I recently read “Saints in Love: The Forgotten Loves Between Holy Women and Men and How They Can Make Our Relationships Divine.” In her chapter on the relationship between St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, Carole Hallundbaek discusses the root meaning of the word obey: “It may be a cosmic coincidence that the word ‘obey,’ like St. Francis himself has its roots in the thirteenth century. It comes from the Old Frence obeir and from the Latin oboedire – to pay attention to; to give ear; to listen to. Although the word has taken on quite a different connotation in our language, obedience is not mere submission to another’s will. When we obey, we are listening – truly listening – to another.”
Unlike the vows that my parents took on their wedding day, my vows did not include the word obey. If my memory serves me, my vows to my husband were to “love, honor and cherish.” I was thankful for this. I bristled at the word obey. Whenever I would read St. Paul’s injunction that wives should be submissive to their husband (Eph. 5:21-33) my neck hairs would stand on end. My husband and I were supposed to be equals! In my young, naïve opinion, obeying had no part in that equation. In the intervening years, however, I have come to appreciate the idea of obedience a bit more. While I am still thankful that it wasn’t formally written into my wedding vows, I no longer view obedience as a sign of weakness or inequality.
Ideally in marriage, both partners want what is best for the other and the family as a whole. There should be a large amount of give and take in that scenario with both spouses willing to sacrifice for the other and the greater good. This is where Hallundbaek’s explanation of the root of obedience comes into play. What if all married people actually listened to their spouse? What if we took the time to pay attention and to understand what was going on in the other person’s life?
In marriage, it is easy to sink into the routine of informational conversation – this is what needs to be done today; this is where the kids need to be; this is what broke today; this needs to be paid today; this is what happened at work today. Unlike the early days of romance when all you had to focus on was each other, married life puts great demands on the people involved. It isn’t easy to find the time to focus just on each other and what the other person is thinking or feeling. It is easier to put the relationship on “cruise control” and just continue in the old comfortable routines. While this can work for a limited time, if we want our marriages to radiate the love they started with, we need to put in some effort. We need to actually communicate on a deeper level. People change over time. The person you married is not the same person ten, or twenty, or fifty years later. Neither are you. Staying in love with that changing person means actually knowing them. Knowing a person requires conversing over something more intimate than what is for dinner.
If we as spouses are able to communicate and have each other’s best interests at heart, then obedience is no longer a burden. Of course, it should work both ways – husbands should be obedient to their wives as well! Sacrificing for one’s spouse is a gift we can give to each other. The requests for obedience should be few and far between and should never go against God’s law (to which we owe our primary allegiance). Whenever possible, however, we should try to follow our spouse’s wishes. Doing so will only serve to make our marriages stronger and put our families on sturdier footing.