This post first appeared at Taming the Wilds. Republished with permission.
For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds, and you said, “I will not serve!” On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the whore. – Jeremiah 2:20
Each year, various entities declare a “Word of the Year,” a word that sums up the events of the year or that dominated in some fashion. In 2020, unsurprisingly, words such as “pandemic,” “lockdown,” and “quarantine” topped lists. Although we are still early in 2021, I would like to go ahead and suggest a word—or phrase, really—of the year: Non serviam.
Traditionally, these words are attributed to Satan, who spoke these words of rejection, “I will not serve,” to God. Later in the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah mourns Israel’s rejection of God by their faithlessness to His commandments, accusing them of “playing the whore” by serving foreign gods. Today, we hear this battle cry once again, and it is all the more confusing because rather than coming from a single group or political party, it seems to echo all around us. And while it is hardly noteworthy to list the myriad of ways secular culture and both sides of the political spectrum have taken up this phrase as their motto, what is far more disturbing is the cries of non serviam we hear within the Church herself.
“I will not serve,” declare the priests who pledge to bless homosexual unions in defiance of the order from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
“I will not serve,” proclaims the laity who refuse to wear masks in conformance with their Bishop’s order.
“I will not serve,” states the married couple who chooses to use contraception.
“I will not serve,” asserts the self-proclaimed Traditionalist who rejects all or portions of Vatican II.
“I don’t know who to believe anymore or who to trust,” a friend sobbed to me recently when hearing an accusation that a well-respected and faithful Bishop was sowing seeds of confusion on a particular issue. While the accusation turned out to be, in my opinion, the result of an uncharitable and unnuanced reading of a statement made by the Bishop on social media, my friend’s point was well made. Who do we believe and who do we follow when we get conflicting messages from Church or governmental authorities?
Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene writes in Divine Intimacy that obedience ranks first among the virtues of Jesus, for He came into the world for no other purpose than to do the will of His Father (see Heb. 10:7). As self-professed Christians who are called to imitate Christ in our daily lives, then, it is imperative that we, too, develop the virtue of obedience. But how do we cultivate this in such a confusing and charged atmosphere?
Because there is no power but from God (Rom. 13:1), by obeying our lawful superiors, both in ecclesiastical and in civil and social spheres, we can be confident that we are obeying God. Even when we lack human confidence in the orders of our superior, rightly supposing that such orders are poorly founded or of questionable motives, for example, we can and must obey with joy and confidence – confidence not in our superior, perhaps, but in Christ.
God directs us by means of our superiors. Because the authority of Church and state actors is derived ultimately from God, all that occurs is the result of His active or permissive will. We must learn to see and judge natural events with supernatural eyes, trusting that God is working even in and through the sometimes (often-times?) misguided directions of our superiors.
Now of course this does not mean we should cultivate blind obedience. We are free to ask for explanations, and we are always right to bring matters of injustice to the attention of our superiors, so long as we do so in a posture of humility. We are also never permitted to obey our superiors when doing so would be contrary to faith or morals as expressed by God through His Church.
St. John of the Cross wrote that we should “[n]ever look upon your superior, whoever he may be, with less regard than upon God Himself.” Rather than declaring, “Non serviam,” we must look upon each person in authority over us and say “Hic est Christus mens,” “This is my Christ.”
To cultivate a rightly ordered virtue of obedience, then, each of us must ask, “Who is my Christ?” When we do this, we will begin to see what I think of as a series of mantles, or cloaks, of authority that nest within each other. As long as we stay under the protection and direction of our God-given mantles of authority, we need not fear displeasing God.
To make this example more concrete, as a laywoman, wife, and mother, my immediate authority is my husband. Above him lies civil authority, and over that lies ecclesial authority. Within the realm of civil authority, this looks first like obeying local, then state, then federal law. Within the realm of ecclesial authority, this looks first like submitting to our particular parish priest, then our Bishop, then the Pope.
If you’re looking to tempt the diabolical, look no further than echoing the Devil’s own words and acting out from under those mantles of authority placed over you. Often staying under the mantle of authority will be painful in some way, functioning as a sort of small act of martyrdom. We may have other preferences, we may know better, or we may suspect the intent or wisdom of an order. We may even (rightly or wrongly) deem ourselves holier than the person above us! This is precisely the point. By renouncing our own will and becoming obedient to the death of self, we are exalted in Christ (Phil. 2:8-9). And by doing so, we pray with Jesus and Mary, “Not my will, but Yours.”