By MARY TARDIFF
[The following is a guest post by my niece. Mary Tardiff, now 27, lives in Rhode Island.]
Every act of obedience is an act of worship to God. I remember vividly how these words affected me. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and I was standing alone in our big refectory, reading the little prayer card that had been sent by one of our federation sisters as a memento of her golden jubilee. After fifty years of religious life, she had chosen this quote to express her gratitude for the richness of her vocation.
As I studied this revelation of her heart, I realized with a jolt that I was forgetting to follow an “obedience” ( a command from my superior), that I had received just that morning, to wear my veil further back on my forehead. I preferred to wear it forward so it would not pinch my ears, but this, according to my novice mistress, looked silly. I tugged my veil back and returned to the prayer card, wondering what this jubilee sister would think of me, a year-old postulant, torn between reverence, irritation, and a desire to laugh!
I had come to the monastery the year before, brim-full of expectation, asking to be received into obedience and taught how to worship God within the monastic tradition. I loved our life with the Eucharist, and I loved my sisters. But it was a constant source of confusion for me to be given obediences that seemed pointless, cumbersome, and even damaging.
Our life was full of rules, and about a third of them made sense to me. My novice mistress taught me to mortify my eyes–an ancient monastic discipline that was supposed to help me focus on God. The result was that I was tense from the effort of trying not to look out the window, or at my sisters. She taught me to comport myself in a ladylike manner, by sitting straight and still and keeping a cheerful countenance. So I was miserable from the effort of holding my body still and thinking about my facial expression all day long. She taught me that we must be fully present–heart and soul and mind and body–at the recitation of the Divine Office. I sometimes wet myself because she would not permit me to leave for the bathroom. She made me heap up my plate at meals; she forbade me from changing my underwear every day; she read my letters to my mother and corrected me if I said anything negative. I often told her how upsetting it was for me to be micromanaged like this, but she considered complaining to be a fault, and told me to be more respectful.
I knew that my “Dear Mistress” meant no harm, but I was exhausted from so much obedience. And besides my little daily humiliations, there was a darker, heavier cloud on my horizon. I was in the beginning stages of a chronic illness that was degenerating rapidly. The commands that my superiors routinely gave me regulated every aspect of my life including, as I was beginning to discover, my ability to manage my symptoms.
Irritation was turning into fear. I had a real breakdown when Dear Mistress told me to stop gripping the pew, which I did whenever I was in choir, because I was dizzy and afraid of falling. She did not withdraw this command when I pleaded in tears, because she thought I was being overly emotional. So I was left with the religious duty to stand without support, when I was close to fainting.
Obedience, obedience, the bedrock of religious life, the virtue which Christ practiced unto death! How I wished that my heart was like the old jubilee sister’s heart, filled with gratitude and reverence, instead of this anger that galled and sickened me. I read her prayer card one more time. Then I put my face in my hands and cried like Job, to the God who always listens. O holy love, I do not understand. I do not understand.
I began devouring Church documents such as Vita Consecrata, and searching the lives of the saints, hoping for clearer teaching on obedience, aware that I might be misunderstanding my duty to my novice mistress. Ignoring some very helpful advice from Padre Pio, (“If my superiors told me to jump out of a window, I would jump!”) I began asking my superiors when a subordinate may justly disobey a command. The only answer I received, both from my readings and from my teachers, was that we must always obey unless the command is morally wrong. None of the commands that I was given were so bad that it was clear to me that I could object on the grounds of conscience. So I kept obeying.
As my illness developed, and ordinary duties became more and more burdensome, I found that I was afraid of what my mistress would tell me to do next. My friendship with her began to crumble. I had long since learned that whenever my needs caused disruption or inconvenience to the community, either she or my abbess would intervene on the community’s behalf, and my need would be dismissed as a triviality. If, after months of pleading, I received permission to have an “exception” (such as softer food that I could swallow without pain, or a pillow for my burning back), my enormous relief would turn into an obsessive fear that the exception would be taken away because my superiors would decide that it was against holy poverty or community-mindedness. I lived in a state of near-hysteria for another year, until the community voted not to receive me for investiture, and my superiors mercifully told me to go.
The day before my parents came to take me home, I remember kneeling in our beautiful smooth-wood chapel, promising my Savior that I would not complain to my family about anything that had happened to me. Two years previously, I had left everyone I had ever loved behind to follow Jesus.
