The Case for Abbots

“We who live in coenobitic monasteries should of our own free choice gladly cut off our whole will through obedience to the abbot.  In this way, with God’s help, we shall become to some degree tractable and free from self-will.  It is good to acquire this art, for then…we shall not excite our incensive power unnaturally and uncontrollably.  If we do not voluntarily cut off our own self-will, it will become enraged with those who try to compel us to cut it off.”

                St. Hesychios the Priest [31]

I often struggle with the differences between the life of a monk and my modern life as a working husband and father.  When reading the writings of men who devoted their lives to God in a way that I am simply not called to do, it is easy to read of their practices and say “that does not fit my life.”  Thankfully, one of the great blessings of God’s Truth is its universal trueness.  One of the most exciting elements of reading the Philokalia as a House is discussing ways that Christian truths held up by holy men centuries ago remain true today, challenging and refining our own lives.

Through the wisdom of Hesychios speaking about monks and abbots, I realized that though I do not live in a monastery, our 6-month-old son is serving as my abbot.  Declan is constantly challenging my own self-will and braking me of my patterns of comfort by his many needs.  He stops me from fulfilling my desires at every turn—how I want to spend my Saturday, what I want to buy, where I go to eat, even (especially?) when I want to sleep.  He is a tough abbot.  This is a physically and emotionally difficult change and I admit that weekends often close with disappointment, the feeling “I did nothing that I planned.”    

When the idyllic picture you had of your “free time” is disrupted, what are you left with?  Frustration? Anger?  This is a hole in my trust in God that is being exposed now through my son.  Thankfully, as Hesychios writes this hole can be seen as a door: a door into a new way of living characterized by great freedom.  By allowing the abbots in our life to break us of our own desires and teach us obedience, Christ promises freedom from the stubbornness of self-will.  When we submit to the people and babies God puts in our life to break us of selfishness, Hesychios lists two tangible rewards: being tractable (teachable) and freedom from the predicable and debilitating anger of others getting in the way of what we want.

Even more fundamentally, living by the rule of our own will is an effective way to shut out the mighty work that God is seeking to do in us and in the world through us.  It is settling for small personal comforts rather than the boundless symphonic quest God offers to us all: bringing His Kingdom to earth.  Christ is working a powerful plan in our lives, city, and world, and only by breaking the chains of self-will can we open a door to obedience to that plan. 

A stunning example of this need for submission by all is the way God himself submits to the will of His Father.  In Jesus’ prayer before offering his life for us in obedience to the Father, we see the pain of breaking HIS own will: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 

If it is dangerous for even the Son of God to listen to his own will, how much more do we need to be broken of our sinful desires?  I can only fall at the feet of the Father and thank him for the abbots that he has placed in my life, asking that they might crack me open for him to fill with his perfect plan. 

Christ have mercy.

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