In the life of the saints, “repetition” or “copying” is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart
I grew up as the son of an auto mechanic – who himself was the son of a mechanic. My uncle was a mechanic as well. By age 16 my older brother could do almost anything mechanically on a car – he had worked beside my father from the age of 12. I assumed, as I watched my brother from 5 years his junior, that at age 12 I would take my place beside the men and learn what the men in my family knew – auto mechanics.
Life has its own way of doing other than we imagine. By the time I was 12 my brother was heading off to college, the local economy had crashed, and the normalcy of business changed. My opportunity to apprentice beside my father came and went (which I sorely regretted).
Indeed, I never received my apprenticeship until my mid-20’s when I was in seminary and working by the side of a priest I admired. It was not my place in life to be an auto mechanic (though I like to “fiddle around” with cars). It has been in my later years that I’ve been able to look back and see the importance of apprenticeship.
Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, says that we learn to be virtuous people the same way a brickmason learns his trade – by watching and working side-by-side with someone who knows how to lay bricks. Virtue is formed and shaped in us by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Tradition – that is, the practiced lives of saints who have embodied the virtues of Christ through the ages.
Of course, we can’t just go out and sign ourselves up for apprenticeship with a saint. Good people are often rare and saints even rarer. But the principle of discipleship – learning by action in the Holy Spirit in the life of Holy Tradition – remains.
In some corners of Christianity (and probably some corners of Orthodox Christianity as well) discipleship has been abused – generally when someone without the proper gifts imposes obedience on others. Such gifts (such as eldership, etc.) are quite rare, even within Orthodox monasticism. My Archbishop has always been quick to instruct parish priests to avoid the monastic practice of obedience in the parish on account of its spiritual dangers in the wrong hands. Those whom I have known who do have this gift exercise it with fear and trembling.
Nevertheless, discipleship remains the primary means of our spiritual growth. So what do we do in the absence of saints? First, we are never in the absence of saints. They are always present with us as we are, together with them, one body in Christ. We have the witness of their lives and the wisdom of their writings. We have the living Tradition of the worshipping Church in which the words of the saints bathe us with spiritual teaching.
Tito Coliander, in his little classic work, Way of the Ascetics, has this exquisite observation on obedience in our modern times:
Perhaps you ask: Whom shall I obey? The saints answer: you shall obey your leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Who are my leaders, you ask? Where shall I find any, now that it is so utterly hard to discover a genuine leader? Then the holy Fathers reply: The Church has foreseen this too. Therefore since the time of the apostles it has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.
God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of as suffering any lack or needing anything that we, the creatures of His making, could give Him. Nor does he crave anything from us, but, says John Chrysostom, He allows us to bring Him offerings for the sake of our own salvation.
The greatest offering we can present to the Lord is our self. We cannot do this without giving up our own will. We learn to do this through obedience, and obedience we learn through practice. The best form of practice is that provided by the Church in her prescribed fast days and seasons.
Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour.
Obedience breaks down many barriers. You achieve freedom and peace as your heart practices non-resistance. You show obedience, and thorny hedges give way before you. Then love has open space in which to move about. By obedience you crush your pride, your desire to contradict, your self-wisdom and stubbornness that imprison you within a hard shell. Inside that shell you cannot meet the God of love and freedom.
Thus, make it a habit to rejoice when an opportunity for obedience offers. It is quite unnecessary to seek one, for you may easily fall into a studied servility that leads you astray into self-righteous virtue. You may depend upon it that you are sent just as many opportunities for obedience as you need, and the very kind that are most suitable for you. But if you notice that you have let an opportunity slip by, reproach yourself; you have been like a sailor who has let a favourable wind go by unused.
For the wind it was a matter of indifference whether it was used or not. But for the sailor it was a means of reaching his destination sooner. Thus you should think of obedience, and all the means that are offered us by the Holy Trinity, in that way.
And so God provides us with guides and teaches us the practice of obedience, conforming us to His will. It is an apprenticeship of the Spirit – Who is everywhere present and filling all things.