It was an act of love. It was magnificent. To come away from those two years with only hurt and anger was more unbearable than the physical pain of an unmanaged illness. I did not want to reject the teaching of the Church on the goodness of religious life. I did not want to continue with this monster of anger in my soul. It felt like a sin against my entire religion, because it was a rejection of something that my religion proclaims to be good.
But how could I believe that obedience is good when my experience of obedience was so ugly?
I kept my resolve of silence for three weeks, and then I broke down and told my parents everything. I cried as they hugged me and told me, “You should be angry. I’m glad you’re angry.” I was safe now. My needs were being taken seriously. The pressure to be perfect, to be cheerful and grateful and gracious, was gone. It no longer seemed like such a sin to admit that my superiors had made bad use of their authority.
But I was still confused about the question of whether I had also made bad use of my obedience. I had been taught that a superior may be wrong in commanding, but a subject is still right in obeying. But I was by no means sure that I had been right in obeying. My obedience had enabled a situation that had been good for neither me nor my novice mistress. When I remembered the fights we had whenever I asked for an exception or adjustment, over whether I really needed it–fights that ended with me on my knees confessing my fault–I wondered if our relationship would have been better if I had done the unthinkable and at least once refused to obey her. I wrote to a good priest who I knew had a deep respect for religious life, and asked for spiritual direction.
This priest told me, to my great relief, that I would have been justified in saying, “no” to my superiors when their commands began hurting my health. Then he made a distinction for me that I could hardly believe I had not made for myself.
He said that a command does not have to be “morally wrong” in the extreme sense of an intrinsic wrong in order for it to qualify as wrong. My conscience could have legitimately objected to the seemingly commonplace commands that caused me harm in my illness.
“Just eat your cake” did not register in my mind as a morally wrong command, because it was not intrinsically wrong. But the cake made me so sick that I was left crying in pain. And when I asked my teachers about difficult situations of obedience, they always gave larger-than-life examples of commands that were unmistakably wrong. Go start a war! Go murder your grandmother! If my novice mistress’ commands had been that bad, then I would have known immediately that I should not obey. But neither she nor I realized that the cake was also something that I should have refused. My poor novice mistress! She never understood why I was so angry at her.
I was happy that my spiritual director had affirmed my right, even as a religious sister, to stand up for my health. But I was still troubled by humiliating memories of being controlled in ways that did no physical damage, but nevertheless felt inappropriate. The idea that my superior had to be physically hurting me before I could say, “no” bothered me for the same reason as the idea that the command had to be unmistakably evil. If we only object to extreme forms of harm, then how will we cope with situations that are less extreme, but still harmful?
A wife whose husband commands and controls and micromanages her–but never beats her–is still an unhappy wife. And I was an unhappy postulant even before my health crisis, when my superiors broke into my personal sphere and gave commands about my hygiene, my facial expressions, my thoughts, and my letters home. I could not wash my underwear after my novice mistress told me not to, because she would have considered it an act of defiance, immaturity, and blatant irreligious disobedience. The command upset me; but how could I judge if it upset me enough that I could legitimately refuse?
This question was much harder for me to answer than the question of whether I should have refused harmful commands about my health. But I continued thinking and reading about obedience until I discovered another gem, another distinction that I wish to God I had thought of at the time. It was St. Thomas Aquinas’ idea that we are bound to obey our lawful superiors only within their lawful sphere of authority.
It occurred to me that sphere of authority, just like moral wrong, is a concept which is sometimes crystal clear, sometimes dead confusing. When we are told that it is a federal offense to disobey a flight attendant, it is clear that our obligation is to obey the flight attendant when she gives commands about airplane safety. We are not required to obey if she tells us to stand on our heads, because her sphere of authority does not extend over such a matter. I asked myself, what was my superiors’ sphere of authority over me? What commands could they justly give, and what commands were inappropriate?
Every sphere of authority is defined by the end for which the authority is ordained. The flight attendant’s authority is there to promote the safety of the passengers; therefore her sphere of authority extends only over matters pertaining to their safety during a flight. The religious superior’s authority is there to guide the community to follow the rule. Therefore my superiors should have limited their commands to whatever was relevant to the faithful following of the rule.
