I was recently struck by the fact that the last three books I’ve read are about obedience.
A dear friend in the States sent me the ‘Lizzie’ novels by Amish writer Linda Byler. As you may know I’m fascinated by the Amish and so to read a series of novels written ‘from the inside’ was a real treat. I was surprised (though why?) by how the characters in the book have all the same feelings that the rest of us do – family tensions, frustrations, and so forth. And I was interested to read how Lizzie struggles with the question of obedience – to God, to the Ordnung (church rules) and to her future husband. By the end of the last book, it seemed to me that insofar as obedience to her husband goes, Lizzie and her husband both discover that they must each be ‘obedient’ to the other and create a marriage built on mutual respect. Their struggles, like Lizzie’s parents’ own struggles, would be very familiar to any non-Amish family who has had to work out juggling careers, children, work, where to live, responsibilities towards other family members, and so on.
I Leap Over the Wall is a book I’ve read at least three times before now. (This 1957 paperback has a cover that seems to anticipate The Sound of Music in 1959.) Baldwin was the niece of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. She entered an enclosed order of contemplative nuns in 1914 and left it in 1941, when she was in her late forties. The wall that she “leapt” over was, in her words, a spiritual one rather than a physical one. Her account of emerging into wartime Britain after having been cut off from all developments since before the First World War is intriguing. She recounts the effects of her vow of obedience in the convent – useful if your sole object is union with God, but not so good in a war-torn worldly setting. For example, she has to learn to make noise so as not to startle people, and has to break the 27-year-long habit of keeping her eyes cast to the ground. Her greatest challenge is to discover a new obedience – no longer to a Rule imposed from the outside, but to her own instincts and to what she calls Inward Urges. These guide her in sometimes startling ways to create a new life for herself.
Lastly, with some misgivings I began Hannah Hurnard’s Christian allegory, Hinds’ Feet in High Places. I’d expected it might be horribly didactic, but found it a compelling and thought-provoking read, and I plan to re-read it sometime. It’s the story of Much-Afraid, who journeys from the Valley of Humiliation to the High Places. All along the way, she has free will to leave off her arduous journey but she decides to be obedient to the guidance of the Shepherd. She is assisted on her journey by Sorrow and Suffering. I was very interested to discover, having finished the book, that it was written in 1955 and that its author was brought up a Quaker, became a missionary, and later apparently was much criticised for her interest in New Age thought and reincarnation. I like the sound of this woman – talk about following your own path!
So I’ve been reflecting on obedience. It seems an extremely old-fashioned concept. Our society is much more interested in winning competitions, material success, and asserting one’s individuality. I’m all for critical thinking, and I myself have on occasion been extremely disobedient. In fact, here I am committing Civil Disobedience during the 1984 strike at Yale University:
A few years later, a reader’s report on my Ph.D dissertation on the medieval writer Christine de Pizan stated that I had “committed the heresy of feminism” just as the subject of my study had. This was amazing to me, as I’d been completely disinterested in feminist thought until that point. I embraced my disobedience, and began to read the feminist classics to see what exactly I’d been accused of. I ended up teaching Women’s Studies for many years! Throughout my life, I’ve been fairly headstrong and independent, for better and for worse.
But the older I get, the more interested I’ve become in the deeply unfashionable concept of obedience. It’s not just that I believe we should stick to the speed limit and other external regulations. It’s the inner work of being obedient that is challenging and fascinating. For example, at work I see students who increasingly chafe against being told what to do. One recently declared to me, “I am not going to edit my essays!” I replied that the choice was hers, but if she wanted to improve her writing she would have to edit. Many young people resist having to follow conventions, and I find myself in the odd position of defending obedience to convention, at least in academic writing, as a path to clearer communication. (Of course in other ways young people, as always, are hugely conventional – witness the amusing sight of skirts just at knicker length, and for boys, trousers that are held around their hips only by a kind of cowboy walk.)
Within marriage and family there are many moments of negotiation, and this can often be a disguised form of obedience. One example is that we were discussing whether to go ahead with our summer week away, given how unwell the Dafter still is. She agreed it would be potentially difficult, “But I think Daddy really needs to have a holiday. Don’t cancel.” She was being obedient to some kind of inner imperative about the balance of needs in the family. We’re not always so self-sacrificing, needless to say! When Michael and I are both happily settled at the end of a long day, and a request comes wafting through from another part of the house, we don’t always fight to be the first to jump up and obey.
Parenthood brings the question of obedience to the fore – both the question of how and when to try to get your children to obey you as a parent, and also of obeying the commitment to love them unconditionally no matter what. Parents sometimes make great sacrifices for their children, and all parents make thousands of smaller sacrifices along the way. One could see this in terms of being obedient to the demands of parental love and devotion.
When couples struggle through difficult decisions in life – do we move to a new city so one of us can have a better career? do we stay put so that the other can enjoy their job? Which set of parents do we visit at Christmas? Who decides which movie to watch? etc. – all of these could be seen in terms of obedience to the imperative of treasuring the other person in the couple. Similar questions occur within the extended family: who cares for the ageing parent? who organises get-togethers? and so forth. Obedience and sacrifice are closely connected.
And then there’s obedience to one’s inner voice. I do believe in following my instincts. In fact, that copy of I Leap Over the Wall came to me one day in Illinois when I was walking past a thrift shop and the thought came clearly to me: “Go in there – there’s something for you!” So I did, and there it was. Similarly, I try to walk a certain route if I feel so inclined, phone someone if I feel an inner nagging to do so, and so on. Very often it turns out there was a good reason for doing so.
If you believe, as I do, that God takes an interest in your life and wants to help, the question is: how to be obedient and be led in the best path? In the past I have asked for very clear guidance, and have received it. Sometimes this has taken the form of doors firmly shutting in my face. On the other hand, I remember seeing the ad for the job I have happily had for the last eight years. My heart sank, as it was at that time in a section I thought was problematic. I remember thinking/praying: “Do I have to apply for this?” and feeling/knowing, “Yes, you do.” It truly was what I was meant for, and has been very fulfilling. On the other hand, I have at times been willful and only later realised that I was motivated by getting my own way, or by fear, and that I had ignored those nagging inner voices that had been trying to get my attention all along.
Lastly, I think that we need also to be obedient to the imperative of self-expression. This can sometimes be hard to do. For example, it might be midnight but you want to finish sewing something together; common sense says Go to Bed, but that crazy spark of life inside says, Go ahead! Finish the project! Or you end up walking up a side road because you’re hoping that the lilac that hung over the fence last year will be in blossom again this year. Or you take yourself out for a walk, just because, even though there are dishes to be done. Or you wear the slightly odd article of clothing that cheers you up. This kind of obedience is, in my opinion, vital to living authentically.
If you’ve read this far, firstly thank you, and secondly I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the topic of obedience.