“No man appears in safety before the public eye, unless he first relishes obscurity. No man is safe in speaking, unless he loves to be silent. No man rules safely, unless he is willing to be ruled. No man commands safely, unless he has learned well how to obey. No man rejoices safely, unless he has within him the testimony of a good conscience” (Thomas à Kempis, Imitatio Christi, 1. 20. 2).
One avva (a spiritual father) in the desert of Egypt asked his disciple to water every day a little branch that he planted in his garden. The stream was far away, and the disciple needed the whole day to get the water and come back. In spite of this, he submitted to the will of his master and faithfully did his duty every day. After a number of years, a beautiful apple tree grew from that branch. It blossomed and gave its fruit at the right time. Then, the avva called the other brothers in the monastery to celebrate and made them taste the sweet fruit of his disciple’s submission.
The Desert Fathers in the 4th century prized submission above any other virtue. If you were a beginner in the monastic life and your avva told you that the milk is black, you had better believe it, or you had no future among those seeking salvation through separation from the world.
When we look at this with the eyes of a 21st century person, it seems most strange. Does not everybody know that milk is white? What then was the avva trying to say? Was he crazy? Most certainly not. What he was trying to do through this extreme exercise was the so-called “breaking of the will.” According to the vision of the early monastic movement, no one could progress spiritually if that person remained selfish, independent and hard headed.
Our modern (or post-modern) mind cannot easily grasp the benefits of this kind of training. Rather, we are more prone to see its downsides, which, we have to admit, are many. Such arrangements were easily abused by authoritarian figures, as we may see happening even today in monastic circles in my own country of Romania.
It was precisely these sort of excesses that modernity tried to uproot, in its anti-establishment impulses. And, to be fair, I am glad it did. I could not imagine living under the sort of authoritarianism that this perspective on the Christian life produced right before the time of the Reformation. But as legitimate as it was, this reaction produced its own excesses and imbalances. Is not our human history the record of perpetual moving between extremes, in an ever-elusive search for balance?
The rationalism of the Enlightenment rejected the mere concept of authority, and in the end, reason itself became oppressive. Reformation rejected the concept of tradition, with its potential of subjecting the freedom of the individual to supposedly illegitimate constraints. Nevertheless, through this, it unintentionally opened the Pandora’s box of perpetual fragmentation, which led to the depressing denominationalism of the present day.
Where then is the solution? Could we keep alive both submission and freedom? The communists certainly did not believe it is possible. Giovanni Papini, in his book Gog, relates his meeting with Lenin, the father of the Russian communist revolution. In this conversation, Lenin tells the Catholic author that people cannot handle freedom. That is why he took it from them and offered them in exchange the right to live a safe life in the supposedly benevolent prison that he invented – the great Soviet Union. In fact, Lenin was simply reiterating, on a larger scale, Dostoyevsky’s ‘Parable of the Great Inquisitor’ that is found in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
Having lived about 35 years of my life in the Romania’s communist “paradise,” I value personal freedom above many other things. I was not willing to sacrifice it in exchange for safety and success during communism, and I am not willing to do it now, when new temptations have arisen with the political freedom we have gained since 1989. However, I am keenly aware that the spiritual realm is governed by slightly different rules than the political sphere.
As a Christian, I am convinced that there is no spiritual maturity without submission. I may be suspicious of the concept of “breaking someone’s will,” but I have to admit that our human selfishness cannot but clash with the Lord’s will. This is where à Kempis got it right in the quotation above. If one wants to enjoy freedom, that person needs to exercise it with restraint and learn to submit it to the higher value of doxology – the worship that the divine Sovereign deserves by virtue of creation. The way to personal freedom starts with submission to the will of the eternal sovereign God. Even Christ, the incarnate Son of the living God, “learned trusting-obedience by what He suffered, just as we do” (Hebrews 5:8).
Yet, this is not enough. The apostle John tells us: “If anyone boasts, ‘I love God,’ and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see?” (1 John 4:20). Now, the same principle works in the sphere of submission. We cannot pretend to be submissive to God, if we are not submissive to our human brothers and sisters in Christ.
This may appear a lofty thought, but how does it all work out in practice? Discipleship (together with education and ecumenism) is one of the central values on which I have built my personal life. In any way you want to look at it, discipleship inescapably involves submission. Whether you think about it in terms of “taking the cross” or of learning as an apprentice from a master, being a disciple of Christ is impossible without paying the price of giving up one’s rights for a higher value.
We observe in many Christian circles today, an incessant and unhealthy preoccupation with authority. Obviously, we prefer to call it “spiritual” authority. However, the constant stories of abuse, dictatorship, manipulation, authoritarianism, that we hear in the press should make us a bit more awake, more discerning, using a healthy amount of the “hermeneutic of suspicion.”
What we forget, when we seek inadvertently to exercise authority over people, is that the way to glory is not self-assertion but humility. The early Christian hymn transcribed by Paul in Philippians 2.5-11 tell us that, in the spiritual realm, the way to exaltation (being raised to the highest authority) is kenosis (the setting aside of one’s privileges).
When do you think that Christ exercised his highest degree of authority? Maybe at the resurrection of Lazarus or in the exorcism in Gadara. However, if we take the Scriptures seriously, we will have to admit that his acceptance of the bitter cup in the Gethsemane garden, and His refusal to save Himself on the cross and take revenge on His enemies, was the culmination of His exercise of divine authority.
“He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right” (1 Peter 2:23). This is why the Father, through the Holy Spirit, “raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever” (Ephesians 1:19-20).
Blessed be His name, and the name of those following in His footsteps, and the footsteps of those that imitate Him, from submission, through genuine freedom, to eternal glory, in the presence of the saints and of the holy angels. Amen!
Danut Manastireanu is the Director for Faith and Development, in the Middle East and Eastern Europe region of World Vision International. He lives in Iasi, Romania. Danut received his PhD in theology from Brunel University in London. He and his wife have two children and four grandchildren.