Obedience. Deference. Authority. Docility. These are not very popular words in our society. Our culture has attached a negative connotation to each of them.
Why? Each of these words, when properly understood, is a key to a deeper understanding of our discipleship. They can help us to better grasp what we are called to be as disciples.
In considering this state of affairs, I am reminded of people who seemingly know everything and of those who can’t be told anything. I am also reminded, however, of the many more people who do show respect and obedience to others, especially those who have authority.
My memory is flooded with faces of friends and parishioners who show heroic deference and humility in their daily lives and in their relationships with others. What’s the difference? What realities do these words have to offer?
One negative aspect of our culture is that it teaches us that we are all kings or queens in our own kingdoms. We are taught to be radically autonomous, independent, and to rely only on ourselves.
Other people are to be seen as a means to our goals, and any effort by someone else to change or correct us is to be seen as an affront to our dignity. God is avoided, or our understanding of him is adjusted to conform to our way of life.
Such a cultural demand, however, cannot ever be fully lived. In attempts to live it, we only find ourselves isolated, spiritually alone, and removed from relationships and community.
Love becomes a distant reality, if not an abandoned idea seen as an outdated fantasy. Is this how we are called to live? Is this all that life has to offer us?
The redeeming quality of this cultural demand is that each of us are distinct persons, who have dignity and are called to an aspect of self-possession. Our self-possession, however, is not meant to be an enthronement to ourselves, but is meant to empower and encourage us to engage, love and serve other people. It is meant to free us to receive the counsel and correction of others, especially those in authority. It permits us to approach the revealed God and allow his teachings to change us.
In this context, we can see how discipleship offers a complement and an enhancement to who we are as human beings.
As disciples, in any area of life, we are able to follow another, not in a slavish, self-destructive way, but in a very human, edifying way. We can be comfortable in following and trusting another, knowing that nothing good in ourselves is lost or diminished. Rather, by showing deference and docility, the good in ourselves is only increased and strengthened.
Discipleship means following another, and allowing ourselves to be open to becoming better people.
Father Kirby is the parochial vicar at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken.