Blind Obedience

As a monk I would have taken several vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, stability

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Faith

When I was twelve and going to Mass daily, my Masonic father slammed his hand on our kitchen table one evening and asked, “What’s this about daily Mass? No more of it.” I suppose my “excessive” religiosity was from watching Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV every week. Perhaps because my parents offered me no encouragement regarding religion, my heart and mind were eagerly receptive to the bishop’s Catholic perspective.

Whatever the reason for my impulsive church-going, I obeyed my father and stopped going to daily Mass. My taciturn parents depended on a practical Depression-era model of educating us. They never quoted from the Bible, but they lived frugal, moral lives, and counseled me with occasional maxims like “there’s always two sides to every story.”

I had a definite vocation for something more than the typical marriage, kids, a nice house in the suburbs, and a good-paying job. But for what exactly, I didn’t know. If my parents were devout Catholics, I likely would have considered the priesthood.

A nervous breakdown during engineering graduate school drastically changed my life. In my mid-twenties, I found myself knocking at the panel door of St. Joseph Abbey. I lived there a month as a fresh candidate for the Trappist order. My parents would have had fits if they had known where I was or had seen the brothers, after chanting evening psalms, kneel before the abbot to kiss his ring.

After five years I would have to make several vows to join: vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, stability. Obedience is difficult. I had been practicing poverty and chastity for a while, but obedience requires a humbling of the self to another. In marriage, vows are made to one’s spouse. A monk makes vows to the abbot, who represents the mystical Bride of Christ that is the Church. The unconditional vow I would have had to make required my blind obedience, not for a few days but for my whole life, to a superior whose character could deteriorate years later, or who could die and be replaced with another monk far worse. I could not do that.

I often wondered over the next 50 years if it was the right decision to leave. What was it about the Abbey that bothered me? To specify, a few of the 50 monks living there in 1968 had quirks that got me thinking the Abbey was a home for the mentally afflicted who couldn’t deal with the world. To join them frightened me, for it would be confirming my own mental turmoil. I had not told the abbot of my nervous breakdown in our private counseling sessions, so that hung over me also. Would they vote me into membership after revealing that? Likely not.

I conjured other reasons to leave. What if the abbot or his successors were homosexuals? Would I be able to resist their overtures? If I rejected a superior, maybe I’d end up shoveling bull crap until deceased. Though I’d physically have the option to cut and run, psychologically I’d be trapped by the vow of stability and the fact that I had to sign over any assets before joining up.

Some ten years after I left that monastery, I still felt the call to be a diocesan priest. During the late 1970s, when the sexual revolution had fully blossomed in seminaries, the rumors spoke volumes to me. This time, blind obedience would have had me kneeling and kissing the ring of some bishop, not of some abbot. Same dilemma, different venue.

A retired pastor of mine got reprimanded by his liberal bishop for preaching conservative doctrine that attracted many to hear him. He was persuaded to retire early or lose his pension. He is still required to be obedient to that bishop’s unconscionable muzzling, even though he lives 2,500 miles away. I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate that.

Nowadays, I read of “canceled” priests being forced to preach liberalism or leave the active ministry. The good ones live obedient only to the Spirit of truth, having learned that when the blind follow the blind, they both fall into the pit (Luke 6:39).

I’m finally content as a layman, a living temple worshiping the Lord where I am.

True worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit of truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks (John 4:23).

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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