Even the word ‘obedience’ has an old-fashioned ring to modern ears. It smacks of compulsion, of loss of autonomy and self-will; and if we value anything in our society, if the will of the self. Much, perhaps most, of what is wrong with our society stems from this loss of the sense that we are a fallen race; it is ‘natural’ we are told, as though that is synonymous with ‘it is right’. If we acknowledge our brokenness, then we see that, left to ourselves, we’re as likely to go wrong as otherwise. But thinking ourselves as wise as God, we become gods in our sight.
Yet in the prayer Our Lord taught us, we pray ‘thy will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven’. St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on Luke writes:
‘Why then did he command the saints to say … “Your will be done …?” This petition is worthy of the saints and full of praise … We request that power may be given to those on earth to do the will of God and imitate the conduct practiced in heaven by the holy angels … The will of God over all is that those on earth should live in holiness, piously, without blame, being washed from all impurity, and diligent in imitating the spiritual beauty of the spirits above in heaven.
Of our own will we go astray – as the words of the old general confession in the BCP have it, ‘there is no health in us’. That is precisely why we pray to do God’s will, and for the Grace to do it. St. Paul spoke for us all when he wrote: ‘For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.’ Left to ourselves, we find ourselves where Paul was. Why then do we value our own will so much? Satan speaks to us as he did the Eve: we have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and we are like God. At the very moment we think that, we fall into the same trap as our first parents.
If the Spirit is in us, then obedience is no dry, unwilling service wrung from slaves, it is our ‘faith working through love’. This type of obedience is a living reality that can’t be reduced to a list of things we should and should not do, or to a typology of sins. We need, as the roots of the English word imply, to listen well. In the words of Our Lord as recorded by St. Mark, we need to ‘Repent, and believe in the gospel’. If we could see the perils ahead, we should probably not have the courage to begin, but in loving obedience to the Spirit, we go onward.
Here, as so often, Our Lady is our guide. Obedient to the will of God, she nonetheless kept these things in her heart and pondered them, as we must. If we see her as our exemplar, we acquire a view of what obedience means which might help us – but it requires of us a supreme effort – because it is not easy, and may be the hardest thing we do.