But here was the source of confusion: the faithful following of the rule was a matter very much open to interpretation. An ideal can be a nebulous thing, imprecise, hard to apply with certainty to daily living. My abbess and novice mistress frequently gave commands which they thought promoted holy poverty, or discipline, or another of our ideals, but which I thought were unnecessary and overbearing. A nun’s life is already so scheduled and regulated, that the constant commands about the minutiae of our personal lives went unquestioned. Sphere of authority was never discussed, and the end result was that there was almost no area of my life that my superiors did not command and direct.
To this day, when I look back on my experience, I still have trouble distinguishing when I should have submitted to my superiors’ interpretation of the rule, and when I should have told them that their commands were inappropriate. But in the future, if I am ever in an unclear situation of obedience and unsure of the propriety of the command, I will at least know that the decision to obey or refuse belongs to my discernment and conscience. For my life ahead, I am determined to obey the precepts of the Church, the just laws of my country, and any other rules or requests that are consistent with prudence and charity; but I will never again let someone micromanage me within the context of a relationship, telling me all the while that obedience is beautiful.
I am telling my story primarily for the sake of my Christian brothers and sisters who are struggling in confused, dysfunctional, and pain-filled relationships that function under a religious expectation of obedience. I think that such dysfunction occurs particularly often within traditional-minded marriages, in which St. Paul’s exhortation, “wives obey your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) is interpreted rigorously. To be sure, St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as deeply as Christ loved the Church, and to use their authority to become the servant-leader of their family after the model of Christ. But St. Paul is presenting an ideal of virtue, not a guaranteed description of a particular husband’s behavior. If a husband fails to use his authority in a Christ-like way, and instead uses it selfishly at the expense of his wife, then the wife has no instruction from St. Paul on whether she is still required to obey him. She is often left thinking that if she pushes back against her husband’s treatment of her, she is pushing back against the entire force of holy scripture and tradition.
To an outsider looking into a dysfunctional relationship, it may seem clear that it is not good to hurt yourself because of another’s faulty command. But to the Christian wife or the religious sister, whose head and heart are full of half-understood ideals of obedience, submission, and sacrifice, it is not so clear.
The solution to the incongruity between the scriptural description of the beauty of obedience, and the ugly way obedience often plays itself out in human relationships, is not to reject scripture or to minimize the abuse of the subordinate. The solution is to be very clear what is meant by the virtue of obedience. Obedience as a virtue means doing the will of another when that will is consistent with prudence and charity. If we praise obedience without making this distinction clear, then those of us who are in abusive situations of obedience will be left without guidance, asking from the depths of our hearts how a sacred thing can cause so much harm.
I struggled for many years with the question of why the Church would uphold something as sacred that so often leads to harm. I believe the answer is that nothing hurts the human person so much as the profanation of the sacred. In our post-Vatican II era, we are familiar with this teaching in the context of human love and sexuality. The Church describes sexual union as holy; and yet so many people pursue sex in harmful ways and come away profoundly damaged. When you give the gift of your body to another, it is meant to be a total gift of self, and it is meant to be received with gratitude, humility, reverence, and a reciprocal gift of self. If your sexuality does not have this character of a gift, or if your gift is received without reverence and used to objectify you, then you and your partner will both be hurt.
The same is true for the gift of the will, which is obedience. In a personal relationship, obedience is sacred, and it must not be profaned. It is meant to be a union of your heart with the heart of the person you have chosen to obey. If your obedience does not have this character of a gift, or if your gift is received without reverence and used to command you harmfully, then you and your superior will both be hurt.
My dear brothers and sisters: whether you are a religious obeying her superior, a wife obeying her husband, or a child obeying his parents, you should know the parameters of your obedience. Whether your situation is extreme or commonplace, you should know where your duty ends. It may be your privilege to make sacrifices for a good cause, but it is never your duty to let another person hurt you needlessly. If your superior is commanding hardships that are not his to command, or that are disproportionate to the good accomplished, then it may be time to refuse for the sake of the good that your superior is forgetting. Remember that your health matters. Your dignity matters. Your friendship with your superior matters. If these values (as well as the values of sacrifice and submission) inform your conscience, then you will know when it is morally right to stand up for yourself.
Related reading: When a Catholic Leaves Seminary or Religious Life
How I learned to stop worrying about wifely obedience and love my husband
Also recommended: Leonie’s Longing, an organization founded to help those who have left religious life (as in a convent or seminary)
36 thoughts on “Holy Obedience: What are the limits?”
