Freedom does not ordinarily mean doing whatever we happen to want. I may want to make some money, but I do not think myself free to exploit other people’s financial ignorance by cheating them out of thousands of dollars. The reason is that I exercise my freedom in a world of other persons whose interests need to be safeguarded along with my own. Since freedom is social from the start it has limits, fairness being one of them.
Those who take a religious vow of obedience take such limits to a level most of us find unacceptable. They voluntarily surrender their liberty to a social entity small or large—their religious superior, for example, their religious order, an entire church, or all three of these. They do this for two main reasons. First, they understand the person or agency to which they submit as by and large representing the will of God for them. Second, they want to remind us that we are free only in relation to someone else, God included. Our freedom remains social therefore, not individual.
But there is nothing like a vow of obedience such as I took when I was a Jesuit to demonstrate how precious our freedom is. I have insisted in both of my previous posts on the religious vows (“The Need to Own” and “The Nearly Unbearable Challenge of Celibacy”) that they have value only in so far as they require a person to sacrifice something that also has value: ownership in the case of poverty, marriage in the case of chastity, and freedom in the case of obedience. On the day I bought my first home, I danced on the front lawn. On all 52 of my wedding anniversaries I rejoiced in my good fortune in finding the spouse right for me. And when I exercised my freedom to pursue a fellowship for graduate study in English—a risky move my Jesuit superior could not support financially—I was delighted when it eventually became clear how inwardly satisfied that decision made me. When you take a vow of obedience, these are the kinds of pleasures you may have to forgo unless they are consistent with your self-surrender to some religious authority. If these pleasures were valueless, they wouldn’t be worth giving up.
The photo is of me in the seminary at 18 with my father and mother on either side. My father died of cancer at 46, shortly before I took my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. That was a few months after my 19th birthday.