Publications: Articles - Theology
The Freedom of Obedience
by Philip Kariatlis
In the November 2005 issue we examined the freedom of obedience by looking at the New Testament witness to this. And so in this issue, this discussion is continued by looking at the desert fathers and then critically reflecting upon the notion of obedience, indeed the freedom of obedience.
The sayings of the Desert Fathers on Obedience
Beyond the New Testament, the entire ascetic tradition emphasizes the importance of obedience for the Christian life. The Gerondikon or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers1 gives abundant examples of the significance of obedience in the Christian life and is indeed a major theme in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. A well-known anecdote recounts the story of John the Dwarf, who, upon entering the desert, was told, by his spiritual elder to continue watering a dry stick2, which had been planted into the ground, and to keep on doing this until it bore fruit. Indeed, the story is intensified when we are told that the novice had to travel throughout the whole night to collect water, something, which, besides being irrational would have been physically and mentally exhausting. The pinnacle moment of the story is reached when we discover that one morning, in the third year, upon going to water the 'dead' stick, John found that it had flowered and produced much fruit. It is said that his spiritual elder took it to the community and told the brothers: "Take and eat the fruit of obedience!"3 Another story relates the perfect obedience of a disciple, who, having been called by his spiritual father, responded immediately, not even completing the letter of the alphabet that he had been writing whilst copying a manuscript.4 From this, we can see that all sayings in the Gerondikon seek to emphasize, in the strongest of terms the importance of obedience for a person setting out to live a monastic life. At this point one may be tempted to ask: 'whatever happened to the freedom of that human person?'
All such stories will not only seem to be a stumbling block for 'logical' or 'rational' persons but also absurd, if not at the very least ambivalent, unless they are seen as the only effective means of disarming pride and one's autonomous self-orientated existence. Indeed the extremities of obedience described are nothing other the powerful antidote or remedy needed for the extremity of the world's fallen state. The Gerondikon is clear in stating that the practice of obedience, even when it
may seem at first 'irrational' acquires a profound meaning only when it is understood as a means of training the soul of the novice. Just as disobedience was the cause of the fall of the first Adam, so too, obedience becomes the means, by which the human person can be restored to their primordial state of existence. That such a teaching is Scriptural can be seen from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, which relates to Christ's saving obedience as a example for all human persons:
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19).
Just as Christ, through His obedience opened the door to Paradise through to God the Father, so too, will all human persons be led to the glory of God through their obedience (cf 2Cor 9:13). That is, the self-seeking ego, which entered human history with the fall of Adam can only be transformed to a communal manner of existence – that is, a life in communion with God and the world around – with the daily struggle of the monk to become obedient in all things. And it is precisely for this reason that the practice of obedience is placed over charitable acts which a monk may perform by his own will.5 As such, obedience is considered to be 'the first of virtues'.6 In an age of radical individualism, where the human person has become the measure of all things, such stories relating to ascetical obedience become all the more important as inspiring examples which can lead to our freedom from our 'crowded solitude' - which is nothing other than a dead existence even before we die.
The Freedom of Obedience
From the above, it has become clear that the issue of obedience is extremely important both in the Scriptures and the Patristic ascetical tradition as a means for life-giving 'communion' and freedom. If one were to give some working definition, it could be said that within the life of the Church, obedience is fundamentally both a gift of communion with God and the dynamic realisation of that communion which can only occur in freedom and which leads to freedom. Understood in this way, obedience does not only signify the gift of fellowship bestowed by God on the obedient person, but also that person's striving to make this mode of existence a permanent reality in their life. That is to say, obedience is not only a gift bestowed by God leading to communion with God but also the active response by the person towards God. Ultimately obedience is a gift from above which is bestowed upon humanity as the effective means for beginning the struggle to cease living in isolation, opting instead to allow our life to be governed by the freedom of a life in Christ which leads to life eternal (cf Eph 2:14). Indeed this can only happen in the first place because Christ has opened the way for it and bestowed upon the world this gift of communion with God. But it also requires our free acceptance in humility
and obedience upon recognizing that we no longer wish to isolate ourselves from the fullness of life. Consequently it becomes apparent that the freedom of obedience comes to be seen as both a gift and goal of our Christian life. In this way, our life must be characterised by a daily struggle to receive this gift from God in all humility and increasingly offer our life willingly back to God.
Understood in this dynamic way, it becomes evident that obedience is inseparably linked with the notions of 'communion' and 'freedom' whereby the absence of one of these elements inevitably leads to a misdirected understanding of this virtue. Accordingly, obedience is in contradistinction to any tendency for a self-centred, self-serving and non-communal existence, which inevitably can only lead to death even though we may be 'alive' on a merely biological level. Obedience becomes an attitude to life, which enables the radical transformation from an individually-centred existence to that of a communally focused mode of existence. That is, in the practice of obedience, it becomes possible for persons to experience, here and now, even by way of foretaste, the existential event of God's communal mode of life. And this cannot happen unless human persons willingly (notice again the will is not destroyed) cease to draw their existence from their individuality, which is corrupt and mortal and can therefore only lead to death, but instead, realize that the source of life is from God. In this way obedience emerges as a power beyond the human, which can destroy the barrier of egotism and isolationism opening up, instead a taste of the fullness of life offered as a communion of love. Obedience therefore implies a communal way of life, which arises from a relationship of co-operation thereby creating real bonds of co-existence.
The life of the person who has freely decided to lead an obedient life – i.e. one in communion with God - does not become diminished but on the contrary is enriched and built up. Indeed, obedience is practiced so that the person can become free, free from simply acting out of instinct. Obedience ultimately says that true freedom is born from the moment that one decides not to be conformed to one's self-seeking will choosing instead to draw the fullness of life from God. It is only within the context of selfless love, which is nothing other than one's commitment to obedience that freedom is borne within. Far from becoming a slave or leading a docile life, the obedient person is made free in so far as he or she is liberated from a captivated state of an isolated existence by destroying the wall raised between them and God. Paradoxically, true freedom which is liberation even from the confines of death can only take place in precisely the same manner as that of Christ – that is, it is only in surrendering our own self-will, by burying it since it has become alienated from God and has deluded itself into believing that it is self-sufficient and self-regarding, that it
will be resurrected by being conformed, by grace to a communal life in God, which is eternally free. Therefore it has been clearly shown to what extent obedience can be truly seen within the context of communion and freedom.
In the next issue we will discuss the context in which this practice of obedience takes place, namely the spiritual elder.
1 The sayings of the desert fathers is a collection of sayings written between the fourth and fifth centuries by certain abbas and ammas inviting the reader not to imitate them blindly but rather to be inspired by their burning desire for God. As such, it is a highly relevant book which will only be understood if the reader can appreciate that these desert fathers and mothers give 'glimpses' of the fullness of a radically renewed life of the eschatological age.
2 It is said that the dry stick was the staff of the novice's spiritual father.
3 Gerontikon [in Greek] (Astir: Athens, 1981), 44.
4 Apophthegmata, Mark the disciple of Silvanus I, 2 (293D-296B).
5 According to a saying attributed to Abba Rufus, the monk who "pursues hospitality acts by his own will. And he who is in the desert has withdrawn by his own will. But he who has patience and has renounced everything that is of his own will, depends on God and his own father". (Cited in Stelios Ramfos, Like A Pelikan in the Wilderness (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 120.
6 Cf John Climacus, Ladder 4. PG 88:680 and 717 cited in John Chryssavgis, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 102.< Back to the articles list