The Personalist Project

This is not the longer post—which is beginning to approach booklength— I'm working on about the relation between God's will and ours.  But it's related.

I went to a cardio/dance class at the gym today.  I've been to several now of this kind.  Some I love and some I can't stand.  The ones I love are the ones that play oldies and get us dancing simple, coreographed routines:

"Up four, back four, grapevine, now turn!  Feel that beat!  Cha-cha-cha now!  And back, cha-cha-cha!"

They're like Zumba, but with friendlier music and less suggestive movements. I like learning the steps.  I like the way getting the steps right makes me feel like I'm really dancing and forget I'm working out.

The classes I can't stand are the ones where they play New Agey music and encourage us to "be creative".  

"Dance your own dance.  Move around the floor.  Move in all different directions. Look at the people around you.  Dance with them."

Way to make us all feel completely awkward and self-conscious.

After class today, I told the teacher how much I prefer the one kind over the other.  I told her I prefer learning how to dance from her—copying her steps.  Here's what she said in reply:

"I know what you mean.  I used to be like that too.  I was trained by 12 years in Catholic school to always do what I'm told.  It's uncomfortable to do your own thing."

This gave rise to two reflections.  One is that obedience and freedom are not opposites, as she seemed to assume.  As a matter of fact, I feel distinctly freer in copying a skillful dance instructor than I do in trying to come up with my own moves.  This is because she's drawing from a much wider range of possibilties and a much higher degree of skill than I am.  

The second is that it's sad that people associate Catholicism with unfreedom: with being trained to do what you're told, with being fearful of creativity and individuality.

There is a resolution to these seemingly opposite reflections.  It has to do with right maturing.  Obedience (typically) precedes creativity.  First we learn obedience, then, as we grow in skill and understanding, we are in a position to exercise meaningful creativity, using the whole range of possibility we have acquired by practicing obedience.

Skip the obedience part, and we'll lack the skill to create something worthwhile.  But, fail to move beyond mere obedience and our creative powers as persons will never be duly realized.  It's called, in analogous situations "arrested development."

Comments (4)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Feb 15, 2013 8:22pm

The analogy that comes to me off the top of my head is that it is kind of like commanding someone to speak in another language. That's just not how we learn - we learn by imitation until we have the vocabulary to start putting together our own sentences. The instructor was expecting you to do something you didn't have the 'vocabulary' for. 

After all, what are all the instructions the Church gives us but a dictionary of virtues - a vocabulary of holiness (and wholeness) that prepares us to 'put on Christ' so that we can be truly free to speak and act without fear or doubt? 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 15, 2013 9:43pm

Yes, that's exactly it.  

I should add, in case I wasn't clear, that by "moving beyond mere obedience," I don't mean moving into disobedience.  

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Feb 15, 2013 10:11pm

The way I read it, moving beyond mere obedience is to be capable of fully living Augustine's advice to "Love, and do as you will." It's not that 'anything goes' if it's done out of love, it's that if you are immersed in love you will act rightly. Love will drive out any desire to do what is hurtful - and all sin is hurtful.

A totally different analogy on the topic of obedience and boundaries - my kids are much more free in a fenced in playground than one without a fence. Without the fence, I have to monitor them constantly and stay right on top of them - there are games they can't play (anything where a ball might bounce into traffic and tempt them to run after it) and they have to constantly be thinking about how far they are allowed to go and deciding where to stop.

We all have a much better time when the playground is fenced in - they know where the boundaries are and that frees them to be as creative as they like in their play within the boundaries. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Feb 16, 2013 10:01am

So, now that that side of the issue is so well-established, (thanks, Kate!) let me highlight again the other one.

Catholic education has a reputation for making people fearful of individuality and creativity.  And although part of the explanation for this stems from a misunderstanding about obedience, I think some of it is unfortunately well-deserved.

I read that Pope Benedict met with the priests of Rome the other day and stressed to them the importance of Vatican II.

One of the central aims of Vatican II was to move the People of God away from habits of legalism, clericalism and conformism, into a more mature, self-standing and creative way of being faithful Catholics.

We are only now beginning to see what that means.  The Pope told these priests, "The real strength of Vatican II [as opposed to the media-driven caricature of Vatican II] is only now beginning to emerge."

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