Mary and the Virtue of Blind Obedience
St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort is most remembered for his devotion to Our Blessed Mother, Mary. So strong was his devotion that he turned it into a method that anyone can practice. This method is known as the “Way of Total Consecration to Mary.” The idea is that, through a set of spiritual exercises, you radically orient your entire life so that you give everything—your possessions, your family, your friends, your knowledge, your talents—back to Christ through Mary. To prepare for the consecration, you must complete a 33-day period of spiritual preparation written by St. Montfort. On day 22, he presents the ten principal virtues that Mary possessed for the reader to emulate.
They are: deep humility, lively faith, blind obedience, unceasing prayer, constant self-denial, surpassing purity, ardent love, heroic patience, angelic kindness, and heavenly wisdom.
Most of these ten virtues are easy to attribute to Mary. Think about all we learn from praying the rosary. Mary had deep humility. She submitted to the will of God and became the Mother of God knowing her community would not understand. Mary lived her faith every day of her sinless life. Mary prayed without ceasing. She denied herself in her fiat, her “yes” to God. Throughout her life, even to her assumption into heaven, she had surpassing purity, ardent love, and heroic patience. In one of her most stunning moments, she stood at the foot of the cross in full control of herself, watching her son die for the sins of mankind. Mary is the embodiment of angelic kindness and heavenly wisdom.
However, when I was first working through these exercises, one of these virtues was like the needle scratching across the record player. For the life of me, I could not understand what St. Montfort meant by “blind obedience.” I tried to imagine practicing that virtue. I go to the hair salon and tell the hairdresser, “I place myself in your hands. I’m just going to close my eyes and let you do your thing. Total blind obedience.” My husband tells the government he grants full blind obedience to its dictates: “Just pick the people to run the country, all you politicians. I trust you completely. I’m just going to not look and let you do what you decide is best for us citizens.” I raise my kids to do what I tell them, and they never ask questions. Okay, that last one sounds pretty good; but seriously, blind obedience seems like being gullible, and this is not a strong way to evangelize the modern world. Besides, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (CCC 1804; emphasis mine). Being Catholic is supposed to be reasonable.
Here’s the thing about Catholic teaching: it is precise and has been honed over two thousand years. Rarely is there a way to improve upon the words. Catholic doctrine is the most precisely articulated system of thought in the history of mankind. It is therefore appropriate to dive into what the Church teaches about faith and obedience rather than merely question the meaning of a confusing phrase.
The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and love. These are ordered. Faith comes first, but just as the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these theological virtues is love. Every virtue flows from love. To love God, we must hope for a future good beyond this present world. To hope transcendently, we must have faith in God. That is, we must believe in God. Faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Here is where the “blind” part comes in for obedience. Walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
Obedience is the act of obeying or doing what someone tells us because we believe in that person. The act of faith is to believe. But what does belief mean? It is a difficult word to define because it is used so many ways. It’s often used synonymously with think or opine. But in defining words precisely, we need to clean away all ambiguity until we find the meaning of the word that no other word can substitute. Let’s use an example, but I’ll borrow the philosophical reasoning from the German Thomistic philosopher Joseph Pieper in his book Faith, Hope, and Love (chapter 1, “On Faith”).
Suppose someone shows you an article on Facebook about a parrot who saved a toddler. The story says that a child was gasping for air while eating food in a high chair. The parrot squawked the words “mama-baby” in a way that caused the mother to run into the room just in time to see and help her child. If someone shows you that article and says, “Can you believe that?,” you can respond in two ways.
If you say “yes,” then you mean that you find the claim realistic and the person who wrote the article credible. If you say “no,” you mean that you find the author mistaken or dishonest. If you found the claim radically wild, you might even say, “I can’t believe that,” or you might declare the whole story “make-believe.”
Or you might say you don’t “believe” the story because you “know” it to be true. Maybe you were visiting with that mother when the whole thing went down. (Of course, you’d have some explaining to do for not speaking up to help a child in distress!) Belief is different from knowledge. To “believe” means that you are willing to accept something as objectively true on the testimony of someone else. Belief and knowledge are two forms of assent to the truth of something. Belief, however, lacks familiarity, the very thing required for knowledge. Familiarity with something is knowledge itself, something known by direct observation.
Remembering that our goal is to understand the meaning of blind obedience, we should next ask: Which is more certain? This is where a surface examination of the words can derail us. With respect to knowledge of something, the knower is superior to the believer because the knower has personal experience of the situation. That’s why we do not use the word “belief” in science. In scientific knowledge, theories and conclusions are based on observation.
But in terms of certitude, belief is superior. This concept can make a person uncomfortable until we dive further into the meaning of words. Belief is all-or- none, unqualified, without reservation. For instance, if you don’t know something like the Pythagorean theorem today, you might know it tomorrow, because you could go learn it. But if you say you don’t believe something today but you will believe it tomorrow, then you have contradicted yourself, for you do not believe the thing at all. If you truly believe something, you are certain about it.
Is blind belief intellectually responsible, though? Is it justifiable to believe someone about something you can’t observe? Notice that inherent in the word belief is someone’s testimony; to believe something also means to believe someone. Someone must testify to the truth. So if you believe the parrot helped save the toddler but did not witness it yourself, not only does the incident have to be something that is probable in real life, you must also believe in the reporter.
