Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Apllication in America (continuation)

All that has been said in part one on this topic is a general sketch of the concept of obedience as seen in our ascetic, or more precisely monastic tradition. Without question it is to the lives and writings of the monastic fathers of the Church where we must turn in order to gain understanding of the concept of obedience. Therefore a question may arise: How does this apply to the laity? Is the same obedience expected of a layman as the monastic? In answer to this we should first take a look at the sacraments which make one a member of the Church and a member of the monastic ranks. In the monastic tonsure which brings one fully into the monastic order there are vows of poverty, virginity and obedience. In Baptism which is the entrance of any given person into the Church there are vows to renounce Satan and unite oneself to Christ. In Baptism there is no vow of obedience. In the monastic ranks one seeks to go a step above and beyond the spiritual life that is attainable in the world, and all the circumstances of life in a monastery are geared for this. This is true for obedience, the monastic is expected to go a step above and beyond the layman, and his living conditions are set up for this. So then, what can we say about obedience for a layman and especially for us in America?

Perhaps it would be prudent to consider the people with whom we are dealing; especially since in this country the Church is challenged to function in a living situation it has never experienced before. America has never been nor is an Orthodox monarchy which is the environment that Orthodoxy has existed in since the time of St. Constantine until recent times. Nor is this a country that is primarily Orthodox and has been permeated with Orthodox life for centuries. It is a country that does not have the experience of widespread types of slavery or slavish submission to despotic ruling powers. Nor are we simple, we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. And especially in our age of technology when there is a danger of the destruction of personhood under the threat of being categorized as a number and filed away in a computer obedience can be repulsive. So now we raise the question: How do we institute obedience in the life of the Church in America?

Possibly a very wise method of employing obedience in our country and our times can be found in the manner in which one of the Athonite elders carries out the role of spiritual fatherhood. It is the Elder Vasileos of the monastery of Iveron (4) that reference is being made to. Father Vasileos has an acute sensitivity to the needs of every particular person that comes before him. He does not set one strict program in his monastery that everyone is obliged to follow exactly, nor does he assign a rule for anyone without considering the particular person that is before him and his needs. For example, in the case of a rule of prayer he does not expect someone who comes to him to completely change what they had previously done and accept a standard form from him; rather he builds on what a person is already doing. He does not demand blind obedience but he is very flexible, approachable, and open – again I emphasize open to the particular person before him: He does not categorize the person according to the human nature that he shares with every other man but he is sympathetic to the personal essence of the one before him. He will make a suggestion and point someone in a particular direction but he prefers each to exercise their free will in a task or spiritual endeavor that needs to be done. This way is a very practical method of dispensing the Orthodox practice of obedience for us today in America. In order to practice obedience most people today in this country need to know why they are doing something. For – as was pointed out above – we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. We want to understand the meaning and significance of what we do, this is instilled in us by our environment, from the time we begin to reason, as this gives us needed motivation. Perhaps what is most important is we need to know that the particular personal entity that is unique to each of us is being considered and respected.

In putting all this together we can surmise that obedience should not be something abstract, an impersonal, lifeless work; rather it is an exercise that depends upon and issues forth from a relationship between two people, a relationship of love. A mutual exchange of love is the essence of the relationship between a spiritual father and child. As a result of this relationship the spiritual father takes upon himself the direction, all the burdens and ultimate salvation of the one who submits to him. Likewise upon the foundation of knowing he has found a father of experience to whose way of thought he is attracted and who loves him and respects his personhood the spiritual child in returns loves and has faith which results in his doing obedience. So this is its aspect in the interrelations between two particular persons, while in its personal aspect it is the humble acknowledgment of the inability to guide one’s self.

For the layman, obedience should not be an escape from the responsibilities laid upon someone by society and family, for the purpose of obedience is to know and do God’s will and not to “pass the buck” to someone else. Nor should obedience debilitate one’s ability to function; on the contrary it should help to make one mature. The interchange with a spiritual father and any resulting obedience should be focused on the struggle against our sinful habits and the acquisition of virtues. The spiritual father’s role is like that of St. John the Baptist; that is, to point one to Christ and to bring one to maturity in Christ. As one grows in their relationship with Christ, His most pure Mother and the saints, and is formed by the life of the Church one’s understanding is developed. Thus the scope and extent of the need of direction and obedience is diminished. So in conclusion, we could say, “Obedie nce is a spiritual state, it is a state of harmony with the Holy Spirit and the Church.” (5)


(4) The Monastery of Iveron is one of the twenty monasteries on the HolyMountain in Greece.

(5) A comment of one of the Fathers of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Essex, England.