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Saint Catherine of Siena – the Key of Obedience

Saint Catherine of Siena spent her life encouraging a deeper obedience to God the Father.  Although the earthly life of this Doctor of the Church ended over six Catherine of Siena Wikipedia Public Domainhundred years ago, her spiritual teaching has passed into the universal patrimony of the Church.  In particular, the personal relationship she enjoyed with the eternal Father through her faith in Christ crucified can help us reassess our own attitudes toward the Fatherhood of God, the obedience of Christ and suffering for the Lord.

In The Dialogues, the Mystic of Siena shares with us her conversations with the Eternal Father.  She dictated this teaching while in a state of ecstasy, and later edited it with her own hand.   The result is a tender but dramatic dialogue where the Father responds to her deepest questions by helping her see His perspective on the world, the Church and His own desires for humanity.  At the end of this work, Saint Catherine shares the Father’s perspective on the mystery of obedience in the Christian life.

Contemporary assumptions about obedience, suffering and fatherhood are challenged by her teaching.   We have been taught to believe fatherhood as little more than a chauvinistic institution of a bygone era.  We blindly assume obedience  is exhausted by the demeaning submission of our freedom to an extrinsic imposition of an authority figure.  We tend to look at any suffering that results from obedience as something to be avoided at all costs.  In her teachings, the Father asserts the direct opposite.

In the wisdom of Saint Catherine we see, as a result of these prejudices, our hearts are not able to receive the secret code that unlocks the Truth by which we have access to heaven.   Without this hidden key, we are locked in ignorance about our own hearts, and the heart of the Father, and the greatness for which He fashioned us. Without this mysterious password, our ignorant selfishness renders us impatient with ourselves, with others and with life.  Even still, Saint Catherine’s teaching are less condemning than they are encouraging.

Throughout The Dialogues but especially in the section on obedience, this daughter of St. Dominic explores how the Father does not desire us to be trapped in resentful impatience but longs for us to know the freedom to love.  He knows our freedom to love can only be found in Him and He is eager that we should find it.  If His love is our true home, the freedom of heaven’s love requires that we step through the door of truth and the only way to open this door is with the key of obedience.  St. Catherine helps us see the Father as the One who so desires our homecoming that He sent His Son to suffer and die in order that we might have the key of obedience.

For Saint Catherine of Siena, the painful but beautiful mystery of Christian obedience is  rooted in the truth about the Father revealed in Christ.  The Father is not indifferent to our plight and He is not removed or far away from the hardships we must endure.  In the wisdom of Saint Catherine, He is completely aware of us and knows the truth about who we are.  He knows the peril we face and ever hopes for our return to Him, even as we demean and hurt one another in ways He finds completely unacceptable.

In the Father’s tender concern, He sent Word to humanity that we might have the key of obedience, a key that unlocks the truth, the truth that gives us access to the fullness of life He yearns for us to know.  In the way Jesus hastened to his shameful death on the Cross, we are able to discern the truth about obedience.  Rather than a mechanical response to the extrinsic imposition of a distant authority, Saint Catherine invites us to enter into a loving surrender of heart in humility and trust.

The Father desires that we obey His Eternal Word and this requires us to be obedient to one another out of reverence for Christ.  This is as true in the obedience rendered in religious life as it is in the obedience we owe one another in our marriages and in our families.  When we respond to one another with an impatience unbecoming of the Lord, we glimpse our lack of trust in God.  There is an abyss that yawns between the impatient power games we play with each other and true Christian obedience.  If it is painful at times, the obedience of Christ is always open to friendship and salvific solidarity in the most unexpected and beautiful ways.

Obedience is a mysterious form of hospitality whereby I welcome the heart of another into my heart to discern the truth that is there.  This kind of attentiveness suffers the differences between where we are with each other and, for the sake of love, constantly finds ways to surrender one’s own plans so that the noble desires of another and the truth by which they live might be realized and made known.  As I listen to the needs, desires and plans of the one I love, Christian obedience means that I choose to respond with the fullness of my freedom to share in what Christ is asking of us together – both in things that are said and in things that are not said, things that are understood and sometimes in things we do not understand, even very difficult things that can only be accepted with humility and trust in God.

When we render one another the obedience the Lord asks of us, Saint Catherine invites us to draw from the same mysterious font that flowed in the Heart of Christ.   If He obeyed the Father with zeal, the source of this eager obedience was the Son’s love for the honor of the Father and His desire for our salvation.   He knew the goodness and love of His Father.  He knew His Father’s desire that this goodness should be revealed to desperate humanity.   In welcoming the Heart of the Father into His own Heart, the truth Jesus contemplated reverberated from the depths of his sacred humanity, moving Him to offer Himself in the humility of suffering love, no matter the cost. If we are to follow our crucified Master, we too must take on the anguished love of such obedience and allow this love to renew the depths of our own hearts.

