Publications: Articles - Theology
The Freedom of Obedience
By Philip Kariatlis
In the last issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy, the virtue of obedience was examined by looking at several sayings from the desert fathers. From this we were able to reflect theologically upon the importance of obedience for a life of freedom in Christ. The third part of this study will look briefly at the context in which the freedom of obedience is lived out, namely one's relationship with the spiritual elder.
Obedience to a Spiritual Elder
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the path to freedom, through obedience takes place within the context of a spiritual elder. That is to say, far from being an acceptance of a set of faceless rules which are to be adhered to, obedience is realised within the communal context of an intimate relationship with one's spiritual elder. That the experience of faith in God takes place within this context of obedience is seen clearly in the letter of Jude:
Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).
Clearly for St Jude, the experience of faith took place within the context of obedience . namely when each faithful member of the ecclesial community entrusted themselves to specific persons who had gone before them. In the case of the letter of Jude, the integrity of the faith was maintained when it was received by concrete personalities who were responsible for 'taking' the faithful by the hand in order to lead them to God. Clearly therefore, the relevance of this passage for today is that it affirms the fact that since our faith is something delivered to us and not something which is discovered by ourselves then we need to entrust ourselves, that is obey, those consecrated people responsible for upholding the integrity of the faith.
Indeed, the insistence, by the Orthodox tradition, that obedience is not given to any abstract collective . whether they be canons or any other form of ecclesiastical law . but to concrete persons is also stressed in the letter to the Hebrews:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. (Heb 13:7)
In accordance with the letter to the Hebrews, the Church has always taught that the integrity of obedience is expressed decisively through concrete personalities acting of course within the parameters of the true faith. Furthermore, within the ascetic tradition of the Church as a whole, so fundamental was this relationship of obedience between elder and novice that it constituted distinct areas of study for many spiritual
writers. One such example is St John Climacus who in his presentation of the Christian life considered obedience to be a foundational virtue without which one could not advance spiritually in their journey to encounter God. Or to put it another way, according to Climacus it would be delusional to assume that one's endeavour to meet the living God could be realised without the spiritual elder. From both the Biblical and Patristic witness, it becomes clear that since the Church has always had a specific group of people divinely appointed not only to express the full deposit of the fullness of the faith of the Church but also to spiritually 'form' the faithful, it is for this reason that the faithful have to entrust themselves freely to these people with their obedience.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition would claim that the spiritual elder sacramentally makes present, as a living icon, God Himself and does nothing more than speak the word of God to his children. It is for this reason that even to this day, one hears monks on Mount Athos saying 'give me a word' precisely because in that 'word', from their elder they perceive the very 'Word of God'. And so, the spiritual elder becomes the living voice of God and not simply one from whom one receives valuable private opinions. Bishop Kallistos Ware beautifully described this relationship in the following way:
In reality ¡¦. this relationship is not two-sided but triangular, for in addition to the abba and his disciple there is also a third partner, God.1
It is this charismatic dimension of 'spiritual guidance' that has the power to transform the obedient person leading to a freedom in God beyond the confines of this transitory life, riddled with corruption and death. Consequently, far from inhibiting one.s freedom, or being reduced to mere submissiveness, obedience is that virtue which ¡°occurs within the context of loving trust and personal relationship between two people in Christ, which in itself reveals the presence of Christ¡±.2 It follows therefore that, as a fellow servant of God, the spiritual elder acts as a guide and a friend along the way. It is precisely for this reason that the spiritual elder is often depicted either as a guide who, like Moses, can lead and direct a person out of servitude and into the promised land of God's kingdom; or as a physician who knows, through the gift of discernment how to remove the ailing wounds of the vices from the faithful thereby restoring them to spiritual whole-ness and integrity.3 Finally the spiritual elder is compared to a teacher, who takes the disciple by the hand thereby initiating them into the mysteries of God.4 With these images, the Church has wanted to emphasize the importance of the spiritual elder in liberating the faithful from their spiritual ailments. But for this to occur, the faithful have to freely abide by the teachings of God as expressed through their spiritual directors.
