Our culture is largely at war with authority. It is easy to understand why this is the case when we examine some of the philosophies that under-gird Western culture as a whole. The idea that freedom is using the will to achieve power comes from nihilism. Truth being set by the individual because there is no objective truth comes from relativism. Individual happiness for the greatest number of people even to the point of using anything and everything, including other human beings, comes from utilitarianism. Very quickly a pattern emerges in which all authority is adjudicated to the individual and anyone who seeks to take away that authority is a threat. The Church is largely seen as an institution of authority, which it is, but more than anything it is a sign to the world of God’s gift of salvation and the love He extends to all peoples in every age. Authority and love go hand-in-hand.
Even as Catholics—thanks to the Fall—we struggle with authority. There are many Catholics in the pews who have fallen prey to these philosophies who think they can ignore Church teaching because they have a right to make those choices as a matter of conscience; never mind that this is an erroneous understanding of conscience. More than anything it is to misunderstand what authority means according to God.
The spiritual life is a constant learning to let go so that our lives may more closely resemble Christ. Part of the journey is detaching ourselves from those things that are a stumbling block to us on the path. All of us have things that get in our way of achieving the call God has given to each one of us. Sometimes they are certain Church teachings that we do not understand or do not want to submit to, so we choose disobedience. For some people there is a slower conversion process than others and while we may not fully understand what God and the Church are asking of us, we do have an obligation to live our lives in conformity to those teachings.
Far too many of us approach authority from a Fallen human perspective. We see it as a constraint on our freedom, desires, and even our happiness. We want to be left alone to do what we want to do, largely regardless of the consequences. All of us experience this from time-to-time with our struggles with habitual sin and temptations. Momentarily we forget what the sin will do to us and we give in only to find ourselves unhappy again.
God’s authority is not the same as human authority. Yes, we are required to submit because He is God and we are not, but Christ always views authority within the framework of love. He does not seek our blind adherence. He is not calling us to follow Him begrudgingly; although in our brokenness we all experience this on occasion. He asks for our obedience in love because He seeks communion with each one of us and He seeks to make us into the saints we are meant to be.
We are made for happiness, but not the happiness the world offers. We are made for blessedness—beatitudo—from the Beatitudes. This is a type of joy the world can never give to us, but it is what we strive for each and every day, even if we are not consciously aware of it. It is because we are made for happiness that God calls us to obedience. He knows what will make us happy. He knows what will lead us to heaven and what will not. There are objective truths that we must follow because they are in line with reality and how the universe is ordered. They are in place so that we can flourish in this life and in the next.
Sometimes God asks us as individuals to give certain things up. We may not understand why, especially if the thing itself is a good. Since we are individuals with different bodies, temperaments, personalities, gifts, struggles, and souls only He can know what is both good and harmful to us. I learned this lesson recently as I struggled to relinquish my grip on my coffee addiction.
Coffee is a good that is meant to be enjoyed in moderation, like all goods in this life. It is something that is enjoyed by many people across the globe, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good for everyone. For years God has been asking me to give it up. I’d get frustrated and not understand why everyone else is able to drink coffee, but I am being told to stop drinking it. God made this very clear to me, and for years I kept on being disobedient about it.
A couple of months ago I was driving to Mass and I realized that if I truly love Him then I could and should give coffee up. My giving it up is not a matter of blindly submitting, but rather, it is a gift I give back to Him in love. He is not limiting my freedom, rather, He is teaching me and leading me to where I can progress in holiness.
Unlike a lot of other people, I have a strong reaction to caffeine. It makes my heart race, my already rapid-fire mind goes into overdrive, by the afternoon I get tired and irritable so that I need another cup of coffee. It impacts me both physically and mentally, which in turn effects me spiritually. This then not only causes problems for me, it causes problems for the people around me. God loves me. He knows what is harmful to me and coffee is one of those things that is a major stumbling block for me and that impedes my progress.
Not only is coffee in itself a struggle for me, but it is also tied to a whole host of other sins for me. It is the domino that sets all of the other dominos tumbling down. Since it causes me to be more irritable and impacts my ability to think as clearly, it can also make me impulsive and anxious. As someone who strives ardently to make prudent decisions through the use of reason, caffeine lowers my ability to do so and slows or blocks my progress in this cardinal virtue. These are all things that I have had to come to realize over time.
I spent years looking at obedience in this area of my life as a burden. I kept looking at other people around me and comparing myself to them. Instead, God was calling me to keep my eyes fixed on Him. What my neighbor is doing is irrelevant because He is asking something else of me. It doesn’t matter if other people understand and it doesn’t matter if everyone around me is drinking a cup of coffee while I sit there drinking a glass of water. God wants what is best for me and what is best for me is to avoid caffeine, especially the higher levels found in coffee.
This applies to all areas of our spiritual lives. We are all walking our individual paths while being closely united in communion in the Mystical Body. We are united, but our paths are not all the same. What is good for one person may be a lesser good, or even harmful to the next person. This is of course not the case in objective moral truths. We are all called to live in accordance with those truths because our disobedience in these areas is objectively harmful across the board and will lead us away from God. Since we are made by and for God, we cannot live against our nature. It leads to unhappiness and pain.
In order to see as Christ sees, we have to re-align our understanding of authority so that it is in line with God’s own teaching on authority. Authority and obedience are about love. Our obedience is meant to stem from our deep love of Christ, not purely from holy fear, which does have a proper place. We are called to self-emptying love and that form of love means relinquishing those things that get in the way of our ability to love God and others. When we no longer see our obedience as a burden, but rather as a movement of love, we are able to give freely of ourselves and move one step closer to loving as Christ loves.