Because our nature is so unfamiliar with it, this kind of suffering obedience is not something we can simply attain by our own effort.  It is not the product of a nice wish.  It is not a matter of a simple change in behavior.  It is a reality of the heart. But we do not know our hearts and we have so little control over what they contain. How, then, is Christian obedience possible?

For Saint Catherine, it is the life Blood of Jesus that allows us to live by this same love, an obedience of love that is vulnerable to suffer anything for the glory of the Father and the salvation of souls.  The Blood of Lamb is the food of contemplation — a contemplation of the heart that shows hospitality to the Heart of the Lord.   Through pondering on the Blood of Jesus, on His work of redemption, we discover in Christ the truth about the Father, the truth about obedience and the truth about the anguished love to which Christian obedience opens us.  To know this truth is to have access to a fullness of life, a joy too great for this world to hold.  Inebriated in the Blood of Christ and pierced to the heart by the truth about the Father, our gratitude for what Christ has done disposes us to welcome as our own the mystery of obedience, the key He was sent to give.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in Colorado where Dr. Lilles has worked for the Archdiocese of Denver for over twenty years directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry as well as serving as the director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as coordinator of spiritual formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was eventually appointed Academic Dean for nine years. Currently, he is an associate professor of theology and a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students and contemplatives about the spiritual life. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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  • Mari Muldoon

    Thank you for this exquisite post today. It resonates deeply especially on the heels of today’s Epistle James 1: 17-21. The words, “The Father of lights” echo as I read your interpretation of St. Catherine’s writing on Obedience. “Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” It is only through this outward sign of obedience, that we demonstrate to the world our Yes. A Yes whose power radiates outward because it is uttered in total freedom in response to the “word of truth” sent by the Father of lights. How much this obedience also feels inextricably bound up in our humility. Each mirrors the other.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      I had not pondered Saint Catherine in relation to James … but her teaching fits with the thrust of this passage. I love the idea that obedience and humility reflect each other — it is true: if we look at the kind of obedience we offer, it gives us a great sense of where we are at with humility — and vice versa. Saint Benedict makes a similar connection in his reflection on the Latter of Humility in his rule.

      • Mari Muldoon

        Yes indeed. His Ladder of Humility is a great tool as an authentic barometer of the disposition of the soul. To be realistic however, it is so often one step forward, two steps back, at least this has been my experience.

  • LizEst

    Beautiful! Thanks for this Dr. Lilles.

    Once our pastor was away and told us a memorial Mass for an older gentleman who had died overseas was coming up (the brother was here and couldn’t travel). “Use the readings of the day,” he said. So, we finally got the day. And, lo and behold, the readings of the day were absolutely horrible for what amounted to a funeral Mass at a distance. The vicar told me what the pastor had said and then told me what the readings were. I looked at them and agreed. Neither of us wanted to read all about killing and murder and war and all the bloodshed (I think it was something from Chronicles). “Well,” I said to him, “the pastor said you’ve got to use the readings of the day. So, that’s what we have to do.” Ugh! Since the very small family didn’t have anyone to read, it fell to me. It was pure torture. And, the more I read, the more they cried. In my heart I was thinking that this was the wrong reading and it was inflicting more grief and hurt on the deceased’s brother. After Mass, I quickly and quietly approached the daughter and said a few words about the reading and how sorry it was that it was so difficult. “No,” she said, “it was perfect.” Of course, I thought this very bizarre. “It was beautiful. You see,” she continued, “My father and his brother who died overseas were in three wars together. And, this was such a wonderful reminder of all they went through as brothers.”

    Never, ever, ever would I have thought this reading would have been the perfect reading for them. But, it was. And, God knew that. If we had not obeyed in this, the memorial Mass would not have been as personal to that family as it was. When I told the celebrant, he was amazed…and pleased. It was a lesson in obedience for both of us.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      This is a wonderful story!

    • rjk123

      What a beautiful example! Rachel

    • JoFlemings

      This is a great story, and witness, Liz! Thank you!

  • MarytheDefender

    The Lord recently gave me a lesson on obedience. I wanted the freedom to go where I wanted without asking my parent’s permission. It seemed trivial, a train to the nearby mall. But the Lord clearly showed me how wrong I was. I had the “freedom” to do what I wanted but lost the freedom of His peace and loving presence. I repented and He mercifully forgave me. He also gave me the chance to tell my parents what I did.
    There are some things I really don’t want to be obedient about, and have felt justified ignoring. But I’m hopefully learning that the freedom to love and serve God, to grow in humility and holiness is worth more then doing what I want. There is no such thing as a small sin. Reading a quote from St. Faustina’s diary last night, our Lord said, “strive to make My Love reign in place of your self-love.”

