Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox concept and its application in America

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

Since the subject of this post is obedience I decided to begin with this quote, rather than a hymn, because it shows us the obedience of the Theotokos.   

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Application in America

Obedience is something that is an integral component of man’s nature, because man is a creature. And any created being lacks self-sufficiency and is in need of outside help. It is to God, the Creator, that every rational creature must turn to for help and consequently it is to God that obedience is due. When God created Adam and placed him in paradise he had a free relationship with God and a pure, undistorted communion with Him. He was the first created and so his obedience was directly to God without an intermediary.

Adam was given one commandment from God: “Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). Adam ate of the fruit and in his sin of disobedience his relationship and communion with God were distorted along with his very being, which is in the image of God. So with the passage of time and the multiplication of mankind upon the earth this distortion of man’s being and his relationship with God has become augmented. Our being, our human nature, must become whole once again and we must re-establish a relationship with God and communion with Him. We need to be shown the way, we need someone to guide us, and therefore we need to practice obedience. As we do not have that free relationship with God and the pure, undistorted communion that Adam had our obedience will not be directly to God. Instead we practice obedience to a spiritual father who is traveling upon this path of renewal of being and reconciliation with God.

In order for this obedience to bring forth the desired fruits it must be done in the context of our Orthodox Church, since everything that has been mentioned above can be employed not only by Christians outside the Church but even by those who have no faith in Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Indeed there are other ascetical traditions outside of Christianity that have many similarities to ours, but in the final analysis they are humanistic; they do not bear the grace of the Holy Spirit. Just as our venerable Father Seraphim of Sarov says in his conversation with Nicholas Motivilov: “Only those good deeds done for the sake of Christ can bring us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Everything else, though it be good, but not done for the sake of Christ, will not bring us a reward in the life to come. Neither will it bring us the grace of God here in the present.”(1) This holds true for obedience, it must be done for the sake of Christ, that is, our focus must be on Christ, we practice obedience because Christ wants this of us and He commands it. The Lord Himself enjoined the execution of obedience when He said to His apostles: “If ye love Me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Apostles were the first to practice obedience and they did this to our Lord Jesus Christ during his life in the flesh upon the earth. We also observe this divinely instituted endeavor of obedience. And in so doing we follow the example first set for us by Christ; He said in the Gospel, “I have come not to do mine own will, but the will of the Father which hast sent me” (John 6:48). And the Holy Apostle Paul points out that Christ “became obedient unto death, even death upon the cross” (Phil. 2:8). So in doing obedience we imitate the Lord Himself and we execute the commandment of the Lord to the Apostles, we seek to do the will of God and not our own; thus we please Christ and have the hope of receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is precisely because of this hope of discovering the will of God and receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit that obedience is seen as a sacrament in our Orthodox ascetic tradition. Therefore, “the relationship between a spiritual father and child is considered a holy and mystical relationship and many fathers have termed it a ‘Holy adoption’. It is commonly said that in doing obedience to a spiritual father, one does – as it were – obedience to Christ Himself. The spiritual father is he to whom one goes and discloses all the inner thoughts and actions of the soul and who then takes on the responsibility for that person’s spiritual direction and ultimate salvation. The spiritual father must recognize and know everything that involves that child, just as the child must trust completely and do obedience to the father, because it is the spiritual father who will advise and help direct that person for the better and if need be give a penance to that child so as to benefit spiritually. Just as when we go to a physician we must disclose and confide in him all our symptoms, aches and pains so that he can make a proper diagnosis; so too with the spiritual father, who is the physician of our souls. We must confide in him and disclose all our inner symptoms, aches and pains so that he may effectively give us the right medicine for our passions and sins and he must watch and chart our progress to see if we take the medicine correctly he gives us for the health of our souls.” So then, through the practice of obedience one mortifies their will and understanding – in the warfare on the path of repentance – before their spiritual father who has much more experience.

But how does obedience and such a relationship come to be? Is it a mechanical arbitrary action that takes place between any individual seeking guidance and priest whether in the monastery or the world? Again according to the ascetic tradition of our Church obedience is a voluntary act and so, too, is choice of a spiritual father. According to several Athonite fathers, “One who desires monasticism must seek for a spiritual father who suits his character, who he is attracted to, with whom he shares a like-mindedness and can heal his soul. When he finds such a one and enters a monastery then he practices absolute obedience. Those in the world must act in a like manner and seek a spiritual father just as he who desires monasticism does and then practice absolute obedience but not before that time. Perhaps they will not find such a person but in the end it is Christ Who will save and not the spiritual father.” St. Symeon the New Theologian admonishes one to pray to God to point out a spiritual father and then one must follow him wherever he leads one. Yet he adds that if the Spirit points out another, then the person must leave the first and go to the other.

In practice what we can say about obedience? One contemporary elder, when asked about obedience simply answered: “When your spiritual father asks you to do something, do it.” Again, one eldress (3) once when giving a talk to her sisters said, “Through the prayers of the Elder we are going to speak about spiritual obedience.” The eldress when on to speak about the need of absolute, blind obedience, without questioning or thinking. She went on to recall a story of an event when their elder was once visiting the convent. One evening when it was already dark he told one of the sisters to go to their cemetery. This was dangerous as animals could be roaming about yet the sister obeyed without questioning. When the sister had gone some distance the elder called her and told her to come back and she immediately did so. She said he had done this to test her faith, and she praised the obedience of this sister. She also quoted the elder who had said, “When a man has spiritual obedience he also has spiritual states.” Thus she explained spiritual obedience. There are indeed many cases in the lives and sayings of monastics both ancient and contemporary that laud blind obedience. In like manner there are many cases when an obedient spiritual child is rewarded and saved from one danger or another by calling on God’s help through the prayers of their spiritual father. This is because obedience is a sacrament through which God works.  to be continued…


1) The Joy of the Holy, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, Harry Boosalis, pg. 94

(2) Excerpts from an unpublished letter of the late Eldress Taxiarchia of the Convent of the Nativity of the Theotokos at Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.

(3) This eldress is the late Mother Makrina (+1995) of the Convent of the Panagia “the Directress” at Portaria in Greece.