The Mask of Obedience

The Mask of Obedience April 25, 2014

Last year I wrote this really scattershot, unsatisfying post about “The Beauty of Obedience,” rescuing obedience as a positive term and a category you’re allowed to care about. I recognize that that post was not the tightest thing I’ve ever written, and in fact, I’m still kind of flailing around trying to talk about what a positive vision of obedience might look like, but here are yet more extremely scattered thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about that terrific phrase, “the mask of command,” and why we don’t think about a corresponding mask of obedience. What would it do for us if we did? The idea of the mask of command does a lot of things for us. It helps us to see leadership as a role, rather than merely a talent. We’re not left with just the raw fact that some people have “leadership quality” and others don’t. Sure, why not, that’s sort of true sometimes–but often people (like me) who really lack leadership quality will nonetheless have to figure out how to play the role of a leader. The mask of command helps us get past questions of personality and “authenticity” and preference, and figure out how to do our duty, when part of that duty is exercising authority.

And all of us also have to learn how to knuckle under. Not just whom to trust and follow–though that’s hard enough–but how. We have to learn how to obey when we’re not good at it and didn’t necessarily want to do it. I wonder if the concept of a mask of obedience, obedience as a role rather than a personality type, might help us here.

I’m really grateful that the role of the addict or alcoholic in recovery exists. Some of the trappings and traditions of that role are cheesy and some aren’t really right for me, but it’s a role which is designed to create a mask of obedience for you at a time when you desperately need to get outside of your own head. On the first page of the journal my first spiritual director made me start keeping, I wrote, “Look, here I am, taking a suggestion.” Being explicitly performative about my surrender helped me get past my fatalistic belief that this surrender was simply impossible for me. I didn’t have to be good at it or even capable of it; I just had to do it. It turns out that you can totally do things “a person like you” isn’t capable of.

If we had this idea of the mask of obedience, we might look at how our practices shape our understandings of obedience: What does the mask typically look like? When we look at the gestures of obedience within the Catholic liturgy–the use of the body to express a willing, receptive state of mind and spirit–we see gestures of kneeling, bowing, and kissing. (Kissing is more of an Orthodox thing these days, sadly, but we still do it with the Cross and in some churches at the Kiss of Peace.) These are gestures which make us childlike–physically smaller, closer to the ground–and they’re expressions of relationship: a relationship marked by tender affection as well as respect. If we were speaking Russian, the Catholic gestures of obedience would be verbs of the dative case.

There’s a bit in Adam Foulds’s novel The Quickening Maze which plays on Ps 123 to say that when the mistress points, the maidservant looks at her hand, not what the hand is pointing to. This can obviously be just an image of power, not authority–you look at the hand because it’s what the mistress might hit you with!–but in the psalm it’s an image of authority and of willing, loving obedience. In this image the command is important because of the person who commands it. The rules and duties become part of how we show our love for the One who gives them to us. They’re important because of their origin in Him, and don’t necessarily make any sense apart from our relationship to Him.

This is just a very tentative start and I don’t think I’m really saying very much here; but I’m pretty intensely interested in this idea of revivifying the way we talk about obedience, allowing it to be a category of beauty and not solely a moral danger. I know people have all kinds of associations with this word, obedience; if I were playing a word-association game I think I’d come up with humility, trust, submission, acceptance, openness, as possible synonyms or related concepts. This is such a half-baked post and I apologize for that, but I figured if I got these unformed mini-thoughts out there, somebody else might develop them into actual whole thoughts….

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