There was a time when obedience was an element of myriad relationships, from married couples in which wives promised to obey husbands, to feudal relationships in which those who were poor were expected to obey their wealthy superiors, to families in which children learned early that prompt obedience was owed their parents. While cultural changes have eliminated obedience from most relationships outside those where hierarchies are in place and following orders is part of the process, I sometimes wonder whether we could use a bit of obedience in our ordinary dealings with one another.
In its original Latin form, the word was obaudire and had as its root meaning, “to listen.” Obedience requires listening in order to happen, and the listening must come first, before any action. Along with removing obedience from most of our exchanges, the work of listening seems also to have been lost. Everyone has something to say all the time—but in all our saying, who is listening, and why? We follow our own desires, our culture encourages us to put our individual needs first, and in such a dynamic not only is there no obedience but there is precious little listening, especially the kind of listening which results in allowing the other to be primary.
Outside settings where obedience is required, to be obedient is seen as being subservient, not standing up for oneself. But from a spiritual perspective, obedience is an honoring of the other, a willingness to have the other’s wishes followed. Many spiritual traditions continue to lift up obedience as a virtue, not because following orders is important but because learning to listen with all one’s heart is crucial if the deepest communications—between two people, between the soul and God—are to be heard.
I am not one who likes to be bossed around (though I do admit to liking being the one who bosses). But I understand the value of listening and then choosing my actions in accordance with what I have heard. My life journey has included times of poor choices, when I refused to listen to advice being given, often because I was unwilling to let another guide me. So I now am trying the spiritual practice of obedience, listening carefully to all the messages around me, and shaping my choices in accordance with what I hear. So much in my environment—friends, passersby, the clerk at the store, the people I work with, the birds outside my window, the presence I call God—has something to tell me that I will be wiser for hearing, then allowing that hearing to impact my actions. In other words, to be obedient.