In his fourth rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John writes:
Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness.
These thoughts, not to mention his entire chapter on obedience could be summarized in six words, “Obedience is life, disobedience is death.” Archimandrite Ambrosios begins his article, Obedience in Monastic Practice, with these very words. Commonly heard in the monastic setting, they are rich in theological and practical wisdom as affirmed by the history of Salvation.
The story of Salvation begins in the Garden of Eden. Here, Adam and Eve, obedient to His Divine Command, enjoyed life in Paradise, in communion with all that God created, and with God Himself. When Adam chose to be disobedient, he was removed from the immediate presence of God; he inherited both physical and spiritual death. Simply, he was made an exile of Paradise.
As the story continues, we are introduced to individuals in the Old Testament who chose to either be in relation with God by remaining obedient to His Word, as written in the Law and as spoken by the Prophets, or who chose to live outside of His Grace. Knowing both the physical and spiritual blessings of obedience as well as the curse of disobedience, God continually called His people, the Israelites, to obedience through the adherence to the Covenant. Some individuals and generations in the annals of the Old Testament chose wisely, others chose poorly.
“The corollary that obedience is life, is equally manifest to the attentive reader in the New Testament; for when, exactly, was it that the divine Savior became man for our salvation? When the Mother of God reversed Adam’s decision of old, when she accepted in all simplicity the will of God, saying: ‘Be it done to me according to thy word.’ Obedience writes Ambrosios “freely given, opened the path for the Incarnation, while obedience in its highest form is demonstrated to us in the earthly life of our Lord, who “became obedience unto death, death on the cross”; who came “not to perform my will, but that of the Father who sent me”; who, in the supreme hour of his agony in Gethsemane said: ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me, but not as I will, but as You will.’”
As disciples of the Christ, to what and whom are we to be obedient? Father Alexey Young writes, “By definition, an Orthodox Christian is one who strives to be obedient to the Commandments and, at the same time, obediently tries to fulfill the requirements of an Orthodox way of life, as revealed by Scripture and Tradition.” He continues, “Thus obedient attendance at divine services, frequent reception of the Mysteries, observance of the seasonal fasts, the giving of alms, acquiring the spirit of chastity, etc. – all of these, and more, constitute the bare minimum expected of those who follow Christ.”
To follow Christ is to be obedient to the Church. Saint Diadochos of Phokiti, On Spiritual Knowledge, “Obedience is the chief among the iniatory virtues, for first it displaces presumption and then it engenders humility within us. Thus it becomes, for those who willingly embrace it, a door leading to the love of God.” Loving God, we voluntarily choose to “…follow the will of the Church, we are [then] transformed into members of the Body of Christ, taking on ourselves the attributes of his perfect nature. We become, as one of the Church Fathers has expressed it, “sons of God” within the “Son of God.”
The Church though is not an ideology or simply a set of rituals, traditions, and practices; the Church as the Body of Christ is comprised of members, that is, individuals, the first being Christ the Head of the Body, to whom we are to be obedient. Obedience to another does not mean simply, “doing what we are told” although this is the means by which we were nurtured by our parents, possibly trained in the military, taught in the classroom, and function within an ordered society. Obedience to a spiritual father or mother, a bishop, a priest, a deacon, or a godparent is not so much about “doing what you are told” that is, commanding and obeying, but been led and choosing to follow. Father Alexy explains that obedience “is a living bond between two living souls, one more experienced than the other, one capable of showing the way because he has already begun to travel it, the other willing to trust and follow.”
In the Philokalia we gain further insight into the dynamic of this relationship:
What sees reasonable and convincing to the inexperienced is not necessarily correct. The skilled craftsman judges things quite differently from the unskilled man, for the first is guided by precise knowledge, the second by what seems to him probable. Now probability relies on guesswork and is usually wrong, for it is closely related to error. For example, when a ship is sailing close to the wind, the helmsman tells the people on board to do what seems the more improbable: to leave the side of the ship which has risen up out of the water and against which the wind is exerting greater pressure, and to sit on the side which is dipping down into the waves. Considerations of probability would lead us to expect exactly the opposite advice. Nevertheless, those who are in the ship obey the skill of the man in charge, however questionable his instructions may appear. Surely, then, those who have entrusted their salvation to others should abandon all notions of probability and submit to the skill of the expert, judging his knowledge more trustworthy than their own opinions.
If we are to entrust ourselves to another, St. John Climacus suggests that we are first to “…put to the test our master, so that there is no mistaking the sailor for the helmsman, the patient for the doctor, the passionate for the dispassionate man, the sea for the harbor – with the resulting shipwreck of our soul.” This is why the great nineteenth century Elder Makarios of Optina Monastery wrote the following to a lay person – which really applies to all of us – “It is certainly a great consolation, and a great help on the way, to find a director under whose wise guidance our will is cured of self-will, our mind of self-regard. But in these days, it is more difficult to find one.” If this was the case over 100 years ago in Russia, rest assured that as Orthodoxy takes root in the Americas that it’s even more difficult, which is also why we must remain all the more cautious in abdicating our will to another in either the parish setting or in a monastery.
Having said this, we cannot dismiss or underestimate the importance of obedience to Lord or to the members of His Body. St. John Climacus reminds us that, only “Those who submit to the Lord with simple heart will run the good race.” Moreover, “If they keep their minds on leash [through obedience to Christ and the members of His Body] they will not draw the wickedness of demons onto themselves.”
This is not to say that those obedient will not be tested. St. John explains, “The devil goes to battle with those in obedience. Sometimes he defiles them with bodily pollutions and hardheartedness of makes them more restless than usual, sometimes he makes them dry and barren, sluggish at prayer, sleepy and unilluminated. He does this to bring discouragement to their efforts, making them think that their obedience has brought no profit and that they are only regressing. He keeps them from realizing that very often the providential withdrawal of what seem to be our goods is the harbinger of our deepest humility.”
So then, Saint John closes this chapter, to those who realize the need for obedience, “keep running, brother athletes, and again I say to you, keep running. Listen to the cry wisdom: “The Lord has tried them like gold in a furnace,” or, rather, in a community, “and he has received them as burnt offerings into his bosom.” Glory and eternal dominion are His, in company with the eternal Father and the holy and adorable Spirit. Amen!