The Common Good
January-February 2000

Does Obedience Equal Choice?

by Jo Ann Heydron | January-February 2000

Listening for God's voice.

On the subject of vocation, French philosopher Simone Weil wrote that "the most beautiful life" is one "where everything is determinedàwhere there is never any room for choice." Three recent accounts of commitment to faith communities question whether Weil was right. Should obedience to a calling leave room for choice?

The best of these, Nora Gallagher’s Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith, relates personal and congregational events at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California. A baby-boomer journalist whose outlook is deeply nonconformist, Gallagher returned to church in the late 1980s and has since found herself a leader at Trinity. During the Advent-to-Advent year Gallagher describes, she works, sometimes daily, at a meal program for the homeless she helped establish in the parish hall.

She also serves communion, plans services, and participates in the careful building of a consensus to call a gay man to be Trinity’s rector. While Gallagher’s brother is succumbing to cancer in her home state of New Mexico, she is fed by weekly check-ins with her "base community," by encounters with sick and dying members of the congregation, and by walking with a pilgrim’s spirit a large canvas labyrinth. All along, Gallagher’s calling feels like a "hand held against [her] backàa firm, insistent pressure between her shoulder blades" that is "a felt presence, unnerving and unmistakable."

One of the most touching moments in Gallagher’s book is a behind-the-scenes look at cranky, last-minute preparations for a Maundy Thursday service—when there may or may not be enough tablecloths, when one person’s idea of clean doesn’t match another’s, when it looks as if no one will come and suddenly there aren’t enough seats. Later that evening, after Gallagher and her fellow parishioners have washed each others’ feet, she offers what might be a rationale for exposing the underside of the event: "The lowly, unprotected foot, not the wise hands or head, is vulnerable, unmasked." For Gallagher, to be obedient means choosing to be "un-formed."

In The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns, journalist Catherine Whitney returns to Seattle for her father’s funeral and stays to revisit the nuns who educated her, the Sisters of Saint Dominic of the Holy Cross. The year in question, 1997, begins ominously. A portion of the cliff on which the motherhouse stands has crumbled into Puget Sound. The order itself has dwindled in the last decades; the average age of the sisters is now 55.

Because Whitney’s book is poorly organized, it is hard to track events as the year unfolds. We are drawn instead to the histories of particular nuns in this teaching and nursing order who made strong impressions on Whitney in her youth—to Carmen and Michelle, best friends before and during their convent years, and after they leave; to Claire, whose childhood masochism survives all too well in the order; to Joanne, who rides out the massive changes that followed Vatican II and gives us a broad view of life as a religious at the end of the millennium.

Sister Elizabeth, who left the order to marry, maintains that "true obedience"—the word comes from the Latin obediens, to listen—"require[s] far more than simple submission to man-made (or woman-made) rules." Sister Magdalen, who directs a Seattle program that organizes direct service to the poor, adds, "God speaks to us through our bodies, through ideas; God deals with us as we are. Obedience isn’t about mindlessly following orders. It’s about listening to the right voice."

One might wish that Margaret Bonner, the heroine of Gail Godwin’s Evensong, listened to more voices. Godwin’s readers will remember Margaret from the 1991 novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, in which she was the only child of a dedicated but often depressed Episcopal priest whose young wife had left the family. In this new novel, Margaret has nearly duplicated her mother’s life, having married a priest 20 years older and also given to black moods. An important difference is that Margaret herself is a priest. She is called, however, to serve an upscale parish very like her father’s in High Balsam, a resort town in the Smoky Mountains where business closings have left the year-round population divided and hostile.

The book’s action, itself a kind of evensong for the millennium, takes place during the Advent season of 1999 and centers around a millennial march intended to rededicate High Balsam and its people to Jesus. Margaret fears that the march will lead the unemployed to expect instant relief and is determined that her church will not participate. She is also exasperated by the march’s manipulative fundamentalist organizer. Meanwhile, Margaret and her husband, headmaster at a local school for troubled boys, must sort out the effects on their already shaky marriage of two difficult, long-term houseguests.

Godwin presents her characters to us in much the same way as Margaret strives to practice intercessory prayer, by simply bringing the image of the loved one into God’s presence. We see the characters from all sides, through virtually no authorial filter of judgment. It is nevertheless the author herself who limits the voices audible to Margaret.

I wish that Godwin had given us the voices of the poorer citizens of High Balsam. The only displaced worker we meet wins lifetime employment through an act of individual heroism, during the novel’s eventful denouement. By sending Margaret to a church like her father’s and in other ways restricting Margaret’s ability to make genuine choices about whom and how she serves, Godwin drives this reader to conclude that Weil was wrong. God calls us to not only choose obedience but to keep our hearts and minds open to the many voices, authoritative or timid, experienced or fresh, angry or kind, in which God’s truth is spoken.

—Jo Ann Heydron

JO ANN HEYDRON is a poet and fiction writer living in California.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith. Nora Gallagher. Knopf, 1/1/98.

The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns. Catherine Whitney. Crown, 1/1/99.

Evensong. Gail Godwin. Ballantine, 1/1/99.

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