot do of ourselves." (12) Therefore St. Augustine used to pray: "Lord, give me the strength to accomplish what Thou dost command, and command what Thou dost wish."

Because God never commands the impossible, when in certain circumstances martyrdom is of precept, in the sense that it must be undergone rather than deny the faith, God gives the strength to obey, to be faithful to Him in the midst of torture; and He gives this strength even to children, to young virgins, like St. Agnes, or to old men weakened by age. In such cases especially are realized the words of Scripture: "An obedient man shall speak of victory." (13)

Without going as far as marytrdom, obedience works prodigies. We need only cite the example of the first sixteen sons of St. Dominic. Strong in the Pope's blessing, the holy founder sent them from Toulouse into various parts of Europe to found convents and to carry on the apostolate. Having no money to give them, the saint said to them: "You shall beg your food; I will pray for you three times a day. I promise you that, in spite of the distress of poverty, you will never lack what is necessary." The sixteen religious, trusting in the words of their Father, obeyed; they left joyfully like the first apostles, and were not slow in multiplying in Italy, Spain, England, even in faraway Poland, and among the infidels of the Orient whom they went to evangelize. This example and many others confirm the grandeur of obedience. When an order is given, and there is no doubt but that it comes from God, the grace which makes its fulfillment possible is most certainly bestowed. If a person prays to be faithful to this grace and not to resist it, he accomplishes the command not without difficulty sometimes, but he accomplishes it.

Finally, obedience, far from being a servitude, bestows the highest liberty, that of the children of God, as voluntary poverty gives true spiritual riches, as perfect charity obtains the intimacy of the love of God. A French author, Alfred de Vigny, wrote a beautiful book on the life of a soldier; it is entitled, Servitude et grandeur militaires; in perfect Christian obedience there are a servitude and a superior grandeur that are truly supernatural. Of this obedience St. Paul speaks when he reminds us that we should desire to be "delivered from the servitude of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God"; (14) "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," (15) that is to say, deliverance, for divine truth delivers the soul from error. Injecting truth into life, obedience sets man free from the prejudices of the world, from its maxims, modes, and infatuations. It frees him from excessive preoccupation about the judgment of men, from concern about what people will say, instead of doing good and letting them talk. Obedience delivers him from his doubts, hesitations, and anxieties. It simplifies life while elevating it. With it liberty grows, for in man liberty comes from the intellect, and the more enlightened his intellect is, the more free he is. The more man understands that God is the sovereign Good, the freer he is not to respond to the attraction of earthly goods, and the stronger he is against the threats of the impious. Who was freer than the martyrs? Through love and obedience they freely gave their blood in witness of divine truth, and neither iron nor fire could force an abjuration from them. They obeyed in a spirit of faith and for love of God, like the Savior, who was obedient "unto death, even to the death of the cross."

The grandeur of obedience is expressed in this frequently quoted, holy expression: "To serve God is to reign," that is, to reign over one's passions, over the spirit of the world, over the enemy of souls and his suggestions; it is to reign in the very kingdom of God and, so to speak, to share in His independence toward all created things. It is to place oneself like a docile instrument in His hands for all that He wishes, following out St. Augustine's words which we have already quoted: "Lord, give me the strength to accomplish what Thou dost command, and command what Thou dost wish."

Of a certainty obedience thus understood prepares for the contemplation of divine things; it prepares us to see the will of God or His permission in all pleasurable or painful events, and it helps us. to understand "that to them that love God [and persevere in His love], all things work together unto good."



1. Cf. St. Thomas, la IIae, Q.73, a. 5: "Spiritual sins are of greater guilt than carnal sins. . . . Spiritual sin denotes more a turning away from something (from God), whence the notion of guilt arises."

2. Matt. 21:31 f.

3. A contemplative religious wrote to us recently as follows: "In our days people have often lost sight of the intrinsic value of religious profession. They no longer see how the great vows chiefly uplift intrinsically the whole of religious life. This profound and superior idea is exiled; it no longer finds a milieu to understand it. Very frequently people think only superficially and extrinsically about this fundamental idea. The influence of the great theology of the Middle Ages has lost its dominion. For this great error, casuists, who have materialized the concept of religious life, are responsible. Under the pretext of avoiding sin, they have considered everything from a negative point of view. Religious obedience has lost its profound meaning. The vows of poverty and chastity, which are more frequently transgressed, and often mortally, have in fact come to the foreground in several manuals; whereas obedience, which is the foundation of the whole edifice, has been placed in the background, because it is rare that disobedience is a mortal sin.

"They have thus actually reversed supernatural values. In many centers this condition of affairs has become a general state of mind. The positive and profound value of religious immolation by the vows, the complete. domination of the religious life and of its activity by the virtues of religion and obedience, which render the existence of a religious something 'sacred,' has been lost sight of. As a consequence, they no longer see the intrinsic value of the religious life, and some have remarked that this deficiency often works on vocations like a 'fatal corrosive.' For many, obedience is no longer anything but a 'discipline,' an 'exterior religious observance,' a professional practice which one can personally sublimate if one is noble-hearted, as a soldier or a clerk can sublimate the practices of his profession or his position."

4. The formal motive of obedience is not that the thing commanded seems reasonable in itself, but that it is commanded by a legitimate superior, the spiritual or temporal representative of God, from whom comes all power to command. If a man obeyed solely because the thing commanded seemed to him essentially reasonable and prudent according to his own judgment, he would lose the merit proper to obedience, as one would lose that of faith if one accepted only evident revealed truths because of their evidence. The formal motive of faith is the authority of God who reveals mysteries that remain obscure. The specific object of obedience, says St. Thomas, "is a command tacit or express, because the superior's will, however it becomes known, is a tacit precept" (IIa IIae, q. 104, a.2, c. and ad 3um).

5. Obedience demands the conformity of the practical judgment (which immediately directs voluntary choice) to the order given. The thing commanded, materially considered in itself, may be at times imprudent, inopportune; obedience does not then demand its approval as such by a speculative judgment (another superior in a few months will perhaps see the thing in a different light). In this case, let us leave the thing commanded for what it is materially in itself, and consider only that it is formally commanded to us, here and now, and commanded by God, in spite of the imperfection of His messenger. At this moment, it is what we should do, and even if the superior is mistaken, we are not mistaken practically in obeying him. The superior of Margaret Mary Alacoque sometimes sent the fervent religious, during the period set aside for the community meditation, to keep watch over a donkey in a meadow in order to prove her obedience. The religious obeyed and certainly made a better meditation in the meadow than she would have made in choir if she had wished to go there contrary to the will of her superior.

6. Rom. 13: 1.

7. Cf. St Thomas, Ia, q. 19, a. 12: Five expressions of the divine will: prohibition, precept, counsel, operation, permission."

8. Phil. 2:8.

9. John 4:34.

10. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 104, a. 3, c. and ad 1um.

11. Cf. I Kings 15:22.

12. St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, chap. 43. These words are quoted by the Council of Trent, Sess. VI, chap. 11.

13. Prov. 21:28. In this connection we are reminded of the group of martyrs who died singing the Te Deum. As they saw the preachers of the faith approaching, they sang in a higher tone: Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus; to which the preachers who were also going to be martyred, responded: Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus. This song recalls the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who on hearing the lions that were about to devour him, exclaimed: "I am the wheat of Christ. I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts that I may become the bread of the world."

14. Rom. 8:21.

15. Cf. II Cor. 3: 17.