2020-06-26 KENYA

The Vow of Obedience X-rayed by the Emergence of the Novel Coronavirus

By Br. Moses Fegher, formation team of MIUC Nairobi, Kenya

COVID-19 reminds me of the words Br. Rufus Ezeh, fms when he taught me during my postulancy that lasting contentment, security, and happiness are not to be found in the present world, but in the world to come. As stated by St. Augustine, “we are saved by hope”, so we are made happy by hope. Neither our salvation nor our beatitude is here present, but ‘we wait for it’ in the future, and we wait ‘with patience’, precisely because we are surrounded by evils which patience must endure until we come to where all good things are sources of inexpressible happiness and where there will be no longer anything to endure. Such is to be our salvation in the hereafter; such is our final blessedness.

COVID-19 has reframed every aspect of my life, my relationships and my world, lending new clarity to things I scarcely noticed before. The pandemic is a collective experience with a profoundly personal twist. One of the paradoxes of this shared global crisis is that we are all going through the same thing, but experiencing it very differently. One person’s inconvenience is another person’s death sentence. This is an emerging community of deep and meaningful conversations about the state of the world and our place in it. As I have been pondering essential questions, a sacred space of reflection and relationship has developed. The experience has been unique for me.

I returned to Kenya from Nigeria when my intended trip to Manziana, Rome, for a three-month Worksop in Young Formators Mentors’ program, was aborted due to the uprising and scourging experience of the novel virus especially at the time in Italy. I arrived Nairobi in the week lockdown and curfew were announced to be strictly observed by every resident of Kenya.

In light of the pandemic, community gatherings shifted to individual religious activities to a digital platform. I embarked on a series of virtual “mini-retreats” to engage the question: What commitments compel me toward a loving, just and full life? The vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience are ways that religious life helps us orient ourselves to three defining dynamics of human experience. Poverty reorients our relationships to creature comforts of wealth, money and security. Celibacy frames the nature of our relationships with others – how we express intimacy, affection and exclusivity. Obedience defines our association to power vis-à-vis control, individual will, authority and integrity of conscience.

There is wisdom offered by these vows that is urgent and relevant to this contemporary, globalized pandemic. At its root, I am gradually becoming more and deeply aware of the reality that obedience is about the individual will and how much we are open to guidance from something outside of ourselves. With the alarming cases of the Coronavirus, there was an urgency impressed upon people across the globe to stay at home voluntarily. Obedience was framed as an act of solidarity. After a period of stay at home orders across the globe, a very different, negative picture of obedience was equally bubbling the globe. A narrative of forced submission and loss of individual freedoms became something to resist. What changed and what might the vow of obedience tell us?

In contemporary religious life, the ideal of obedience to our sisters is akin to obedience to loving parents. Why would we disobey those who only want to see us thrive? Obedire, in fact, comes from the Latin root meaning to listen. How do you heed advice from a cherished family member, from a mentor, from a best friend? What about when it is counter to what we want to hear? Not all messages are welcome, and tough love can be hard to receive. In this sense, the vow of obedience is not about giving up one’s will but instead moulding it to a higher good – when the authority and the one who obeys come to share the same mind. Obedience means being open to learning, to gleaning from the knowledge or the wisdom outside of oneself. Whether that authority is God, the prioress or the shared mission of the community, it plays a central role in the educational process. It is a channel for the alignment of wills.

In religious life, the community is a primary mechanism for living out the vow of obedience. Ideally, obedience within a community is a learning process that brings the group together to share a common will, to recognize a common good. A genuinely obedient community is one in which no one would ever need to be compelled to do anything.

While obedience means listening, learning and being open to a will outside of your own, it does not mean submission or relinquishing judgement. After all, even religious leaders may not always know what’s best. Part of being obedient is receiving guidance in good faith, while simultaneously not betraying our own truth. Defining the place and nature of true authority wisely means we are as able to dissent as we are to obey. Paradoxically, obeying a higher authority may ultimately require disobedience.

How might this concept of obedience serve me now during this era of the pandemic in which there is no clear authority to guide me? My so-called leaders are utterly failing to address the shortcomings of our economic and social structures. The suffering is increasingly acute, widespread, multi- faceted and concentrated among the most vulnerable, the frailest, the poorest and people of colour.

Kenneth Pargament, a psychologist of religion and heath once said, “the language of the sacred – forbearance, mystery, suffering, hope, finitude, surrender, divine purpose and redemption” – can help people cope with situations beyond their control. The novel virus has created a time which embodies the defining quality of a believer and how to be of benefit to God’s creation. Following from the above line of thought, my consciousness is ignited by the invitation of our General Superior, Br. Ernesto Sanchez, who accentuated that “like Mary, in the face of uncertainty and fear, we need faith, trust and passion for God and humanity as solid foundations to go forward.

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