This article is part of a series on the ancient monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
When humans have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.
—C. S. Lewis
The Greek meaning of the word obedience is to “listen under.” Twenty years ago, my husband, Chris, and I left New York and arrived Down Under on the back of the Millennial Drought. A vow of obedience got us here. After the longest journey of our lives, we emerged exhausted into the arrivals hall at Sydney airport, our two-year-old and ten-week-old sons clinging to us like little koalas. Knowingly, Chris looked at me, dug in my handbag and, holding out my hairbrush, said, “I’ve got the kids.” When I returned newly brushed, a glass of white wine sweated by a bowl of Thai noodle soup. My first sip of crisp Australian chardonnay (“chardy,” as I’d soon learn to call it) conjured up tears. My man knew just what I needed. But the day did not finish there.
We boarded smaller and smaller planes, flying over scorched earth, empty farm ponds (“dams”), and thin cattle. As the local mail plane landed in Inverell, apparently the “Sapphire City,” kangaroos bounded over brick-red dirt alongside the runway. We were four and a half years into our marriage. Five years is the sapphire anniversary, I thought. Please let us be rid of this place by then.
An hour later, we arrived, welcomed by our Bruderhof church-community, forty other brothers and sisters, most of whom were imports like us. They had been braving this land for a couple of years already, and had set about the task of converting our new home, “Danthonia,” from a single-family sheep farm to a place of welcome for many. Chris and I and our boys were ushered to our new apartment, in the original homestead. The freshly cleaned wool carpets gave off a gentle lanolin odor. We collapsed gratefully into bed, waking the next morning to the scent of jacaranda and the song of magpies, and butterflies tapping a tattoo on our window.
This place has a wonderful ruggedness to it that I love, I wrote to my parents a week or so later. Over our house blooms a purple jacaranda tree, and around it are pink and white oleander bushes. There are wild storms and calm dawns; it’s a country whose impetuousness repeatedly catches me off guard. But my attempts to embrace the newness quickly wore off, and my journal became a place of refuge for my feelings of lostness: I feel horrendously lonely and dry inside. Every night we watch the bushfires in the range of hills south of us. I know we’re safe – the fires aren’t as close as they appear at night – but still I hold my little bub tight as I look out at the eerie glow.
The seasons were backwards, the food different. I didn’t know anyone. My life looked like the inside of my refrigerator: I hardly recognized a single thing. What am I doing here? I found myself sitting with this question again and again, even as my heart already whispered the answer.
I was twenty years old when I knew God was calling me – giving me a vocation – to join the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community that shares all things in common and seeks to live in total devotion to Jesus and his kingdom. All full members of the Bruderhof take lifelong vows. I remember the moment when I shared my decision with my father. He told me I had just signed up for the biggest adventure of my life. After several years of testing my calling – and gaining a deeper understanding through firsthand experience of faith-based community comprised of “warts and all” people – I took my vows.
The vows are unequivocal. You place yourself “completely at the disposal of the church community to the end of your life – all your faculties, the entire strength of your body and soul, and all your property, both that which you now possess and that which you may later inherit or earn.” But it is the joyous and unique wording of the last question I answered that day that I’ve found myself returning to most often in the years since: “Are you firmly decided to remain loyal and true, bound with us in the service of love as brothers and sisters in building up church community, outreach to all people, and the proclamation of the gospel?” I love the phrase “bound with us in the service of love” because it remains a daily call to action, an invitation to this radical way of living and striving for discipleship alongside others. Obedience to this vow is no dry and dutiful affair.
The seasons were backwards, the food different. I didn’t know anyone. My life looked like the inside of my refrigerator: I hardly recognized a single thing.
Unsurprisingly, my dad reminded me of the adventure conversation some years later when Chris and I told him that we were engaged (both sets of parents having blessed our courtship). After all, it isn’t hard to grasp that vows of obedience, whether to one’s calling or to one’s spouse, mean traversing the inevitable valleys and mountains of the heart, with an occasional epic pilgrimage of faith thrown in for good measure. But at the time it didn’t occur to me that obedience to those vows might see me physically uprooted from all that was safe and familiar to me, sent spinning off to a new hemisphere, into new circumstances and attitudes.
But that is what happened: Chris and I were asked by our church to relocate to Australia to work alongside our brothers and sisters to build up a life of fellowship, half a world away from those we held dear. Naturally, we said yes; after all, in a mirror-version of the Benedictine vow of stability, our vows include the promise to go anywhere our church needs us, and to give it our best upon arrival. And so we went, facing our first sweltering Christmas season (believe me, “In the Bleak Midwinter” doesn’t pack the same emotional impact when you’re singing it with sweat trickling from your armpits while black flies swarm around your nose and eyes), looking into the night sky only to find familiar constellations upside down.
