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)