This morning, I was stunned — stunned, I tell you! — to realize that today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is always a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States, even if it falls on a Saturday or a Monday.
“Obligation.” American Catholics get a little itchy around that word. As someone inevitably points out, we don’t have to go to Mass; we get to go to Mass. It shouldn’t feel like an obligation to go to Mass, anymore than it’s an obligation to eat a delicious feast. If we truly understood what was happening at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we’d be breaking down the door to get inside,and not hoping we get let off the hook. Maybe, someone always says, we should call them “Holy Days of Opportunity.” Why, there are seminarians in Nigeria who live inside abandoned detergent bottles, and every one of them would walk eleven miles on his knees to get to Mass on a Holy Day, or any day. Tell them about the weight of your “obligation.” Tell them what you “have” to do.
Hard to argue with that. And yet people who say these things are glossing over something central to our existence as children of God: the sweetness of obedience for the sake of obedience.
It would be wonderful if we simply always wanted to go to Mass. It would be Heaven on earth if we enjoyed doing all the things we ought to do. And sometimes it really does work out that way. As we increase in holiness, our desires become more and more aligned with God’s desires, and there is less and less of a struggle between what we want to do and what we ought to do.
But knowing how you ought to be is not the same as being that way. The Church gives us obligations because she knows we need them. This is an idea which sets the Church apart from so many other religions: the much-derided “rules and regulations” that the Church lovingly imposes show that the Church understands human nature. If we were only ever invited or encouraged, we’d hardly ever turn up. I’d like to think I’m different, but I know I’m not.
And so we have our obligations: go to Mass, confess your mortal sins, fast and abstain, and so on. These obligations are in place because they confer grace to us. They force us to do the things that are good for us.
But the obligations are there for another reason, too: they give us a chance to obey. We obey even if we’re crabby, we obey even if we have a headache, we obey even if we feel tired or bored, or if we feel guilty or unworthy. We obey, in short, because we know who we are: we are children of God. We are under His protection, and that means we’re also under His authority. What an uncomfortable concept for the 21st century American! I do what I’m told, because that’s my job — it’s who I am. Obedience for the sake of obedience acknowledges our imperfect natures, and God receives this obedience joyfully.
If obedience for the sake of obedience seems shabby and pathetic to you, think of it this way: Sometimes, I delight in shopping for nutritious food, in preparing it in a delectable and attractive way, and in watching my children happily nourishing themselves. It would feel odd to say I’m feeding them because I’m “obligated” to. I want to! I like it! And that’s how it should be.
But sometimes, when dinner time rolls around, I’d rather just grab a bottle of wine and go hide in my room. But I gotta give them dinner, and I’m really glad I totally understand that it’s my obligation to do so. Now, it would be great if I always had that marvelous feeling of satisfaction and delight when feeding my kids. But I suspect I’m working more time off purgatory when I feel nothing of the kind, but I do it anyway. This is what motherhood means: sometimes being the one who delights in working for your kids, and sometimes being the one who works for kids despite a complete absence of delight. I know I’m a mother, so this is what I do.
It used to be that high born people were bound by a sense of noblesse oblige. Because of their social rank, they felt themselves obligated to behave honorably and responsibility. You could say that modern Catholics ought to cultivate a sense of “humblesse oblige” – the notion that we are obligated to obey because we’re sinners, because we’re fallen, because we’re children. We obey because God is God, because the Church is the Church . . . and because it doesn’t matter if we’re delighted about it or not. We obey because we willingly gave ourselves over to obedience to God the Father and to the Church, our Mother.
I’m grateful for the obligations the Church imposes. And deep down, I wish she would impose more, because I’m lazy. I’d like to see some Holy Days of Obligation moved back to weekdays, and I know that the small trials I endure would be more fruitful if my sacrifices weren’t optional.
All the same, it’s a good idea to remember that I obey, it’s because the thing I’m doing is good for me . . . but also because obeying itself is good for me. Obedience for the sake of obedience isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing, either. At least it reminds me of who I am. Humblesse oblige!