“Brethren, be ye subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21)
A “tough one” for worldly-minded people
If there is a word which in the ears of the world sounds harsh and grating, the very mention of which rouses contentiousness and opposition, it is the word “subjection”. People will listen with equanimity to the Christian preacher so long as he discourses on the attributes of God, or the benefits of Redemption, or the miseries of this life; but when he solemnly tells them they must be subjects, men, to whatever class they may belong, chafe and rebel and argue and will not have it so. And yet what truth is put forth more plainly in the inspired word of God than our duty of subjection to those who are our superiors, to those in authority?
St Paul tells us: “Be ye subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” And he goes on to explain his meaning: “Let women be subjects to their husbands, as to the Lord”; and again: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just.” And further on: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your lords according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the simplicity of your heart, as to Christ.” And St Peter instructs his flock in a similar manner: “Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake, whether it be to the king as excelling, or governors, as sent by him… for so is the will of God.” And Christ Himself enjoins the same obligation when speaking of the Church: “he who heareth you, heareth me; and he who despiseth you, despiseth me,” and “If he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.”
These texts will not be readily accepted by the modern world which even if it professes to believe in the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God, glosses over anything that it imagines strikes at its independence.
The modern world, including many who claim to believe in the Bible, glosses over anything that it imagines to strike at its independence
But it may be profitable for us to consider how the very conditions of our nature point to the necessity of subjection on the part of man. And first of all the fact itself of our existence requires that we be dependent on that Mighty Being who brought us forth out of nothingness, who encompasses us with His abiding presence, who can mould and fashion us according to every dictate of His will. “Behold as clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Who then is there who can escape the grasp of that hand which has kindled in us the spark of life and whose breath alone feeds it and keeps it from vanishing into darkness? Who can withdraw himself from the dominion of One whose prerogative is that His possession of us is the condition of our existence, so that were He for one moment to stay His retaining hold, time and space and spirit and matter would be swept away and nothing remain but He, the one unchangeable, everlasting God.
We are then by essence, by the very fact that we are created, dependent upon God in every faculty of our soul, in every member of our body, in every action and operation of our whole being.
We are dependent upon God in soul and body
But it has been His will that in a secondary sense we should also be dependent on His creatures. You have but to look round this material world to see how truly we are ruled and governed by laws not of our making and by forces beyond our control. We are affected by the vicissitudes of climate and weather, by heat and cold, by storm and sunshine. The ocean may rise and overwhelm us, the earth itself on which we stand may be shaken to its very foundations. Again, how powerless we are when contagion is abroad, or desolation covers the land; how helpless when sickness overtakes us and death knocks at the door and closes our eyes upon this fitful scene.
In the material world, we are dependent upon our fellow men as well as on the inanimate world around us
Nor are we less dependent upon our fellow men than on the inanimate world about us. From the moment he sees the light the child is in need of parents to keep within him the breath of life, to educate and to guide him. As he grows up he requires friends to help and advise him, and organised society to secure his person, his property and his rights.
Dependence in the spiritual world
And again, if we pass from the visible to the invisible and spiritual world, we are met once more with the sense of our dependence and subjection. Mysterious as is that world, nevertheless there occur at intervals marvellous disclosures of its nearness and its influence. It may be that at some time we thought we heard as it were a whisper that told us of some course to adopt or some danger to avoid, and it was our Angel Guardian counselling us. Or kneeling before the tabernacle there may come to us a light, a glimmer what lies beyond when we shall see Christ in His glory, who bids us to take heart in His changeless love for us. Thus it is that though living in a world of sense, we are surrounded on all sides by another world, a world hidden from us behind a dark veil, yet one with which we are ever and anon brought into contact.
Though living in a world of sense, we are surrounded on all sides by another world, one with which we are ever brought into contact
We are then led to the conclusion of the intimate and necessary dependence of man, of his essential subjection to the material, the moral, the spiritual order. What then is there in man that makes him uneasy and rebellious when he is reminded of his obligation to submit to the yoke? What is it that makes him sullen and mulish when the curb is put upon him?
What is it, then, that makes those men uneasy and rebellious when they are reminded of their obligation to submit to the yoke?
What is it but that spirit of stubborn pride ingrained in his nature, constantly urging him to repeat the cry of the fallen angel, “Non serviam” (“I will not serve”).
May we then strive to attain to some degree of that lofty virtue of humility, which is the doorway to true obedience and subjection, the virtue which was such a distinguishing mark in Our Blessed Lord’s life.
A distinguishing mark in Our Lord Jesus’ life
Our Blessed Lord said, “I have come to do the will of him who sent me,” and He saw His Father’s will in every order He received from the legitimate secular authorities, even though they were His bitterest enemies. He who was God “became obedient unto death, even death of the cross.”
And who are we? May we ever deepen in our hearts the knowledge of ourselves, of our nothingness before God, of our littleness even in the eyes of men.
Let us consider alone the little esteem in which we are held by others
If we considered alone the little esteem in which we are held by others, where would be that pride and self-appreciation which causes us to stiffen our necks against all authority?
Unknown and unheeded as we are outside our own narrow circle, how often are we hardly noticed by many of those with whom we live in daily contact? How a short absence effaces us from the minds of others! What trace then shall we leave behind us, when we have passed out of this world altogether, when men have no more to hope or to fear from us, or perhaps every reason for trying to forget us, as bringing before them the unwelcome recollection of death, or of failings and sins in which we participated or of which we have been the cause. As transient as the light wake left by the ship gliding through the water, we shall be as if we had not been.
As transient as the light wake left by the ship gliding through the water, we shall be as if we had not been
Poor insignificant drops in the vast surging ocean, why weary ourselves seeking the sympathy and applause of such a world as this?
Why, to the neglect of an infinitely greater love, do we toil and labour to win the hearts of those who will forget us, alas, even as we have forgotten others?
Why, to the neglect of an infinite love, do we toil to win the hearts of those who will forget us, alas, even as we have forgotten others?
Only One for a certainty bears us for ever written in His heart. There then let us take our refuge: be subject to Him, and for His sake to those, whoever they be, placed over us: and He who “putteth down the mighty from their seats will exalt His humble servants”. Let us cling to that arm, never will it fail us: lean our tired heads upon that breast, never will it cease to throb with the truest and the deepest love for us.
Inward peace and serenity
If we pray continuously, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I put all my trust in thee,” we shall gain that confidence that will outride all the storms of this brief life and keep us in inward peace and serenity, awaiting the coming of the eternity of complete joy and happiness.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949