I thought this was well written and good points made, thank you for having the courage to share. It clearly indicates how powerful is our free will and how we have to choose to submit or not. There is no holiness in mindless or fearful obedience. The goal of following God is not obedience but holiness, obedience is only a tool.
It is essential for us to know who God really is and what He commands. People are never a perfect image of God and sadly for most people they only know God through the veil of wounded people in authority. And everyone in authority is wounded. Good News we all have access to the Father or if we are scared of Him to the other members of the Trinity. It is our relationship to perfect authority that helps us understand and profit from imperfect authority. I have had many experience as a priest where the obedience of my bishop was my next stage of healing and transformation though I did not trust or understand at the time. Most of the obedience I have been asked were not irrational but when they were I had God supporting me. Each time I went to God to figure out my next move and it was God that guide the obedience. I trust that whatever I am called to do has to be processed with the author of all authority.
We can safely take our anger to God who want to show how to profit from the situation He has allowed us to be in. There is great danger in stuffing your anger as anger is mean by God to create action. It is how we be anger but do not sin. Anger without action create gossip and passive aggressive actions, taking it out on those who do not deserve it, making blanket statements about things, resentment and pressure cooker style anger there probably a list of the of the symptoms quite long. St Francis de Sales said that anger is an acid that does more damage to the vessel than what it is thrown on. We do not see Jesus suppressing His anger and He never sinned in it. Take it to God sit in His presence and see how He responds. Religious life, Catholic life is a life with the Holy Trinity and the Holy Family who with their love can heal and help us profit from the situation God allowed. Then we know how to act because we have encountered the author of all. Look at the range of emotions that God expresses we are His Children and can act like that. I am praying all who have been hurt to take your anger and hurt to our loving Father. You will be pleasantly surprised at His love and compassion for you and His action plan of healing and transformation.
Why on earth was this novice mistress interested in a young nun’s underwear? This behavior is an offense against modesty. If the novice mistress did this, she should be ashamed of herself. To prevent a woman from changing her underwear, and to even bring this up as a topic of discussion, is shocking. If Mary had been an office employee in the secular world, this behavior would have been immediately identified as sexual harassment. In fact, it is indistinguishable from “grooming” behavior of sexual predators. Thank God Mary is out of that community. The community needs a wake up call about sexual abuse, and a stern reminder about modesty and decency. The idea that a nun in their community was having such conversations with a novice should make them all blush.
That institution seemed abusive and controlling on several levels, including her illness. I teach young children, and there is structure, but we know our job descriptions and would never ignore health issues. We are simply not qualified, and have to seek advice of people who are professionals. Her experience is frightening to me that rules are made arbitrarily and are expected to be obeyed.
Thank you for sharing. It is heartbreaking to hear that this situation was allowed to exist. I am touched by your continued wrestling with you experience and desire to make sense of it all.
My own experience of obedience in a cloistered monastery was quite different and honestly very healing. My novice mistress was very gentle and generously kind in areas where I inclined toward scruples while being firm but encouraging in areas where I lacked the discipline that was expected in that community’s life. There was always a why if I cared to ask for it, even if it was simply “this is our custom”, the community regularly reviewed their customs and how they served their vocation and life of prayer so following them felt more like stepping into a living tradition that was full of history and meaning rather than a list of arbitrary rules. It was obvious that every decision the superiors made was rooted in their prayer life and discernment of where the Holy Spirit was leading .
I pray that people like Mary speaking out about abusive behavior masquerading as obedience helps inspire change so that experiences like my own become more the norm in our monasteries.
Thank you for sharing this, Mary. May God bless you for your continued faithfulness to him.
I too was in a cloistered monastery with some pretty medieval obediences similar to those you describe; however, I was always able to get concessions for health reasons. (It helped that my novice mistress struggled with her own health issues and so was sympathetic. I wonder now if another might not have been…) It is inappropriate for superiors to load down their sisters/brothers with additional penances beyond what’s already “baked in” to the rule of life. To degrade our human dignity with punitive measures against health/hygiene is never OK, and I’m so sorry you experienced this. May the Lord grant you continued healing and peace.
Thank you all for reading my story!
I have been following the comments, and I thought it would be good to post a follow-up. I did my best to do justice to the complexity of my situation, but of course I was hampered by the word limit. I’m afraid many people came away with the idea that my religious superiors were sadistic maniacs who deliberately terrorized their postulants. This is not the case at all! They were good people who mismanaged a situation that was much more delicate than they realized.
