Homilies on Obedience
Stories of Obedience and Disobedience
In Katounakia on the Holy Mountain there was an elder by the name of Father Cyril, and he had a disciple named Father John. This disciple grieved and saddened his elder by his frequent disobedience. As time passed, this disciple began to feel physically ill. Before he became completely possessed by the demon, he behaved like an irrational person. He used to go with our fathers, Father Athanasios and Father Joseph, to gather hazelnuts, but he couldn’t. This person smelled like sulfur—I know this from my own personal experience. He had deranged thoughts, and his face showed his whole condition. Now and then he would come to our elder, Elder Joseph, to reveal his thoughts and seek advice, but he would not be obedient in anything. Before his elder, Father Cyril, died, he told him, “My child, when I die, bury me here”. When his elder died, however, he buried him elsewhere. The other fathers advised him not to disobey—be it even now—but to fulfill the last wish of his elder. But he replied, “No! I want to bury him here”. Once he buried him, the devil appeared before him and said to him, “Fool! I was the one who did all this to you. I was the one who incited you to grieve your elder with all your disobedience”. And as he opened his mouth, the devil entered inside him. From then on, he did crazy things…. When they chanted the Cherubic Hymn, he ridiculed them and acted like a wolf, like a wild beast. He took an axe and hacked at the icon* of St. John the Theologian. He would wander around all over the place. Now and then he would come to his senses. One day at noon we heard the cries of a fox. Father Joseph the Cypriot said to me, “Just look how audacious that fox is! Isn’t it afraid to howl in broad daylight?”
I said to him, “That’s not a fox; it’s that possessed man, Father John”. “I don’t believe it”, he replied. “Then wait and see”, I told him. And sure enough, in a little while Father John passed by in front of our house! I am telling you all these things so that you understand the importance of obedience, and also as a warning, because it will be very useful to you in the future. Another time, when Father John was in his right mind, he came to see my Elder. According to the typikon** we had there, and according to the rule of our Elder, I had to leave. As soon as I saw a visitor, I disappeared. So as soon as he came, I went to the adjacent cell and sat down there. Elder Joseph was sitting on a little stool. Father John came and sat down beside him. I knew from my Elder that he was possessed, because my Elder frequently told me about him for my instruction and experience. While I was sitting in the adjacent cell, I could hear what Father John said and how my Elder advised him. “Geronda”, Father John began, “when the demon seizes me, he lifts me up, he hits me, I speak incoherently, I do irrational things, and I find myself a mere spectator of what my body does and what my mouth says! I am a spectator, and I am unable to do anything, while all my members obey the devil!” After Elder Joseph’s repose when we were still at New Skete***, we had a lot of work and trouble fixing up our cell. The tempter made one of the fathers upset me with something. I kept telling him, “Don’t act like that; it is not to your advantage”. Finally, God gave him the personal experience to see that he should not behave like that. So one day during Great Compline—it was Lent—while he was reading at the lectern, he stopped reading for a moment, came over to me, and, terrified, he said to me, “Geronda, I am being possessed!” “Why do you say that?” I ask him. “Look”, he answered, “each one of my fingers is becoming as dig as my arm. My hand is swelling and is becoming three, four times its normal size by demonic activity! I am perishing, Geronda; cross me before I am possessed!” Then I crossed him and said, “All right, now go and read Compline, and next time be careful not to talk back and not to have a different opinion than the elder, because it is not to your advantage”. So after being crossed, he was delivered from it and came to himself, and trembling, went back to read. The feats of an obedient disciple are great. Those who obey and do not sadden their elder achieve angelic feats. Through obedience, a disciple receives much grace. The Apostle Paul, even though he was teaching Christians, stressed the basic virtue, obedience—that we must give joy to the spiritual fathers with our spiritual progress, for they watch out for our souls, as he said (cf. Heb. 13:17 ). It is not to our benefit to sadden and grieve those who struggle for the good of our soul. When we do not find rest or benefit in obedience, something is not going well; we are missing something. When a disciple is counseled by his elder about this or that, he should not take it merely as advice. In essence it is a command, even if it is not explicitly stated clearly as such. For example, the elder counsels: “My child, be obedient, say the prayer, drive away evil thoughts as soon as they come, because the longer they stay and settle down, the more they defile the soul. But even if they leave after a long time, they will still leave spots and blemishes behind!” Or when he says: “As soon as the talanton**** is struck, go down to church at once”. Or: “In church, don’t move around easily, but be patient in your seat, and only move when there is some great need”. When a monk does not obey every counsel and exhortation his elder gives him, he is being disobedient. Does the elder have to say explicitly, “I command you to do this and that”, so that the monk is afraid and obeys? Of course not. Commands are given only in particular circumstances. When someone comes to the monastery to become a disciple, it is very clear that he does not come for the abbot’s sake or for the monastery’s sake. It is clear—crystal clear—that he comes for the love of Christ and for the salvation of his soul. But since he does not see Christ, in order to be obedient to Him, Christ has left His representative (the abbot of the monastery ) so that a disciple can show him the obedience he desires to show to Christ. Every spiritual father is an icon of Christ. So corresponding to how one obeys his spiritual father, he obeys Christ. It is a terrible sin to act impiously towards an icon of Christ, the Panagia, or the saints. Nothing is considered to be worse than this. In this case, it is an icon that depicts a divine person—we venerate and kiss it, and the veneration is transferred to that person himself. The spiritual father bears the living image of Christ, and the disciple is commanded to obey him and respect him solely for the love of Christ—not for the person of the elder, because he might be a sinful person; he might be on his way to hell, as I am.
