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Listening and Obedience

By Fr Donald Chambers

“The saints teach us to live boldly by listening to that gentle voice within” (Matthew Kelly)

The root meaning of the word ‘obey’ originates from the Latin word ob, meaning “in the direction of” and audire, meaning to “hear or listen”. The two parts, “in the direction of” and “hear” signify a movement towards a particular direction to listen.

During the current vulnerable, uncertain, confusing, and ambiguous period, the fears, anxieties, and depression of the Covid-19 pandemic are potential enemies to listening.

Using the witness of Joseph, let us reflect on obedience as a movement towards God to listen. There are several such movements we observe in the life of Joseph.

Joseph moves towards a deeper awareness that God is the centre of the universe, and not himself, nor his ideas, opinions, and preoccupations. He realises that his vocation is to cooperate with God’s will.

Despite his disappointment and broken expectations, Joseph “. . . got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt . . .” (Mt 2:14–15). This is an example of obedience occurring as listening becomes possible with less self-preoccupations, and an openness to move in the direction of God’s voice.  However, the disease of self-centredness is a major roadblock in this movement which, according to Pope Francis, is manifested in three ways—narcissism, discouragement, and pessimism.

He writes, “Narcissism takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you… You end up so in love with the image you created that you end up drowning in it… Discouragement leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you… Eventually it closes you in on yourself and you can’t see anything beyond yourself.”  Pessimism  “…is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold…”

Shifting from his self-preoccupation, Joseph moves towards God’s voice. Joseph also moves to search for the real or deeper question at hand, and not necessarily the answer.

Hidden within his experience of disappointment and broken expectations, Joseph found the real questions. ‘Should I spare Mary or myself the shame and embarrassment?’; ‘Should I give in to the fear of becoming a refugee or staying at home and risk the death of the Child?’

Like Joseph, we become aware of the question when we are able to listen silently to what is happening within us and around us.

As Fr Arturo Sosa SJ, current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, remarked to his Jesuit brothers, “It seems obvious… we find that the issue is not clearly defined, and people become trapped and lost and frustrated.”

Joseph moves to receive vital information. Each time Joseph faces a hard decision, the gospel writer shows that God provides Joseph with concrete information through his dreams.

For example, Joseph receives information about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, its meaning, and the name to be given to the Child, and also information about the threat and death of Herod.

Information is like gathered pieces of a puzzle in which the individual pieces help to see the bigger picture. Again Fr Sosa remarks, “Without good data, we are discerning in the dark. God works through human means. We have to do some spadework and get the relevant information.”

While the gospels do not mention sharing the messages of his dream, it is likely that Joseph would have shared the messages with Mary, and both would have decided and planned, for example, to flee as refugees.

God not only relates to us as individuals, but also within the context of community. To this end, listening as obedience is aided when we share the fruits of our individual prayers and engage in a dialogue with a community. Dialogue allows for the discernment of God’s will, and for the courage to act on God’s will.

Paraphrasing Fr Karl Rahner SJ, theologian Elizabeth Johnson says that every person is a little word of God—a letter of the alphabet—and together we will spell out something great.

Joseph spelt out the great mystery of God’s salvation through listening and sharing.

The witness of Joseph challenges us to change our direction away from our own self-centredness and towards the direction of God’s voice. The Church’s tradition and secular disciplines offer guiding stars leading towards God.

Some examples of these stars are spiritual direction, psychological counselling, community life, spiritual reading, a disciplined prayer life, and time for play, relaxation, and exercise.

Obedience as a movement towards God is a life-long, learning journey that must begin now. As we remain faithful to this marathon race, we learn to be less self-preoccupied, discouraged, and pessimistic, and more God-focused. In doing so, we will be able to save others as did Joseph the Carpenter.

Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.