I would imagine that very few of my readers would ever have taken a vow of obedience, as I did. Franciscans, like all members of Catholic Religious Orders, take three vows : poverty, chastity and obedience. I took these vows just after turning 17, in an Order founded by a Saint who defined obedience in terms of a … corpse, because a cadaver, a stiff, has no choice, no will of its own, no possibility of discussing or negotiating or refusing to do what anyone wants to do with it. I gave up the right to own anything, and the right to sexual relationships even in marriage. But I also gave up my own will, my own power to choose to do … anything. Others decided everything for me. As in childhood, I would always be told what to do.
Such a renunciation must sound unreal, unimaginable even. But the fact is I lived under such a vow for fourteen years, until the day I made my Declaration of Independence : “Not thy will, but mine, be done.” At the age of 31, I reclaimed the freedom that was the birth-right I had relinquished. I, the Other Frank (not Sinatra), declared – though I did not sing – “I’ll do it myyyyy way !”.
Few people take a vow of obedience. But we all learn to obey in the first years of our life. We learn to cope with the challenges of life by obeying our parents and teachers. We learn that there are people with authority over us; we learn the rules we must obey and the punishment we can expect if we don’t. We learn to respect law-makers and especially law-enforcers. We learn to live and work under the authority of people we recognize as our “superiors”. In civil life, in the work-place, in the military, they give us orders and we obey. In the Church we learn that serious disobedience of its rules, and those it claims come from God, will be punished in the eternal fires of Hell. Religion is built on the foundation of obedience, of submission. “Unless you become as little children”, Jesus said, “you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven”. “Submission” is the very meaning of the word … “Islam”.
It took me years to recognize the obvious truth that becoming an adult means assuming one’s autonomy and personal responsibilities, thinking for oneself, deciding freely rather than obeying blindly. We accept the need for, and the necessary respect of, the laws that govern society. But it is childish or at least immature to allow others to dictate what we must believe, what religious rules we must follow, and the ways we should worship the gods whom religions have invented.
The Church rightly calls its clergy “pastors”, shepherds, and the people expected to obey them, a “flock”, a flock of sheep. I am an ex-Franciscan priest, a “Shepherd in the Mist”, an apostate become a militant atheist. Some believers call me “a black sheep”. Their fleeces, of course, are lily-white; they are not black sheep, but they are sheep nonetheless. I am not.