This is an important distinction, one that helps greatly in understanding the difference between dead faith and lively faith, one of Mary’s other principal virtues. It is possible to just believe something without connecting that system of thought to a person, but this is to take a slice of reality without accepting the fullness of the truth.
The Catholic faith is thoroughly logical and coherent. It is a lot like physics or mathematics, in which symbols have precise definitions and those meanings are consistently applied. Doctrines are derived from divine revelation and formulated carefully, much as physics formulas are derived from observations of nature. In Catholicism, it is not enough to say you believe: we are called to have a living faith. To have a living faith, you must do more than believe in a system of thought. You must believe in that Someone who spoke to you.
In a way, this is childish. It is no surprise to consider that children have blind faith in their parents. Little children will blindly obey their parents. If you tell a child it’s okay to eat Cheerios, then it’s okay in the child’s world. In the early years of their lives, little children believe everything their parents say solely on the parents’ word. But the reason they do is precisely that little children do not yet have much knowledge of the world. Doesn’t the Bible say, though, that we should have childlike faith?
Now we have drilled down to the main question in this mental exercise. Is it ever mature to have blind faith and, therefore, to obey someone blindly? The answer is “yes,” but very, very narrowly so. The only way is this: (1) that Someone exists who is incomparably superior to a mature person than even a parent is superior to a child, and (2) that this Someone speaks to us.
If there is a Someone like this, then logic demands that we grant total assent to the truths spoken by this Someone. That is, we are compelled by faith with a certitude that is superior to knowledge. This purest belief is a necessary one, a requirement of both our human dignity and our human limitations.
This Someone is God. He spoke to us in divine revelation, the Incarnation of Christ, the Holy Trinity, creation out of nothing at the beginning of time, the institution of the Eucharist, the founding of the Church. When we say the Catholic Church “guards” its dogmas, this is what we are talking about. Reason alone never would have discovered the truths of divine revelation. We believe divine revelation because God said so, just as we pray in the Christian creed.
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen . . . in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . in the Holy Spirit . . . in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church . . .”
This is at the core of being Catholic. When people (such as Protestants and so-called cafeteria Catholics) say they do not accept some of the teachings of the Church, what they are really saying is that they believe only certain things God says, which, as we saw in its logical conclusion, is not to really believe at all. Belief must involve something (dogmas) and Someone (God), and if you believe in Someone, then the Someone is credible, and everything the person says is believable. If Christ says, “This is my body,” then yes, he is really present in the Eucharist, even if we cannot see him. The believer must want to believe. Getting back to love: love is the ultimate act of the will. Toward what does the believer direct his will when he believes? Toward the one whom he affirms and loves.
The Catholic faith is an all-or-none proposition. Getting your head around that ultimatum changes your whole life. If God is real, and God spoke to us, and Christ is God, and Christ said “This is my body”; and if the Church guards and cultivates dogmas and doctrines (teachings) through time; and if we want the full truth and nothing less, then we are Catholic and we grant intellectual assent to all truths of the Catholic faith without compromise, even when we do not understand them. This is why the Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Like Mary, we are to have a childlike faith, but we practice the very mature and responsible virtue of blind obedience.
For example, Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Attendance is an act of blind obedience. Like Mary, we must be there and worship. Mass is not about ourselves but about worshipping God. Only after you attend regularly will you come to understand, to gain knowledge of, the deep relationship with Christ, who is truly present in the Eucharist. Mass teaches us to observe reality and ponder things in our hearts, to find a certain detachment from the pains of life, to trust God even in suffering—a detachment that makes us wiser because we are no longer controlled by events but by faith, hope, and love.
Catholics also have an obligation to be open to life, not knowing what life will actually bring—an outlook that is not limited to having children. When a husband and wife give themselves to each other while simultaneously being their own individual selves, they form a unity that is something new unto itself. Rather than thinking of life’s goal as a journey to arrive at that magic point when all problems are solved, the couple learns how to journey through life together. Being open to life means, ultimately, being open to suffering, death, and everlasting life in eternity. It is to appreciate the sanctity and dignity of all human life without compromise, to love unconditionally, to live for the sole purpose of getting to heaven and leading others there too. It is to discover abundant life.
And Catholics have an obligation to practice virtue. Virtue has a precise meaning in the Catholic intellectual tradition. It means worth, excellence of character, moral excellence, goodness, strength, power. To practice virtue is to strive for our maximum potential as human beings, to reach the highest expression and perfection of our powers. The human person is someone becoming. Personhood unfolds in a dynamic reality, constantly moving toward its end. To practice virtue literally means to become who we are meant to be, just as Mary did.
So, to put it all together, we form our consciences and, in doing so, we form good attitudes, habits, and dispositions in the practice of virtue. The reward is that doing the right thing becomes easier, we master our passions, and we find joy in leading a moral life. Ultimately, we find eternal happiness in the beatific vision. Practicing virtue is the path not only to happiness, but to a freedom that lifts us beyond any suffering this life brings. We guide our conduct according to reason, just as the Catechism instructs, but to reason correctly we need to believe in—and then to do—what God tells us. Each morning when we wake, we set out on our journey, blindly obedient to God and forming our minds and hearts to all truth in whatever life brings.