    • Anthony_Lilles

      Thank you for this reflection — you are so right about all the seemingly small things. This is where the battle of obedience is fought. It is where we strive to make God’s love reign in the place of our self-love.

  • wretched_sinner

    How is this key bound to ourselves?

    “bind this key with the cord of self-contempt, and hatred of thyself and of the world, and fasten it to the love of pleasing Me, thy Creator, of which thou shouldest make a girdle to thyself to bind thy loins with it, for fear thou lose it.”

    (From St. Catherine Dialogue | Treatise of Obedience)

    • LizEst

      Thank you for posting this! St. Catherine has a lot to teach us. God bless you, wretched_sinner (though I do not like to call you that)!

  • JoFlemings

    I am wondering if there is a time when this obedience toward others must be curtailed because of circumstances where if one is obedient to the another in a relationship the first becomes an enabler to something disordered in the second person. (I am not talking about sin, I am talking about one person in a relationship having a very strong sense of self, something that can become disordered through pride because the person naturally considers him or herself the sole frame of reference, and evaluates everything according to his or her own ideas or interests etc. This might be a person who is very accustomed to having his or her own way as a matter of course by station or position or circumstance.) I am thinking of a movie version of War and Peace that I watched recently where the father, Prince Bolkonsky is oppressive to his son, Andrei, and his daughter, Marya- and that doing his will, being obedient to him does seem to cost a number of people their just and immediate happiness- his son, Andrei most of all. Is it charitable for them to obey and defer to their father the way they do, when he is so selfish? Is this the obedience St. Catherine is talking about?

    This is a fictional account, but the reality is not uncommon in people’s lives. Does this matter? Does it matter if the person one is obedient or deferential toward is selfish to a degree that they seem continually turned inward or referencing everything from an orientation of narcissism or entitlement? How does one discern, if any, the boundaries one should have? Does Catherine of Siena’s short course answer tell us- obey/concede/comply? Just do it, out of love, and God will move.

    I hear so many conflicting things and I am honestly not sure. My inclination is to say, as long as it is not sin, then defer and obey, like Marya in the movie— but practically speaking that might make one stark raving crazy depending on what it costs personally.

    • LizEst

      When the person asks something of us that is not of God, then obedience is not called for because we owe obedience to God above all. God never violates our free will…and neither should anyone else. In spiritual direction, as Dan said in his book, we always have the freedom to follow or not follow the direction we’ve been given (he also indicated that Eastern Rite Catholics have a stricter vision of obedience in spiritual direction). The bottom line is that it is essential that we know our faith, scripture, etc, very well, very well– because, sometimes people like this, if they are manipulative and have superior knowledge and experience, have a way of twisting things around to make their instructions seem right, when in fact they may be using someone for their own personal gain or agenda…or just because they like to toy with people.

      We see a classic examples of this abuse of power in the Holocaust and in the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Those carrying out the orders testified they were just following orders. Yet, even soldiers have a moral obligation not to follow orders that are illegal according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Likewise, we also have a moral obligation to do what is right and just. If someone commands something that is not of God, we are not to obey. If it is something that is borderline, then sometimes it is good to take a step back, take a time out and assess the situation.

      This is not to be confused, however, with the case of someone who has apparitions, visions, and/or aural and/or internal locutions. In this case, both God and His Church require that these possible supernatural phenomena be taken to Church authorities so that they might be investigated and a determination be made as to their authenticity. We see over and over that true apparitions require visionaries to obey Church authority. The false ones make the poor duped visionaries believe they must believe only the visions. This is what false apparitions instill: disobedience. And, it’s a classic very dangerous sign of manipulation of the evil one.

  • Dalya Frohlinger

    When I receive Jesus in Holy Eucharist, I get insights into God’s spirituality. This is my understanding of obedience.

    We need to obey God, yes. Why? There is more to it than “because He says so.” Obeying God is really helping ourselves on many levels. In letting go of sin, negativity and Evil we are allowing Love into our hearts. We “move” beyond the Evil, and that is our goal. We are helping ourselves to allow goodness and love, not physical love, but spiritual love, into our lives. God wants us to do this because it will bring us closer to Him on a spiritual level. We will be open to receiving His Love, which is the Word, of course, but also when we open our hearts to spiritual love, we receive it. We get beyond Sin and move into our hearts, where our Souls reside. There is a greater reality there that we will know in Heaven, but as I learned as a Lay Carmelite, God wants us to allow Him literally into our hearts. In doing this, we become Love, who is also God. There is a relationship there that God wants to establish with us, but it can only be achieved through acceptance of God and trust in His way. We can accept this intellectually, but the next step is moving into the Spiritual, because God is Spirit and we need to be like Him to be in His presence. Like attracts like.