The way of practical obedience

by Margaret Gonsalves


View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Once upon a time, in a well, there lived a pioneering community of tiny frogs, who decided to celebrate the anniversary of their foundation day. The liturgy began with the hymn, "Impossible Dream." The theme of the homily was "Listen to the Voice of the Spirit," and the concluding hymn was "I Have a Dream." Instead of having the traditional singing competition as part of the entertainment, they decided to organize something creative — a climbing competition. The rules and regulations of the competition required that the contestants should touch the highest point of the well and return immediately. A big crowd of frogs had gathered to watch.

At first there was cheering, but when the frogs began struggling one could hear comments like:

"Oh, that's way too difficult! They will never make it to the top. Not a chance that they will succeed. The goal is too high!"

The frogs began collapsing one by one. The crowd reached a consensus: "It's impossible! No one will make it!"

More frogs got tired and gave up.

But one named Dreamie continued higher and higher and higher. She was so focused on the goal that she was deaf to the yelling crowd calling her back. She just wouldn't give up.

When Dreamie reached the top of the well, she peeped over the edge and was amazed at the wonderful world she saw with infinite possibilities that could be explored.

The crowd and the referees shouted to Dreamie to return immediately and claim the prize. Dreamie shouted back to them to come up and see the world.

Dreamie faced a dilemma. Should she listen to the voices below or the voice within urging her to jump out?

For me, this parable raises some interesting reflections on the idea of "practical obedience." Practical obedience is the imperative of every human being dedicated to fulfilling God's dream for humanity and cosmic unity. It calls for assessing reality, supporting feminine empowerment, reclaiming the cosmic vision, saving the environment, daring to ask thought-provoking questions, and seeking peace.           

We are fortunate to be living in the post-Vatican II period in which we have been called to a renewal of not only religious life but every life, challenging everyone to dream impossible dreams. I have been in pastoral ministry for almost 20 years and a feminist theologian for the last 10. Let me share some of the champions who have broadened my vision to encompass cosmic reality.

When I decided to follow my "call within a call" and set out on a journey to explore the possibilities of opening a spiritual ashram, I begun visiting the sites of holy, disobedient prophetic women. One of the places I visited was the noted feminist Medha Parker's Narmada River valley region in Gujarat, the location of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

I became aware how one woman's act of resistance can be instrumental in leading change. She led an ecological movement to challenge a government that was colluding with multinational corporations to harm Mother Earth. She led massive non-violent protests with hunger strikes against this dam project, which displaces thousands of indigenous people.

She rallied about 200 protesters — university faculty and students, lawyers, journalists, doctors and other activists — to join in solidarity. Their actions forced the World Bank to reconsider its funding policies and held the Coca-Cola Company accountable for its actions that deprived indigenous people of water for drinking, cooking and washing and caused severe problems with the quantity and quality of other people's water. All were afraid they would be told, "If you don't have water, drink Coke."

Do you wonder what students can do to make a difference in society? Consider the dreamer Wangari Maathai, who learned the art of fearless questioning when she was a student at a Benedictine school, Mount St. Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas. On her return to Kenya (like a Dreamie frog), she began questioning why there was no water for the poor, why women had to go long distances to find firewood and why women were not educated.

Her questioning led to a tree-planting movement and a revolution in the lives of girls and women. She saw the possibilities of a green homeland and was ready to pay the price of challenging the patriarchal political powers oppressing women and Mother Earth. Wangari was a political and environmental activist, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the 1980s, her husband, a politician she had married in 1969, divorced her, saying she was not an obedient wife and could not be controlled. The judge agreed with the husband. Wangari questioned the judge and was put in jail. The judge decreed that she must drop her husband's surname. In defiance, Wangari chose to add an extra "a" instead, becoming Wangari "Maathai."

I am forging ahead with a dream to open a spiritual ashram, a physical space to prepare leaders of inner freedom with prophetic vision to speak truth to power. With minds of their own and the courage to assert themselves publically, they will foster an upsurge of new consciousness that offers ways to critique patriarchy. Among the many people who inspire me is St. Joan of Arc. She stands out as a role model of obedience to her inner voice. She opted to listen and follow her inner voice rather than succumb to pressure from church or civil authorities.

In 2008, I had the privilege of meeting a Joan of our times, Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine woman religious of Erie, Pennsylvania, at a conference of the Global Peace Initiative of Women in Jaipur, India. She is a striking example of a contemporary prophet of gospel obedience who challenges hierarchical oppression in the Catholic Church. She dreams of an egalitarian church that holds masculine and feminine energies in a harmonious balance. Her persistence and uncompromising stance on questioning the Vatican position on women's ordination — despite the danger of being excommunicated — is inspiring. In her quest for global peace Sister Joan has not even been afraid to question political authorities who indulge in violence in God's name.

Walter Kasper, a renowned Cardinal from Germany who was president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, "We follow church leaders only to the extent that they themselves follow Christ. . . Some situations oblige one to obey God and one's own conscience rather than the leaders of the church. Indeed, one may even be obliged to accept excommunication rather than act against one's own conscience."

Other striking examples of practical obedience are:

Francis of Assisi, who listened to the voice within and refused to participate in the "holy" wars of his church even though Pope Innocent III called on each and every Christian to support the Fourth Crusade against the Muslims

Dorothy Day, who denounced the poverty spawned by the perpetual war economy

Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when he went beyond the issue of racism to confront his country's militarism and abusive neglect of the poor

Let us do away with obedient insanity in order to recognize sanity in prophets who practice practical obedience. As Paul says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

[Margaret Gonsalves belongs to the Sisters for Christian Community, Washington D.C. (WEB Region). She is the founding president of ANNAI Charitable Trust and networks with various newly founded women religious congregations for the empowerment of tribal/indigenous girls, including religious women.]