It took us a little while to find our groove – no shame in admitting that – but once we did, the beauty of our new homeland and, more importantly, the boundless possibilities for creative work all around us, opened our hearts; we began to fall in love with Australia and her people, to put down roots, to grow. However, for me the real shift came nearly five years into our Australian adventure: I discovered I was pregnant with our long-awaited third child. Nothing went to plan. I spent most of the sweltering Australian summer months of January and February inside of hospitals with stern doctors telling me to be still or lose my child. Being physically inactive forced me into an uninvited time of quiet: I needed to remain obedient to a season of stillness to keep my child alive. This tiny being was actively growing, striving for strength, but only if held within a circle of peaceful rest.
I am a born doer; that’s my love language. But for once, and for the sake of someone else, I had to stop and listen. Being still gave me a chance to consider the nature of obedience. I came to understand that just as my obedience to my body would give life to a child, obedience to my vows was not blind or claustrophobic, but a life-giving liberation to true freedom. Obedience gives rise to gifts we could never foresee, a creative transformation that begins the actual work, a setting free to receive the gifts that God has in mind for us. I was beginning to do the heart-work, the training, the learning to say yes to the small, seemingly insignificant things that allow for greater surrender.
Obedience is sometimes cast as a negative, restrictive word, but in my experience it is deeply liberating and renewing. It is up to me to decide the quality of my vowed obedience, just as it’s up to me to decide the degree to which I pursue love and joy and gentleness within my marriage. With my vow of loyalty to my husband, Chris, I promise to continue that pursuit. With a vow of obedience to a church body, I promise to pursue God’s truth and life and calling above all else. If obedience truly means to “listen under,” I need to believe that my brothers and sisters, who form the church to whom I’ve pledged my obedience, sometimes know me better than I know myself. It follows, too, that God knows my heart more deeply and my path more clearly than I could ever imagine. It is the same for each of us. Obedience should not blind and restrict, but set us on a continuous journey pursuing the heart of Jesus and his mission, with no regard for personal glory.
It is up to me to decide the quality of my vowed obedience, just as it’s up to me to decide the degree to which I pursue love and joy and gentleness within my marriage.
During my private season of patient stillness and inner growth, Australia’s next drought arrived, bringing heartache to many families who rely on the land for their livelihood. This drought led our community to understand that our interactions with our land were not harmonious or sustainable. We would watch our pastureland struggle to recover between the dry seasons, and then, when the rains arrived, stare in horror as torrents washed topsoil away. So, at the beginning of the 2007 drought, we began planting trees. We took our first tentative steps toward embracing regenerative agriculture and landscape restoration. We could not have known then (as, no doubt, we do not fully recognize now) just how much work would be required, and how many false starts and missteps we’d make along the way. But we sensed something important was being set in motion: a communal obedience to the withering landscape around us, a commitment to restoration of the land – our piece of the creation God had made and deemed “good” – in the faith that healing would begin.
As we planted trees in the phosphate-crusted soil, we set life-giving stalks in barren places. We willed them to take root, to thrive, to regenerate. And slowly, they did. Our youngest was born on a day of heavenly rain, and this child’s arrival was the beginning of the healing of our hearts, a new and permanent connection to this country – not the land of our birth, maybe, but perhaps of our rebirth. It was a rebirth of sorts, a realization of the miracle of obedience that had brought us here and was changing us in the best of ways. Obedience is the discovery of joy in the adventure, a joy that doesn’t depend on circumstance but relishes the journey.
It takes faith to remain connected to the land, just as it takes faith to remain connected to a specific body of believers. All kinds of obstacles will crop up unexpectedly – storms, droughts, fires, floods. And yet if the obedience is there – the constancy, the commitment – order will be restored through difficulties. Obedience holds us firm when we are weakened by the elements. Obedience conducts us through hard times into fruitful seasons of regeneration; it allows us to be transplanted to places we could never have imagined ourselves thriving, and blossom in ways we never thought we could. If we don’t nurture faithfulness, we never reap the fruits of obedience.
The weeks after our son’s birth were like an epiphany. As wattle blossom washed our countryside in gold, and the pear, apple, and peach trees that a young war bride had planted around our homestead decades ago burst into bloom, I carried our baby out into the land I had so long struggled to love. “This is the land of your birth,” I whispered, as I held him in the sun-warmth under the bee-buzzing trees, “your birthplace and my heartland.” I was finally beginning to understand Mother Teresa’s advice that “obedience well-lived frees us from selfishness and pride, and so it helps us to find God and in him the whole world. Obedience is a special grace, and it produces unfailing peace, inward joy, and close union with God.” The new trees we planted began holding on, the healing soil began to hold the water, and when our youngest turned two, the rains returned – and stayed in abundance for the next two years. Finally, obedience bore fruit.
I cannot claim to fully understand obedience, even as I continue to live in pursuit of a life that forms a surrendered whole. Beginning to learn obedience meant tapping into a transforming power, a living surrender that began to sustain me, even as our land was beginning to reciprocate our dedication to the healing of its depletion. Obedience meant embracing stillness, creating the quiet and detachment in which “listening under” becomes possible. I have learned that obedience is the bridle that guides, the keel that steadies, the wing that lifts, the sure map that shows the trusted way.