A huge source of the problem (I didn’t explain this in the essay) was the limits on communication caused by our monastic silence and internal enclosure. By “internal enclosure” I mean that the novitiate sisters were kept separate from the rest of the community. As a postulant, I had almost no direct contact with the abbess. Many of the harmful commands I received were given by my abbess, who simply had no idea how sick I was and how her commands were affecting me. My novice mistress was supposed to be giving her reports on how I was doing, but it was like the telephone game: communication just wasn’t getting through.
I read once that obedience is rarely a problem in religious life because, “most superiors aren’t ogres.” What I was trying to communicate in this essay is that it doesn’t take an ogre. Significant problems arise because of poor communication, poor judgment, misplaced priorities, and other mistakes that are not at all rare among well-meaning people.
I have no idea whether my experience was a rare exception or not. But I suspect that the problems that I have described are common in religious life, not because most superiors are bad people, but because the system of obedience magnifies their mistakes, the rule of silence limits communication, and the ideals of asceticism, discipline, and conformity create priorities that often conflict with the needs of the individual.
I was honored to hear that my story was helpful to some people, especially people who have similar stories to tell. I hope that I haven’t also done harm by contributing to anger against the Church. I love the Church, and I want to be a voice of love.
What’s needed to heal these problems is just more clarity and awareness, which is where I hope my essay can be helpful. An essay can’t heal the malice in someone’s heart, but it might be able to lift confusion. It is precisely because the problems in my community were caused by confusion, not malice, that I thought I could do some good by sharing my story publicly.
Wishing you all a blessed Lent! Love and prayers,
Well-balanced response, Mary.
I sent your article to my daughter, the Poor Clare. I write to her every week without fail and consider her vocation a treasure beyond measure to our family.
You had a rough go of it, and you’re not the only one…though each person’s experience and response are different…and complicated.
In fact, I don’t think there is an easy black-or-white explanation or formula. Indeed, your follow-on comment speaks to that very conclusion.
What I don’t doubt is that God has a plan for you. Don’t ever give up on Him…and know that He will never give up on you.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful and humbling story. It is a gift to hear and and is great food for thought especially for anyone who is a leader or authority of any kind like a father or mother. My own story is different, but I sympathize on the health points especially with eating things that make you sick. Any chance we could talk in a more private way? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. What is yours?
May God reward you Mary. Would you please (for the sake of so much) tell the readers that the underwear issue is really no big deal. Seriously, who hasn’t worn their underwear twice in their lifetime? I lived almost the exact life you did-just a different location. I was in Santa Barbara and you in Barhamsville. As I already wrote in my comments, many of the practices in stricter monasteries will never be understood by the general public. The are many traditions and customs in our Poor Clare Colettine Federation. Quite a few would scandalize the general public as can be read in the comments. The normal Catholic or general public has no idea about these types of ascetism May God reward you Mary. Would you please (for the sake of so much) tell the readers that the underwear issue is really no big deal. Seriously, who hasn’t worn their underwear twice in their lifetime? I lived almost the exact life you did-just a different location. I was in Santa Barbara and you in Barhamsville.
Many of the customs and traditions in our monasteries would not be understood by the everyday Catholic or general public. As can be read by the comments, people are scandalized. Did you think about that before you posted about those things? The comments are hateful and cruel towards your superiors. I will be sending your post to Mother Abbess in Barhamsville and Mother Abbess in Santa Barbara (whom I believe is the Federation Abbess still). They should know what you have shared with the readers.
I truly am sorry for what you experienced and how you feel. I’m praying for you. Maybe, ten years from now or so, you will look back and see things differently. I do.
I left the monastery after a botched novitiate of two years and I am still sore about it almost two decades later. Obedience is fine in theory, but in modern practice it just devolves into manipulation and gaslighting. The worst part is never feeling if you did God’s will or not, if you should have done more, or if the things they imply about you really were true. And they get to go on and be the holy consecrated ones and you’re just a failure, and you feel you can’t say anything about it.
I know what you’re going through and I will say it gets better, but part of you never gets over it. Or maybe you will, but I haven’t. And I have a wife and family now. You’re doing the right thing. My prayers for you.
Also, who was this so-called Novice Mistress? She should be exposed for the pervy abuser that she is. People like that should get no aid and comfort; they need to be smoked out of the church like the rats they are.