However, obedience has another meaning: it is passed on directly to Christ. Since the love of Christ has called us to come here to struggle and save our souls, we must employ every means to acquire this basic virtue of obedience, which also has a universal quality: when you see a good disciple, you know that he has not only obedience, but many other virtues and achievements as well. Another one of the many examples my holy Elder told us in order to strengthen our obedience and faith and love towards the person of the elder is the following, which happened in Katounakia. There was a disciple who used to love his elder very much and was very obedient to him. Once they went up to Karyes. His elder became seriously ill there and wanted to return to his cell. So the disciple took him on his shoulders, and after walking for hours along the mountain ridge, he brought him back to Katounakia where they lived. Later, this monk affiliated himself with a synodia at St. Basil’s, where the fathers received communion without fasting. He wanted to leave his elder and go there to continue his monastic life. Even though he was a great schema monk, he wanted to leave his elder and go there. His elder told him, “You shall not go”. He answered, “Yes I will!” “My child”, the elder replied, “don’t go. Pascha is coming; stay here so that we can celebrate the Resurrection together”. “No, I’m going”, he repeated. One day the elder lost his patience and said, “May an evil angel pursue you”. The following day, a large pimple appeared on his nose and began to swell. Finally, he ended up going to Father Artemios, a self-taught doctor who had healed both Elder Joseph and me. He showed him the pimple, but he couldn’t cure him. In three or four days the swelling increased. The pimple burst and ran with pus, and he was approaching death. The fathers told him, “For the love of Christ, be reconciled with your elder so that he may forgive you and so that you may take his blessing with you”. “No!” he kept saying. He had become fierce as if he were possessed! But in the end, when he was about to breathe his last, he beat his breast, saying these words: “I lost! I lost! I lost my salvation!!!” My Elder used to tell us very many stories, because he knew many monks of the past. In the patristic***** writings is written the story of a good disciple whose elder counseled him every day after Compline. He would advise him regarding obedience and what he must do in order to be saved. One day the elder dozed off as he was talking. Then the devil began to disturb the disciple with thoughts, saying: “Leave, since your elder has fallen asleep. Why are you just sitting around? You should also go rest now; you are tired”, and so on. “But how can I go?” he thought. “I have to get Geronda’s blessing first”. “But he’s sleeping now”, his thoughts told him. “It doesn’t matter; I’ll be patient”. These thoughts of leaving fought against him seven times, but he wouldn’t leave. Hours later, when it was almost time for Matins, the elder woke up and said to him, “Didn’t you go rest yet?” “I couldn’t, Geronda, without your blessing”. “Then why didn’t you wake me up?” “It doesn’t matter, Geronda, I wanted to be obedient and patient”. “Fine. Let’s do Matins now, and then go rest well”. And that is what happened. When the elder went back to sleep again after Matins, he saw that he was in a chamber full of light, and in it was a resplendent throne, and on the seat of the throne were seven crowns with much grace. The elder wondered and said “Who knows what great saint and holy man this throne belongs to, and what struggles he must have done to win these crowns!” And as he was standing there, lo and behold, a venerable person approached and said to him, “What are you marveling at, Geronda?”
“I’m marveling at the throne’s splendor and thinking that it must be the throne of some great saint”. “No”. he said, “it doesn’t belong to some great saint, but to your disciple”. “But that’s impossible”, the elder said. “He is still very young, and he came just recently—and he has a throne and crowns already?” “He certainly does! He was given the throne from the moment he did his metanoia of obedience,****** and he received the seven crowns last night by opposing thoughts”.
Then he came to himself and called his disciple and asked him, “My child, what thoughts did you have yesterday?” “I didn’t have any in particular, Geronda. I don’t remember having any bad thoughts”. “Try thinking a little harder; review the day step by step”. And then, as he was examining himself, he said, “Yes, yes, Geronda, last night after Compline after you fell asleep, the thought to leave you and go rest fought against me seven times, but I resisted it, and, as you saw, I waited for you”.
“Fine, my child; go”. And the elder understood that his disciple had won the seven crowns the previous night by opposing thoughts.
*Icon (εικών )
Αn icon is a two-dimensional sacred depiction of Christ, of His saints, or of a holy event. Icons are to be venerated, not worshipped, as worship is due to God alone. As St. Basil the Great has stated, the reverence given to icons is transferred to their prototype, that is, to the one portrayed.
** Typikon (τυπικόν )
Τhe «typikon” can mean: (a ) a brotherhood’s system of rules regulating the life of a monk in general; or (b ) the set of rubrics governing the order of liturgical services.
*** Skete (σκήτη )
A skete is a small monastic village, usually consisting of a central church and several “cells”. Cells are monastic houses, each with its own synodia and usually with its own chapel.
A “talanton” is a specially shaped wooden plank that is struck in monasteries before services begin.
***** Patristic (πατερικός )
This adjective is used to describe something of, or relating to, the Holy Fathers of the Church.
****** metanoia of obedience
Once a person has chosen his spiritual father and is accepted by him, he does a metanoia symbolizing his submission.