Mary Stanford in The Obedience Paradox: Finding True Freedom In Marriage takes on what is tasked to married couples in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Obedience Paradox brings clarity to a concept that has been misunderstood since Adam met Eve, it would seem! Anyone who has ever attended a wedding that included the reading from chapter five of St. Paul’s letter can attest to the many elbow-nudges and head shaking that take place during that reading. Perhaps nowhere is the general ignorance of what St. Paul means by obedience on better display than in this very moment.
Stanford’s book, however, is not simply an exegesis on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians; instead, it takes a very thorough and scholarly path through many erroneous understandings that are flippantly thrown about these days concerning what the Catholic Church means by obedience. As a diocesan Marriage and Family Life Director, I was very pleased with this book, but I must say that I was initially deceived by its size. Typically, in my role in the diocese I serve, I receive books of this size that highlight such things as “ten ways to improve your marriage” or “things your parents never told you to expect in marriage.” This book, however, does not read as your average self-help guide for a married or engaged couple who want to know tips for a successful marriage. No, Stanford’s book is for the spiritually and emotionally mature couple who recognize that their life is not about them. This book will draw all its readers into the mystery of a deeper union that can only be drawn from the Gospel paradox of the grain of wheat that truly lives when it has died. This book is written for spouses who recognize that their life is a gift and that what they have been given as a gift is meant to be given away.
Mary Stanford admits that this small work is the fruit of decades of study, prayer, conversation, but, perhaps most importantly, it is the fruit of her lived experience as wife of her husband, Trey. We all know very well Pope St. Paul VI’s observation that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi). In this work, Stanford makes a compelling display of the witness she has made, and her sincerity and her love becomes obvious to the reader.
Stanford begins the task of uncovering the paradox of obedience by starting out with the biblical ideal of obedience. Utilizing the Blessed Virgin’s fiat as exemplary, Stanford places her reflection on obedience closely within the Gospel narrative. Mary’s perfect submission to God’s will was not an act of weakness or fear, but one of trust and faith. Juxtaposed with Zechariah’s act of disbelief recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s fiat required no further explanation for the Annunciation. To obey required only a perfect act of trust. At the heart of this act of obedience was trust in a loving God. What is trust? It is a risk that makes us vulnerable to the initiatives of another person. It is this exemplary act of trust that Stanford holds up as “obedience par excellence” and a fitting way to launch into a deeper examination.
Stanford points out that difficulties with obedience began with the temptation of the serpent casting doubts on God’s goodness—thus giving Adam and Eve reason to lose trust in him. This temptation initiates the struggle that remains even today with obedience: “Am I in a relationship of love, or am I instead being manipulated?” Stanford calls upon St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to point out the fact that God does not deal in manipulation, but that he is a generous giver of gifts who freely created Adam and Eve and who gifted them with all they needed to live in perfect union with him. Starting with the Fall, mankind has struggled to grasp the economy of the gift. Fear, suspicion, and selfishness follow.
Obedience and submission are such difficult concepts to the modern ear because of the general understanding that freedom means license. Stanford wisely begins her work with an explanation of what true freedom is. To obey requires an act of the will, an act that chooses to believe in a good to be acted upon. Without the understanding of being as gift, the concept of obedience as a free act of love will never be grasped. Running parallel to this dilemma and equally troublesome in the modern mind is the problematic understanding of knowledge. In Genesis, the serpent suggests that the knowledge of good and evil is an object that God withholds from them. This deception becomes a perceived direct threat to the freedom of Adam and Eve. Knowledge becomes something to acquire instead of the gift one receives from an intimate, trusting relationship. This is a critical moment. With this break of trust, Adam and Eve become takers rather than receivers of a gift.
In marriage, the temptation remains. Jesus Christ, however, reminds the Pharisees that “from the beginning it was not so.” Elevating once again the dignity of the human person, calling us back to our equality of being made “very good,” Christ restores the unity of being one in him. With this “Gospel Innovation” Paul’s letter to the Ephesians restores the meaning of headship and obedience to its proper order. Christ loved the Church, his bride, by “giving himself up for her.” Submission and obedience, then, become a response to a gift given; the only adequate response is to receive the gift. The married couple is called to Christ’s own spousal and redemptive self-gift.
What role does the complementarity of masculinity and femininity play in the concept of obedience? Does it allow for a black and white definition of who makes all the decisions? Stanford spends chapter four examining the dynamic of the two sexes in order to appreciate the complementarity and to further explore the challenges. The unique differences of man and woman, obvious in both physical and emotional ways, allow for the beauty of our unity.