Too, I may add, what Mary’s spiritual director told her is true and not true. We all have free will. We choose every moment. Mary could choose to obey or not. If she outright told one of her Poor Clare superiors she would not obey, it would not be taken lightly. They may very well have sent her home after that.
My experience was, if I chose to disobey, I chose to leave the monastery. There was something I was very upset about and did not want to obey. I was given those two choices. Obviously, I subdued my desire to do/be whatever I wanted. It was my first year as a novice. What was so important to me then, I learned was not truly so important. None of my superiors did anything wrong.
If we want someone to agree with us about something, we just keep searching until we find that person. Mary’s spiritual director said what she wanted to hear. She didn’t bother asking another priest, or did she? Most priests know little about religious life. There will always be priests and other people who tell us what we want to hear.
The Reformers were absolutely right about the monasteries and thank God they suppressed them – Exhibit # 789,234
As the father of a Poor Clare contemplative who recently marked her 7th year since Final Vows, the experience recounted by Mary in this post is not remotely similar to my daughter’s…to the best of my knowledge and information at least.
My daughter grew up in a boisterous Irish-American family not given to passive obedience, and she took that temperament into the monastery. She was never asked to humiliate herself or accept brainwashed indoctrination. If she had been asked to do that, she would have left straight-away.
As it is, her spirit survived and remains strong as ever. Neither her Mother Abbess, for whom we have great respect, nor her earlier Mistress of Novices, known to my daughter as “Dear Mistress,” would have it any other way.
I do think the story as presented by Mary has elements of abuse in it. That said, honestly, and no offense to Mary, who seems to be thoughtful and devout, I would like to hear the proverbial “other side of the story” with regard to not being allowed to go to the bathroom or wash underwear. Something doesn’t quite add up.
By the way, we have six children plus 28 (and counting) grandchildren. (One of my kids is commentator Matt Walsh.) We taught all our kids as they grew up that you must never obey an unlawful or immoral order…whether it comes from your parents…teachers…priests…Pope…whoever.
I’m praying for Mary (the name of our first-born, by the way) and hope she finds fulfillment and happiness in whatever God has called her to.
…the crossover I never thought I’d see in my lifetime right here.
It adds up to me. I think the Novice Mistress was operating under a misconception of her responsibility to the rule. She sounds overzealous and immature to me; not able to see when the person in front of her in all justice needed an exception or a different approach.
I don’t know that, of course. But I do think it’s possible to be abusive with “good” intentions. It doesn’t limit the damage, but it explains why on Earth that woman thought what she was doing was right.
Jerry, unfortunately abuse can happen to even the most outgoing personality. I had a family member who had a similar experience in a non cloistered convent, and when, afterward, she shared what had happened to her (and others!) a Sister who stayed found the comments online and went on the offensive. Even though the order itself wasn’t mentioned in the post! Just as you state, she claimed she had a personality that wouldn’t take abuse, and if mistreatment was present she would have left.
It’s not that easy.
Are referring to me. I was sent home before solemn vows. I wasn’t on the defensive. I am not on the defensive. I am simply pointing out things from another pov. I know which monastery Mary was in, even though it wasn’t mentioned. There are other ways of knowing things. Her former monastery and my former monastery are part of a larger federation. These monasteries all follow much of the same customs and traditions. The general public will not be able to understand many of these.
Now, I was in a non-cloistered community before joining the Poor Clares. *That* community was abusive. Yet, there were/are so many good sisters.
I would expect the father of uncompassionate troll Matt Walsh to insist that “there must be more to this story” rather than.. believing the victim.
Jerry, May God reward you for you calm and thoughtful comments. Keep praying for all of us-whether in the monastery, former monastery or any other Catholic. I’m trying to imagine you as Matt Walsh’s father haha. I do appreciate his work.
As a former Poor Clare (of six years) I do not agree. Obedience is the hardest thing anyone ever gives of themselves. I am assuming from everything Mary wrote, she was in a Poor Clare monastery very much like I was. It was not the same one. I can tell differences from her words. Our monasteries were/are probably in the same Federation.
