The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XI:
On Obedience

OBEDIENCE is the sacrifice of self-will. It may consist passively in a man's refusing to insist on acting in accordance with his own conception of what is pleasant, or his conviction of what is expedient or right. It may involve an act or a course of action directly opposed to such convictions. The Egyptian hermits recognised unquestioning obedience as a great virtue. The language in which they praise it is fervid. Its place in the hierarchy of virtues is supreme. The examples which are quoted for imitation show that no idea of compromise was to be entertained. It is apparent at once that the general conscience of mankind endorses under certain circumstances all that the hermits taught about obedience. The citizen of a state must submit to the will of the power that governs. The soldier must obey promptly and unquestioningly the orders of his officer. The sailor has no right of self-assertion against the will of his captain. No consideration of the justice or injustice of a law will absolve a citizen from obeying it so long as it continues to be the law. No conviction of the folly or inexpedience of an order can be held to justify the mutiny of the soldier or the sailor. Under certain circumstances we are as much convinced as the hermits were that obedience without delay or protest is an essential duty -- is even the highest virtue. Of all conceivable circumstances only one is generally held to justify disobedience. If obedience involves, directly and unmistakably, a transgression of the law of God, then every man, citizen, soldier, sailor, or monk is held to be right in disobeying.

So far there is nothing in the hermits' position about obedience which seems to conflict with the feeling even of men fundamentally opposed to monasticism. Nevertheless, there is felt to be a difference somewhere. A man who willingly recognises the soldier's obedience to his officer as a virtue, finds a feeling of irritated hostility arise in his mind at the contemplation of a monk's obedience to his abbot. Here, as very often elsewhere, a feeling which is, as one may say, instinctive to many men, is found upon examination to have a reasonable justification. The obedience of the hermit is a different thing from that of the soldier or the sailor. It rests upon a different basis, aims at a different result. The soldier obeys because, without discipline, an army is a useless mob. The sailor obeys because considerations for the common safety necessitate the predominance of one man's will. If the conditions which necessitate obedience are removed. obedience itself ceases to be a virtue, and may become even a vice. When a volunteer regiment is disbanded, at the end of a war, the trooper no longer owes, or is supposed to owe, any kind of obedience whatever to the man who was his officer. When a ship comes to a port, and the crew is paid off, the sailor has no special duty to his captain. This is only to say that obedience is regarded simply as a necessary condition for success in all cases where combined effort is required. Once the success is attained there is no more reason for obedience. Apart from the obvious advantages of discipline, obedience -- that is, obedience simply for the sake of obeying -- strikes the ordinary conscience as silly, if not actually wrong. The hermits looked at the matter altogether differently. To them obedience was not a means of perfecting any organisation, but was a virtue in itself. It was one of the marks of the ideally perfect character. A hermit obeyed his abbot or his elder brother because he wanted to be good, and being good involved the total conquest of that self whose outworks were passions and lusts, but whose last stronghold was the desire to express in act its own convictions and will. Here we see why in the case of the hermit the wisdom or folly, the expediency or inexpediency of the command given were quite unimportant. John of Lycopohis was ordered, when he was young, to plant and water a dried-up stick. In itself the command was a silly one. Neither planting nor watering made any difference to the stick. Obedience or disobedience did, however, make all the difference possible for John. He obeyed, and by obeying built up within himself a certain character. He so far annihilated self and self-will that it ultimately became possible for him to receive direct revelations of the divine purpose. He might have disobeyed. Then also he would have built up a character -- forceful, dominant, masterful -- but not such as enables a man to be the intimate friend of Jesus Christ.

The judgment which condemns obedience like John's as a worthless waste of time and energy is based upon a mistaken estimate of the relative value of what a man is and what he does. John, and others like him, might have spent their time in doing things that would have seemed to us more useful. Supposing that they had, the value of their work would be all exhausted centuries ago. The fields they dug would have gone back to barrenness or been dug again a thousand times. But the character which these men built up, by God's grace, is to-day, as we believe, in Paradise a joy to the angels, a glory to the Master whom they served. By asserting themselves against a command which seemed foolish they might have accomplished something effective for a year or two. They might have cast deeds, like stones, into the pool of human life, have watched the waters splash and ripple, and close calm again. By obeying they built into eternity, reared the fabric of a beautiful and everlasting human soul.


The praise of the virtue of obedience.

Oh, my son, good indeed is that obedience which is rendered for the Lord's sake. See to it, therefore, that your feet are placed upon the pathway that leads to the perfection of obedience. In obedience is the safety of all faithful souls. Obedience is the mother of all kinds of virtue. Obedience discovers the road that leads to heaven. It is obedience that opens heaven's gates and raises men above the earth. Obedience hath her home among the angels. Obedience is the food of all the saints. From her breasts they suck the milk of life, and grow up to the measure of perfection.


The vision which one of the fathers saw, wherein was manifested the greatness of obedience.

One of the fathers, being in a trance, saw four kinds of men standing before God. First he saw those who, though they suffer in the body and are sick, yet give thanks to God. Next were those who give themselves to hospitality and are devoted to the relief of others' needs. Next were they who dwell in solitude and see not the faces of men. The fourth kind were they who strive to be obedient and submit themselves unto the will of the fathers. He beheld, and lo! this last kind was superior to the other three. They were wearing golden crowns, and had received an excellent glory above the glory of the rest. Then the old man spoke to him who showed the vision to him, saying, "Why has this fourth kind of men a greater glory than the others?" He was answered thus, "They all find some satisfaction in doing the things they wish to do, albeit the things they wish are all of them good. He, however, who obeys renounces the fulfilment of his own will. He gives himself up to the will of the father who orders him. Therefore to his share there falls an excellent glory above the glory of the rest."


How obedience is no virtue if we only render it to those whose commands are according to our inclinations.

There was a brother once who said to a famous elder, "Father, I wish to find an old man with whom to dwell. I seek for one whose ways will be altogether according to my ideas of what is right. With him I wish to live and die." The elder said to him, "Of a truth you are on a noble quest, my master." Then he repeated his desire, being proud of it, and not understanding the meaning of the other's words. When the elder perceived that he still regarded his desire as a good and noble one, he said to him, "Then, if you find an old man whose ways answer to what you think is right, do you think that you will stay with him?" The brother replied, "Certainly I should stay with such a one if he indeed answered to my expectations." Then said the elder again, "Do you not see that you would not be following the teaching of him whom you seek for a master? You would be simply walking according to your own will." Then that brother, understanding what the old man said to him, fell at his feet in penitence and said, "Pardon me, for certainly I have boasted greatly. I thought that I was saying what was good, and all the while there was no trace even of goodness in my words."


The obedience of Mark, the disciple of Silvanns.

The abbot Silvanus had a disciple whose name was Mark. He was remarkable for his obedience, and therefore Silvanus loved him. Now he had also eleven other disciples, and they were vexed because Mark was more beloved than they were. When the elders heard this they were grieved, and came to Silvanus, intending to ask him to give up his favourite, since the brethren were offended. Before they had said anything Silvanus took them with him to make a round of the various cells. He called each monk by his name, saying, "Come out, for I have work for you to do." No single one of thenm was willing to come out. The last of all of those to whom they came was Mark. Silvanus knocked at his door, and called his name. Immediately Mark came out, hearing his master's voice. Then the abbots entered Mark's cell. Now Mark was a writer who copied books. Looking at the manuscript at which he had been at work, they found that he had left unfinished the letter which he was forming when he heard the voice of the old man. This he had done that his obedience might be prompt. Then said the other elders to Silvanus, "Truly him, whom you love, we also love; and no doubt God loves him because of his obedience."

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