It was said of Abba Silvanus that at Scetis he had a disciple called Mark, whose obedience was great. He was a scribe. The old man loved him because of his obedience. He had eleven other disciples who were hurt because he loved him more than them. When they knew this, the elders were sorry about it and they came one day to him to reproach him about it. Taking them with him, he went to knock at each cell, saying, ‘Brother so and so, come here; I need you,’ but none of them came immediately. Coming to Mark’s cell, he knocked and said, ‘Mark.’ Hearing the old man’s voice, he jumped up immediately and the old man sent him off to serve and said to the elders, ‘Fathers, where are the other brothers?’ Then he went into Mark’s cell and picked up his book and noticed that he had begun to write the letter ‘omega’, but when he had heard the old man, he had not finished writing it. Then the elders said, ‘Truly, abba, he whom you love, we love too and God loves him.’¹
Obedience is one of the most antithetical spiritual disciplines to the American mindset. We value individualism. We value it so highly that “Americanism” was even labeled a heresy by Pope Leo XII in the late 19th century. We are a nation of rebels.
Some cultures esteem obedience to authority, but we are not one of them. Name one movie or book from America where the hero or heroine “wins” because they followed the rules and obeyed their elders or superiors. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Anything? Probably not.² We like the hero who “takes the road less traveled,” bucks the system, and does it his way.
Yet the episode above from the Desert Fathers shows a whole different perspective and it is instructive of how we should seek to obey God and others. The Sayings contain many such scenes. Obedience is a monastic virtue and these men (and even some women) were pioneers of monasticism.
Four monks of Scetis, clothed in skins, came one day to see the great Pambo. Each one revealed the virtue of his neighbour. The first fasted a great deal; the second was poor; the third had acquired great charity; and they said of the fourth that he had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to an old man. Abba Pambo said them, ‘I tell you, the virtue of this last one is the greatest. Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.’³
Jesus held up obedience to authority as a model for us. His interaction with the Centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 is a clear instance of this. It is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus marveled at someone’s faith, instead of their lack of faith. Why? The Centurion understood authority and obedience. Perhaps we should do likewise.
¹ Ward, Benedicta. Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection. Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1975. p. 145-46.
² I can think of three: the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien—but both are by British Christians—and U-571. At the crux of the action in the latter, a key character (predictably, given the story) has to “follow orders” by giving them.
³ Sayings of the Desert Fathers. p. 196.