Learning Obedience

Last Friday, I sat down for the first time at 9 p.m. I couldn’t tell you what it was I was doing all day, except to say that it all seemed good and necessary — and much of it was. Nevertheless, the upshot of it was that, by the time I entered my bedroom for the evening, I was utterly exhausted.

Yet, I foolishly expected to still be able to think deeply about the news of the day, to render a dent in the pile of periodicals brimming on my bedside table and to author a blog post for this little, still-as-yet-unadvertised space. The blog post was to be “Lessons from Little House” with a subtitle of “A Meditation on the Meaning of Freedom.” Yes, at 9 p.m. last Friday, after an exhausting day.

The trouble was that I couldn’t find my copy of Little Town on the Prairie, the novel that includes the passage on which my “Meditation on the Meaning of Freedom” was to be based. I’d had it Wednesday evening for book club, but hadn’t seen it since — and I’d scoured the house for it. At 9 p.m. last Friday, this minor annoyance became an urgent emergency. I had to find that book!

Naturally, I asked the Oilman whether he’d seen it. He hadn’t. We contemplated the possibility that Sweet Potato had made off with it and stowed it in some improbable cupboard or drawer, and I felt my frustration give way to despair. I verged on tears, whining to the Oilman about “pregnancy brain” and the minor catastrophes I’d weathered that week, from a lost wallet to gum on my shoes. The book had become symbolic for all that I was seemingly seeking and failing to find — achievement, satisfaction, fulfillment, etc., etc.

The Oilman gently reminded me that life is long and that this season of sowing seeds is short. Plenty of time to reap later, he essentially said. It wasn’t, of course, what I wanted to hear. Then, he looked at me helplessly and said the very last thing I wanted to hear.

“Maybe you ought to go to bed,” he said.

Now?” I wailed. “If I go to bed now, I’ll never think or read or write ever again!”

Even as I said it, I knew how ridiculous it sounded. Still, my thoughts rebelled against the Oilman’s all-too-prosaic advice. Go to sleep? How unoriginal!

Then, unbidden, I remembered the countless times I’d received the same advice throughout my life. “Take counsel with your pillow.” “The beginning of spiritual maturity is to go to bed when you’re tired.” Even — “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

So, I went to bed. Predictably, in the morning, I felt better. A day or two later, I had the presence of mind to email the friend who’d hosted book club. Had I left my copy of Little Town on the Prairie at her house? Of course I had.

Newborn and toddler parenting books — of which I’ve already read too many — treat primarily of two topics: Sleeping and eating. Sleep resistance, it seems, is common among the newborn set. In my experience, it’s common among adults, as well. In this, as in everything, we must model the habits we hope and pray our children will acquire.

It goes deeper than that, though. To sleep when we are tired is a form of obedience to the God who made us to grow tired — and, if we wish to “be perfect as (our) Heavenly Father is perfect,” obedience is crucial. It’s so important to perfection, in fact, that it’s one of the three evangelical counsels along with chastity and poverty.

In a recent direct mail piece, Mother Assumpta Long, O.P., Prioress General of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich., writes about the rewards of these counsels. Here’s what she says specifically about obedience:

“In a world that sees freedom only as a lack of restriction on our personal desires, the vow of obedience testifies that true freedom is being able to choose the good, the true and the beautiful. By embracing obedience, we are given the joy of knowing we are following God’s will. As I tell all of our Sisters: ‘If you have obedience right, everything else will follow.'”

Mother Assumpta is a nun and the nuns she leads give their entire lives to Christ in a very visible way, literally vowing to live poverty, chastity and obedience, but, contrary to popular opinion, these counsels are not merely for religious. As Dom Hubert Van Zeller writes in Holiness for Housewives (which I highly recommend!), “(T)hey apply to everyone who wants to be perfect.”

Here’s Van Zeller on obedience:

Unwavering commitment to your vocation requires a certain obedience, which can be difficult if you do not understand why you should be obedient. For example, Catholics do not obey the Church merely because Her commands are wise and reasonable. They obey because they love God. Obedience is not the acknowledgment that an unintelligent being gives to an intelligent one. It is the compliment that a lover pays to a beloved. If obedience rested solely on the recognition of a superior intelligence, it would not last a week. We can always persuade ourselves that we know better.”

As Dr. Gregory Popcak and Lisa Popcak write in Parenting with Grace:

Jesus Christ ‘commands’ our obedience by virtue of His total self-gift. If we obey Him, our obedience comes only as a logical and spontaneous response to His complete gift of self. As the children’s Sunday school song says, ‘Oh, how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.’ This is the heart of the obedience Christ invites us to offer Him — our loving response to His having loved us first.”

When Pope Saint John Paul II speaks of the “sacred order of love” and the biblical concept of submission of wives to husbands, he says submission — another term for obedience — means, simply, to submit to be loved.

As parents, we observe and lament when our children resist our loving overtures for their good — our attempts to spoon-feed them vegetables or to give them the time and space they need to rest. Why will they not simply submit to be loved? Presumably, they don’t yet recognize our love for what it is. Little as they are, they simply crave comfort and immediate gratification. Are we so different, after all?

Thankfully, the Lord is very gentle and patient with us and, when we first begin on the road to perfection, He offers us many comforts and consolations, which become for us very blessed assurances of His love for us when crosses inevitably come later.

If it’s silly to resist crosses, it’s even sillier to resist consolations. When we do, we’re akin to the child who resists a nice cuddle! Sound sleep is a comfort, so, presumably, we ought to receive it gratefully as long as the Lord grants it to us. In some seasons, after all (think brand-new motherhood or severe illness), He doesn’t!

In that first moment when the Oilman exhorted me to go to bed, I experienced his advice as a chafing — even insulting — suggestion. In the next, when I recollected how disciplined he himself is in this regard (he goes to bed before 10 p.m. nine nights out of 10 and wakes unfailingly at 5 a.m. on weekdays, all to provide well for us) and how often I’d received the same advice from others, I experienced his suggestion as an overture of love — and I also quite suddenly sensed my responsibility to submit.

The first little key to obedience I’m learning, then, is this: To be ever more alive to love. On that note, I’d better go to bed.

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