Phenomenology of the Vows: Obedience

May 16, 2013

Professor Edmund Husserl

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As Virgil and Beatrice were to Dante, so Edmund Husserl has been our guide to the three evangelical counsels. We have seen how his notions of intentionality and givenness enrich our understanding of what the vows offer to us and how we relate to them. Along the way we have also discovered other parts of Husserl’s philosophical project, such as the phenomenological reduction and the process of transcendental bracketing—the removal of all that is contingent and inessential in search of what is true. It is finally time to turn to obedience, the counsel according to the Dominican Constitutions that is pre-eminent among the counsels:

“By obedience a person dedicates himself totally to God and his actions come closer to the goal of profession, which is the perfection of charity. Everything else too in the apostolic life is included under obedience (LCO 19.1).”

And yet what seems more counter-intuitive to today’s culture than obedience? Isn’t that something for children and young people living at home? Why do grown men, Dominican friars, make this promise of obedience, including poverty and chastity under its yoke? Once again, Husserl can be of help.
What in Husserl’s thought would correspond to obedience, the pre-eminent counsel? This must be his principle of all principles:

“No conceivable theory can make us err with respect to the principle of all principles: that ever originally preventive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originally offered to us in ‘intuition’ is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there (Ideas I, section 24).”

Everything given to us in intuition, everything perceived, is presented according to its own mode of disclosure: we do not dictate terms to the objects we find in the world. This is not a form of naïve realism: what you see is what you get. To see things as they are in themselves requires hard phenomenological work; we must follow the difficult and delicate steps of the phenomenological reduction. Husserl offers an example:

“I have a particular intuition of redness, or rather several such intuitions. I stick strictly to the pure immanence; I am careful to perform the phenomenological reduction. I snip away any further significance of redness, any way in which it may be viewed as something transcendent, e.g., as the redness of a piece of blotting paper on my table, etc. And no I grasp in pure ‘seeing’ the meaning of the concept of redness in general, redness in specie, the universal ‘seen’ as identicalin this and that. No longer is it the particular as such which is referred to, not this or that red thing, but redness in general (The Idea of Phenomenology, 44-45). 

Seeing something as it is in itself means stripping it of all the contingent and non-essential elements. It means looking close at the thing as it is given to consciousness as an intentional object. Seeing in this way is no mean feat, nor is it a normal daily occurrence!
The vow of obedience is similar: If we want to be free we must obey. The Catechism links freedom with obedience in this way:

“The more one does that is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin (CCC 1733).’”

The Dominican Constitutions similarly stress the need for obedience in the achievement of freedom:

“Because obedience ‘plants the roots of self-discipline in our hearts’ it is of the greatest benefit to that freedom of spirit characteristic of the children of God, and disposes us to self-giving charity (LCO 19.3).”

Pope Honorius III and St. Dominic
– L. da Ponte

The vow of obedience is an offering of one’s freedom in return for a greater freedom in the service of the highest good: God’s will. When a friar takes the vow of obedience he is offering himself as an instrument of God under the direction of his superiors. We again meet the structure of intentionality: obedience is for something, it is for the apostolic life in fulfillment of the God’s call. Although easily misunderstood, obedience is not a negation of freedom, but a development of authentic freedom in serving the good, serving God in a particular way. Obedience is not against freedom, but for it!
The notion of givennessalso illumines obedience because when the vow is lived out one receives something, or rather, someone:

 “Through obedience, we imitate Christ in a special manner, Christ who always obeyed the Father, for the life of the world. We are thus more closely united to the Church, to whose building we are dedicated, for its common good and that of the Order (LCO 18.1).”

Just as the other vows give the religious Christ in a special way (the poor Christ, the chaste Christ), the vow of obedience gives him Christ as obedient to the Father, the one who St. Paul speaks of when he says:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).”    

Obedience unites the friar to Christ who always followed the Father’s will. But this obedience is not easy, especially given the assumptions about freedom and maturity in the world today. It is difficult to imagine that others know better than you do about what is right and wrong, yet it is nevertheless true! We do not see the world correctly unless we are trained to see it correctly, with the eyes of faith, and obedience is the primary lesson in the school of vowed learning. With obedience we learn to order our desires and passions rightly towards true and authentic goods instead of fleeting and apparent ones. Like the method of phenomenology, this kind of seeing takes patience and practice; it is by no means an easy task. But the promise of both phenomenology and obedience is surely worth the effort: to see the world as it is and to know one’s proper place in it according to God’s will.
Because Husserl has been our guide on this journey it is appropriate to end with a passage from another journey, Dante’s Paradiso. In Canto III Dante meets Piccarda who inhabits the first circle of Heaven. In response to his question about whether she has any desire to move to a higher place she says:

For it is of the essence of this bliss to hold one’s dwelling in the divine Will, who makes our single wills the same, and His, So that, although we dwell from sill to sill throughout this kingdom, that is as we please, as it delights the King in whose desire We find our own. In His will is our peace: That is the sea whereto all creatures fare, Fashioned by Nature or the hand of God.

In God’s will is our peace, for obedience gives us Christ, and everything else along with him.

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