I, too, was sent home but I was sent home just before solemn vows. Chronic, intractable migraines was my illness. (I still have migraines.) This day and age, a sick, bedridden young sister does not work for most monasteries or communities of religious life. No longer are the days of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity or St. Therese. Is it hurtful to be sent home? Absolutely. It takes a huge amount of grace and maturity to see that it’s OK. That most everything described in Mary’s sharing was all right. I experienced much of the same requests myself. There are things, as the one being told to obey, we cannot see as helpful. That is why we have superiors. Our superiors are not supposed to be our friends. They are more akin to a mother. Abbess anyone?
I love my former “Dear Mistress”. Did she ask things of me that I didn’t understand or think were not all right? Yes. Now almost 15 years later, I see much more clearly. Many of the traditions in (stricter/more traditional) Poor Clare Monasteries are shocking to the outside world. So of course, the outside world will be upset. This article does more harm than good. Mary does not excuse (in charity) her superiors or even say positive things about her time in the monastery. It is all negative. It is her experience. Yes.
There are many aspects of being in religious life, the outside world will be hard pressed to understand.
I am praying for you Mary. I’m sorry you are still dealing with so much hurt. I truly understand. More than I have shared here.
The trouble with the position that ‘there are things, as the one being told to obey, we cannot see as helpful’ is that it can be used to justify anything at all. No matter how aberrant and unjust the command, this can always be said about it and used to justify obeying the command. St. Thomas says that religious take a vow to obey the rule of their order, not their superior as such. The task of the superior is to give commands that ensure that the rule is properly obeyed. So if an observance is mentioned in the rule, a novice cannot complain about having to obey it. That is not the situation being described here. Mary’s remark that difficulty of communication between abbess and novice mistress caused many of the problems is well-intentioned but not reasonable. It is the abbess’s job to know about the situation when she gives commands, and if she does not she is to blame. The claim that ‘this article does more harm than good’ is one that is made by many hostile commenters. It is usually accompanied by attacks on the author, not just for writing the article but as a person. These are indications that the article is right and does good.
The unfortunate experience described here is based on a wrong conception of obedience described here; https://catholicfamilynews.com/blog/2018/10/27/2018-10-27-tyranny-and-sexual-abuse-in-the-catholic-church-a-jesuit-tragedy/. this is the article referred to by Matthew above – Rorate Caeli took it down for unexplained reasons.
Dang. That was a good article.
This was a powerful first-person witness for which I am very grateful. I have heard of and seen other situations like this and it’s always very painful to see, because it shows how even the best things can go awry.
To get at some of the deep roots of the crisis of obedience (which affects us in many domains), I would recommend a very insightful essay by Dr John Lamont, “Tyranny and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Jesuit Tragedy.” He shows, with careful citations from many authors, how a notion of blind obedience crept into the conception of religious life — obedience as a way of preventing a subject from having his own judgment, his own view, his own ideas, his own will. This was the necessary grounding to some of the really sick cases of abuse we have all seen reported for decades now.
I would suggest going over to the Rorate Caeli blog and searching “Jesuit obedience”. I think there needs to be a formal condemnation of Ignatius’ concept of obedience.
Lots to think about here as a parent.
Thank you, Mary, for writing this. I can tell a lot of effort went into it.
I was a religious for 20 years. One thing I observed in many and in countless others is that in many communities “holy obedience” is used in such a way as to never allow adults to become adults. Whereas getting married and paying taxes and having a baby will force a sense of autonomy and adulthood on a 25 or 30 year real quick, “holy obedience” in some religious communities can be a cause for arrested development and resentment because many superiors and religious interpret obedience as childish trust. It’s one thing to have childlike trust in God but it can’t be dehumanizing as well when the expectation on the part of an congregation is that you never have a healthy sense of adulthood – and that’s what I’ve experienced. A superior who is now a superior general once told me I had obedience issues and needed a year off of ministry because he sensed I had trouble trusting his decisions – not that I ever disobeyed or rebelled but that I simply wasn’t a little kid, putty in his hands, because I would essentially want to talk as grown ups. Not rebellious or disrespectful just seeking to be trusted as a grown up myself. In essence the order often didn’t want adults they wanted kids. A healthy religious community is amazing but they’re few and far between – but an unhealthy one can be very devastating and an unhealthy superior can use his or her authority as a shield to protect them from their own brokenness. I think the of vow obedience is beautiful when it’s exercised only in essentials but not “daily bread” as if the vow is what saves you or makes you holy. God wants healthy trusting adult rooted in being HIS children but not codependent relationships. Prayers asking yours.
