More thoughts on Spiritual Direction & Confession: Trust & Obedience

My original post went up at 5.00 am and, well, needed a good proofreading and edit (I pray well enough in the early morning, but I’m not much of an editor at the best of times!).

My apologizes for any lack of clarity. The revised text starts after my signature.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Obedience in a monastic setting presupposes a shared life characterized not only by mutual respect and trust but also a willingness to share in the consequences of any and all decisions made. When the abbot or an elder in the monastery gives an obedience to a novice, he share with the monk the consequences of both the monk’s success and failure. If the meal is poorly prepared, for example, it isn’t simply the novice is suffers a bad dinner but the abbot and the whole community as well. As a friend of mine puts it, the elder has “skin in the game.” Or to use more formal language, obedience in a monastic setting reflects the in investment of both the elder and the novice in the outcome of any direction that’s given.

Unfortunately many Orthodox Christians do not understand what I would call the human or lived context of monastic obedience. Many have a very abstract and mechanistic understanding of obedience. Frequently, to illustrate my point, I hear of a parish priest giving an obedience to a parishioner. My objection to this is not with the concept of obedience per se, but that the priest does not, and cannot, share tangibly in the consequences of the parishioner’s potential failure. Because he is largely insulated from the consequences of his advice, a priest (whether married or monastic) is not in a position to require obedience from a parishioner the way an elder can in a monastery. Absent this personal share in the other’s failure, the application of a monastic understanding of obedience is simply inappropriate; at a minimum it is immature and fanciful, at its worse, it is abusive and a gateway to all manner of pastoral misconduct.

Whatever might be its other strengths, parish life is not a shared life in the sense that life is shared in the monastic community. This difference is of critical importance, because there can be, or so I would argue, no real obedience apart from a shared life. Put another way, obedience is the fruit of a life of mutual trust and respect, and requires from the one who asks for obedience a shared acceptance of the immediate and long term consequences of directives that are given.

Let me put that a slightly different way.

Obedience is only possible to the degree that there is trust born of real interdependence. Absent this interdependence, absence this mutual dependence of one upon the other, there can be no real obedience.

So now, what does this have to do with confession and spiritual direction?

However a valuable to the spiritual life, obedience is not sui generis. Rather it presupposes a very particular set of social circumstances that are not (and cannot be) fully present in a parish setting. Monastic obedience is the fruit of a life of shared respect and trust in which all parties see themselves as responsible to, and for, each other and share practically in the consequences of decisions.

As a said a moment ago, I often hear of priests, and sometimes parishioners, trying to duplicate monastic obedience in a parochial setting. But doing this (or so it seems to me) is wrongheaded. The reason, and again as I said above, is that we do not share the direct consequences for each other’s behavior in the parish in the way in which monastics do in a monastery. When, for example, an abbot gives an obedience to a monk participate in all the liturgical services to be celebrated on a given day at the monastery, he does so with the awareness that it is not possible for the monk to do manual labor for those hours that he is in church. But the work still needs to be done and so a brother who prays eight hours a day in church needs to be replaced by a monk who is able to work of some or all of those eight hours. If this exchange is not made, then the work remains undone and all suffer the consequences.

This is admittedly a crude example but I think it makes the point. In a parish setting or with non-monastic spiritual children, the spiritual father (whether a monastic or parish priest) does not have this kind of an investment in the person to whom he is ministering that an abbot has with a monk of his monastery. Nor, for that matter, does the penitent have that kind of investment in the priest that a novice has in his abbot or elder. And maybe most important of all, the members of parish do not have the kind of investment in the priest (or each other), that the monks in a monastery have one in their abort or one another.

Simply put, in the parish, we all go home, but for the monk the monastery is his home. If life gets too hard for us in a particular parish, or we don’t get along with our parish priest, we can (usually anyway) go to another parish without suffering nearly the dislocation that a monk would in transferring to another monastery.

In my own pastoral praxis, I ask not for obedience but deference, which is to say, I ask simply to be given the benefit of the doubt in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Of necessity this means that I must accept that my decisions, my guidance, my suggestions, are all open to criticism, disagreement, revision, and yes even rejection. More importantly though, none of this is (necessarily) the result of bad will on the part of those involved in the conversation; disagreement is not disobedience.

Does this mean that we do away with obedience in an absolute sense? No of course not. What it does mean, however, is that we need to understand that there are limits to obedience. The limit to obedience is our mutual investment, in our ability and willingness to bear the consequences of our own decisions and the decisions of others.

Obedience can never be asked for, much less demanded. Like trust, of which it is the fruit, obedience can only be itself when it is freely offered and freely received. In one sense, obedience is trust in work clothes—obedience is the less glamorous, more practical, side of trust (and for that matter, respect and love). If as a confessor or spiritual father, I lose sight of the priority of trust, mutual respect and love, I undermine my ministry regardless of the theological orthodoxy of my counsel.

In the Creed, we profess faith in the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” We often, and rightly, think of the Church in institutional terms, as something objective and in a sense external to ourselves. But this is only half the mystery. I am also a part of the Church, and the Church a part of me. I cannot therefore have faith in the institutional aspect of the Church unless, or so it seems to me, I understand that faith in the Church also includes a faith or trust in the members of the Church who are first and foremost my brothers and sisters in Christ. Faith in the Church is a matter of trust in bishops and clergy; it is also a matter of my having trust in my brothers and sisters in Christ and a relative trust in myself. These three elements are not opposed to each other, rather they presuppose and reinforce each other. I would suggest that the ministries of confession and spiritual direction, and in fact in all the Church’s ministries, that we work by God’s grace and our own efforts are in the service fostering this expansive view of trust in self and others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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