The mystery of the unity of the two distinct individuals is made toxic after the Fall because of the tendency to view the other as an object instead of as the gift that they are. Unpacking the psychosomatic dimensions of both man and woman, Stanford uses the Theology of the Body to recollect the many pitfalls between the sexes. These pitfalls are overcome by a correct understanding of the paradox of obedience where man exercises his headship by sacrificial giving and woman exercises her submission through grateful reception.
Stanford rounds out her examination of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians, specifically what he calls a “great mystery,” by examining first Christ as Head and then the Church as an example of the reception of that headship—also known as submission. Profiting from the truths uncovered in the previous chapters of who man is and what his characteristics are, Stanford beautifully displays man’s aptness for headship. This headship, in union with Christ’s own, encourages the man to sacrifice his talents and his life in order to bring life to his bride and his family. St. Joseph, in his quiet example, becomes an icon for this headship as he silently dedicates his life to the protection and love of his wife and foster son.
Women, Stanford shows, are designed biologically and emotionally to receive. The reception of a gift from her husband is no mere act of weakness nor does it signify some unhealthy hierarchy between the two individuals. Instead, the reception of the gift allows the woman to feel loved. This giving of oneself and receiving of the other allows the married couple the distinct privilege of being an image of the divine communion of persons. Even more amazing, they also participate in this communion through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
As Vatican II stated about marriage in Gaudium et Spes, 48: “Christ the Lord abundantly blessed this many-faceted love, welling up as it does from the fountain of divine love and structured as it is on the model of His union with His Church. For as God of old made Himself present to His people through a covenant of love and fidelity, so now the Savior of men and the Spouse of the Church comes into the lives of married Christians through the sacrament of matrimony. He abides with them thereafter so that just as He loved the Church and handed Himself over on her behalf, the spouses may love each other with perpetual fidelity through mutual self-bestowal.”
One can see very clearly that the Church does not reduce the Sacrament of Matrimony to a simple arrangement of man and wife living together in union with one another. Instead, marriage has the responsibility of becoming an image of Christ’s love in the world.
In chapter eight, Stanford takes time to look at a modern application of this understanding of obedience in marriage. As one might imagine, there are a variety of ways the modern couple lives their life. Stay-at-home-dad? Both husband and wife work out of the home? As many varieties as there are, the one constant is the definition of love as a gift of self. The giving of the gift and the reception of that gift, based on a mutual love of Christ, will draw a couple into a greater union. Stanford advises couples to invite God into the decisions that all spouses have to make to provide for the material needs of the family.
In the final chapter, Stanford underscores the power that an accurate exercise of obedience brings to a marriage. Being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ does not invite one to a life of weakness, but instead invites us to be transformed by the power of Christ’s love. The culture we live in tells us that obedience and submission could only result in a lack of human freedom; but, on the contrary, the act of love we give can only be offered as a free act. The free and total gift of self that is required in marriage truly deepens our human freedom! As members of Christ’s Body, we are all called to obedience, regardless of our vocation. As we strive to live out our vocation, may we all experience the power of obedience as we freely give of ourselves, the way Christ loved the Church.
Inherent in this short book is an answer to the question: “What difference does a sacramental lifestyle make?” Stanford takes a thorough look at what it means to be a son or daughter of God and then, in light of that, what it means to be obedient in marriage. In a sacramental lifestyle, we enter into a relationship with our Creator, and this relationship changes everything. In this relationship, and, consequently, in a married relationship, we can hope to emulate the Virgin Mary who declared herself a handmaid and who placed the will of the Other above her own.
As I mentioned above, I was very pleased with this book and, even though I would not give it to the average engaged couple as a wedding gift, I would give it to the couple who has the aptitude to consider the depth of meaning that their marriage has. It would make a great book for couples who recognize that marriage is not simply something that one survives, but a sacrament that, when fully lived, invites them to a unity of love that brings life not only to them, but to the world. In The Obedience Paradox, Mary Stanford is to be praised for having brought clarity to a topic that has befuddled many sceptics both inside and outside of the Church.
Peter Martin is the Director of the Office of Life, Marriage & Family and Communication for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, MN. Mr. Martin received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, his Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, and his Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. Mr. Martin has been active in marriage ministry for many years by offering marriage preparation and by speaking on the beauty and sanctity of marriage. He and his wife Theresa have seven sons and one daughter.