I had never thought about that before, how going into religious life could stunt you from growing into your full maturity if you are in a strict or absolute obedience required order from early adulthood.
For myself, I imagine how I would respond to an order which would harm me would be quite different now as a mother of 5, to how I would have responded as a college graduate. I have so much more backbone now to take a stand against something unjust that I would have accepted in meekness before I had fully matured into myself. And I do know we are expected to suffer in humility as Christians, but in an order of fellow Christian sisters or brothers, we should not expect to have basic human decency withheld from us.
I am sure a good religious order would make a difference in what was required.
It seems to me that so much of Mary’s suffering could have been alleviated if her superiors and taken a common sense approach and then just…moved on. Instead of demanding strict adherence to the rule- change your clothing if you are wet; sit down if you are faint; eat something else if you are sick.
This kind of approach would not have led Mary into false comfort. With her individual medical struggles, she may have decided with the support of her superiors that religious life was not for her. But that would require a measured and whole person approach, rather than judging her to be unsuitable because of things which were truly beyond her control, not character flaws. Good discernment would work this out together with a humble novitiate and wise superior. This happens in discernment for the priesthood in a good program- religious orders should be subject to the same requirements. I think if it is a cloistered order, young women are particularly vulnerable to bad leadership.
God bless you Mary and may you heal and use your wisdom now for tender good in your sphere of influence.
I am so glad Mary mentioned Leonie’s Longing as a resource. That group is very dedicated and I hope Mary finds more healing as time goes by. Thank you for publishing this, Simcha.
So sorry Mary went through such a horrible experience. How awful to be left with such hurt and anger after giving a sincere gift of self. I did find this post edifying in its articulation of why certain forms of obedience feel ‘off’. It has helped me. Thank you Mary.
Thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry your niece had such a horrible and traumatic experience. that community sounds very unhealthy. I’ve not heard of such strict obediences in our post-Vatican II era. I am edified by her pursuit of the truth of what holy obedience truly is. I will pray for her continued healing from this trauma and for her discernment!
(I will preface this by saying I am speaking from my own emotions here and do not know what Mary’s feelings are, but I feel this is worth stating).
I knew Mary (not super well, I don’t know if she would remember me, but enough to know she was one of the most intelligent, whole-hearted, and gentle girls in the whole school) from Trivium, and while she is discussing this entire situation very reasonably and subtly as a meditation on appropriate and inappropriate obedience, I would like to add my own (more blunt) two cents.
I am deeply, deeply angry to hear that she had this experience. To Mary, I am so sorry that you were treated in such a horrifying manner by people you gave the gift of your trust and respect to- you didn’t deserve that, and I hope you know that. In religious terms, she experienced an inappropriate exercise of authority; in secular/psychological terms (which I think are clarifying here because they are more straightforward), the situation described pretty clearly like spiritual and emotional abuse – totally unacceptable by any rational standard, regardless of faith commitments. And I just want to say that in an abusive situation, there is often not something you could have done or thought ‘better’ in order to have been ‘ready’ to counter the abuse; an abusive person (which I *personally* think her mistress clearly was, supported by what sounds like a horrendous community culture) will exploit, even if unintenionally, especially if buttressed by a dishonest or immoral group culture. So, just to say, Mary, your responses of confusion and fear and pain were not indicative of failure but normal reactions to monstrous behavior on the part of those surrounding you.
Again, I don’t know what Mary would think of this bold declaration about her experience (and I’d welcome anything she would wish to say) but I just wanted to name that out loud, clearly, because I hate when abusive situations become overly intellectualized or spiritualized in religious circles, always to the detriment of real victims. I will add that the ‘mistress’ in authority should clearly be removed from her position and that I hope Mary can access whatever personal or professional help she needs to heal. She is worth so much more than how she was treated, and while I know she is a gentle soul, the situation she describes is not an academic matter- it is abusive and waaay beyond the pale for baseline, normal adult human conduct.
In love and fury,
Yes Catherine! 100%
God Bless you Mary. I will for you this Lent as you continue your healing journey.
Very well said, Catherine! It was abuse, plain and simple.
“Because I hate when abusive situations become overly intellectualized or spiritualized in religious circles, always to the detriment of real victims.”
^Absolutely. We in the Church need to talk much more about spiritual and emotional abuse. It exists, yet is easily overlooked by attributing it to misunderstandings, idealisations, and lack of faith or willingness on the part of the victim.