Few things make a modern person more uncomfortable than the topic of obedience. Many Orthodox read statements declaring that “obedience is the foremost rule for monastics,” and immediately thank God they are not monastics. Our minds easily race to horror stories of cult-like obedience and spiritual abuse. Some may very well have experienced obedience in an abusive form. Today, obedience is about as far away from popular virtue as at any time in history.
It is difficult for us to understand obedience as a virtue – since it seems to contradict the freedom that is essential for personhood. And freedom is indeed essential. In healthy situations, even in the strictest monastic obedience, freedom is never lost. It remains an inherent part of our humanity. However, how that freedom is manifest is quite another matter.
St. Maximus the Confessor is the great teacher on the nature of the human person in Orthodox thought. His teachings are the underpinning of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils. He looked with great subtlety at the nature of freedom and described in particular the nature of the human will.
He described the will as a function of our nature. Some will ask, “What’s a nature?” The simplest answer is that it is “what we are.” Our bodies are the biological expression of what we are. The soul is a psychic expression of what we are. The Church holds that our nature is not fallen – it suffers no distortion. Were our nature distorted we could never be nor become what we truly are.
The will is that movement of our nature towards its proper end. Human nature wills to be human and it is freely able to will what is in accord with its nature. Our nature does not will to grow like a tree. Our nature does not will to burn like a star.
But there is a distortion in our existence. This is described as a fundamental loss of integrity – a fragmentation within the human person. We experience not only our nature’s will, but also the agony of choice. St. Maximus used the word “gnome” (pronounced “no mee”) to describe this “choosing will” (often translated “gnomic will”). The word gnome in Greek is normally translated, “opinion,” which seems to me to render the experience of “choice” rather well.
We choose because we like something or we fear its pain. This bi-polar existence, torn between pain and pleasure, is the engine that drives choice and torments the gnomic will. St. Maximus sees this as precisely the character of human fallenness. Our attachment to pleasure and fear of pain are what the fathers term the passions.
And it is true freedom from such passions that is the hallmark of the Classical Christian life. The struggle of prayer and fasting, the whole experience of spiritual discipline has as its goal our union with God and freedom from the cycle of pain and pleasure. We were not created for pain, and the pleasure which is truly natural to us differs from the pleasure which we now experience.
The Orthodox vision of natural human existence seems quite foreign to the endless Modern search for happiness. The map of the world in the Modern Project is (in theory) a constant movement away from pain and towards greater and greater pleasure (in its broadest sense). In America this is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence’s right to the “pursuit of happiness.” It is also a fundamental embrace of a two-storey worldview. In this life, the Modern Project would say, there is only pleasure and pain. These are objective realities, the same for believer and non-believer. There is no escape from the cycle, so we must work to maximize pleasure and diminish pain.
The Classical Christian world asserts a transformation in which our life becomes centered not in pleasure or pain but in Christ Himself. Pleasure and pain are relativized through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Union with Christ makes possible apatheia (freedom from the bondage of the passions). It is obvious that most people will not attain to a great measure of spiritual stature such that they will live without the passions. But the Christ-centered model gives the ordering of life. And it is here that the practice of “obedience” comes to the fore.
At its heart, obedience is not the destruction of the will, or simply “doing what you are told.” Obedience requires a union of trust with God in which we recognize that the direction of our life is a gift rather than a choice of our own devising. It is a movement of the heart towards God rather than an assertion of the self. This, however, cannot be coerced. There is no obedience with coercion.
But the Classical Model believes that in Christ the fullness of human nature is revealed. Human nature is not a project of our own construction, but a reality that is made manifest in our existence. Thus the “object” of our struggle is not something yet to be revealed by science, but the reality revealed in the God/Man, Jesus Christ.
For some, the distinction between obedience and choice might seem to be mere semantics. After all, isn’t obedience just another choice? I like the model of marriage (classically understood) as an example of the difference. In a healthy marriage, we do not “choose” fidelity. If a spouse is at the point of having to choose faithfulness, then the marriage is in crisis. For the nature of choice is easily subject to the winds of pleasure and pain.
Obedience in marriage is simply living in the state of faithfulness. To be unfaithful is not a choice to be considered, regardless of the pleasure it might offer or the pain it might seem to assuage. It is this classical understanding enshrined in the vows of traditional Western marriage: “in sickness and in health, for better or for worse…’til death do us part.” Pain and pleasure are taken for granted and not brought in as objects of choice. (For those who immediately need to qualify everything – of course there will be circumstances under which a marriage is dissolved. That is a matter for a different conve