From all that has been said above, a point of clarification is needed so as not to leave room for any misunderstanding. That obedience is important for all faithful Christians and not simply for monks is undeniably evident. This means, those leading a married life are equally called to live a life of obedience. And so, for example, husbands and wives would need to listen to, and obey, their spouse. A monk once advised the husband of a couple who had just been married to listen and obey his wife when it came to doing tasks that she might happen to suggest around the house - even menial chores like taking out the waste without saying that he would do them later or not at all - as this could not but be one important ingredient for a blessed marriage.5 In emphasizing the importance of obedience for all however, it would seem that it would not be entirely mistaken to make a distinction between the obedience of monastics who have formally taken a special vow of obedience and the faithful in general living in the world.6 Perhaps it could be said that, just as the responsibility of all within the Church, clergy, laity and monastics is one and the same . that is, to be saved within the communal experience of the ekklesia . even though each person has a varying degree of that same responsibility within the life of the Church, so too the voluntary obedience to the will of God is one and the same for all, even though each member of the Church is called to live this out in a uniquely distinct, and therefore infinitely diverse manner.
Viewed within its communal relationship with God, what must be emphasized is that the obedient person comes under the grace of God and not under the law. Indeed, in this daily struggle to be obedient (each in his/her own unique manner), what is absolutely certain is that the person's free will must not destroyed. According to St Barsanuphius:
Do not force people's free will, but sow in hope; for our Lord did not compel anyone, but He preached the good news, and those who wished hearkened unto Him.7
Far from destroying the freedom of the person, the spiritual father (or mother) is there to help his or her disciples to discern the truth for themselves so that they can truly become all that God created them to be. As such obedience becomes the door to freedom and communion.
We saw that through obedience the Christian person is able to reverse the movement towards an existentially autonomous mode of existence [which results in death] thereby beginning to restore their human nature as it was originally meant to be . that is, in communion with the grace of divine life. Experienced as such by the Church, it was shown that obedience represented the unique potential for salvation
from a lonely alienated existence and a parallel co-existence in which there is no convergence either with the world around or let alone with God. Consequently obedience becomes all the more important in today's society which tends to live in total isolation having a false sense of security in its supposed autonomy. On the contrary obedience liberates the person from becoming enclosed in his/her hardened shell of an individualistic existence (incurvatio hominis in se), which can only deprive that person from the fullness of life. Accordingly the divine gift of obedience is a radically new communal reality, which offers that person a participation and share in true freedom . that is, a gift of freedom from God even from death. Yet, in so far as the gift of obedience needs to be fully manifested and lived out in each person, it constitutes a postulate which will be fully realized in the age to come. However, already in this life, in putting their trust in God, as this is mediated through a spiritual guide, the obedient ones can be assured that their soul will continue to dwell in God. And so, unlike the proud who are not only a law unto themselves but are dictated by their instincts, the obedient ones, in surrendering themselves entirely to God will have been blessed with the eschatological gift of freedom from God, already from this life.
I end with one last example of liberating obedience, this time not from within the ascetical tradition of the Eastern Orthodox tradition but from an incident related of an uneducated yet wise and faithful man living in the twenty-first century here in Sydney, Australia. Profoundly illuminating in its simplicity, the story relates how this man, upon being .ordered. by a child to leave the room that he had entered, because he had ostensibly 'bothered' this young boy who was watching television, obeyed and left immediately. This concrete action taken by this person (as this can obviously not be applied to all), was done not because the man's pride was wounded or because he had become angry and did not want to express this, deciding instead to withdraw within himself by leaving the room. Rather, it is said that this simple and unassuming man was truly gifted with the virtue of obedience, like those illumined monks of the desert, so that with any given experience, he had honestly led himself to believe that any thought expressed by another . even by a little child . was exceedingly more important than his own. In this way, he had learnt to liberate himself from himself by utterly emptying himself of his ego, and, in this way allowing the grace of God . that is the very presence of God - to reign within.
1 Kallistos Ware, 'The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity', in The Inner Kingdom, vol. 1 of the Collected Works (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2000), 144.
2 J. Chryssavgis, Soul Mending, 102.
3 Cf Sts Anastasius the Sinaite, Quaestiones 6 (PG 89:369-372), Symeon the New Theologian, Catechetical Discourses 14.
4 For a more extensive reflection on the spiritual elder as a guide, physician, teacher and sponsor see John Chryssavgis, Ascent to Heaven (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1989), 211-230.
5 A saying from a monk of the Monastery of Panagia of Pantanassa (Mangrove Creek, New South Wales, Australia).
6 Cf the late Fr Alexander Men: "A monk promises to be obedient, to do whatever his spiritual father requires. A parish priest cannot impose such a model on lay people and cannot arrogate to himself the right to give peremptory orders". Quoted it Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia (Torrance, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1995), 124 cited in Kallistos Ware, The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity, 142.
7 Questions and Answers, paragraphs 25, 51 and 35 cited in Kallistos Ware, The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity, 145.< Back to the articles list