Freedom and Obedience

Part III: Freedom and Obedience in the Teachings of St. Sophrony

AMONG the various schools of political thought that formed in the 19th and 20th century, each one may be seen to either gravitate toward collectivism or individualism. The former has appeared under an assortment of names: sobornost, communism, and socialism. Individualism is often misnomered capitalism but is more properly found under the term: liberalism. To form a sweeping generalization, collectivism could be defined as a sacrifice of the personal for the sake of a common good; individualism, in reverse, could be seen as the sacrifice of the collective good for the sake of greater personal gain.

The dichotomy between collectivism and individualism, brought to a violent collision in the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, can be viewed as the progeny of a deeper and older feud between autonomy and absolutism. In the 16th and 17th century, the autonomy of the individual was championed by such figures as Martin Luther and John Locke. These believed a person’s conscience and experience were the only rightful governing authorities. Others, such as Thomas Hobbes, argued that a society composed of free individuals would quickly turn to chaos; the absolute authority of a sovereign state presented the only solution to bringing order and good to society. Cast these views in modern forms and we have the perennial debate between those on the right and those on the left, between capitalist and socialist, between those who esteem the highest value to be personal freedom and enterprise and those seeking security in the protection and provision of larger authority structures.1

In an endless game of tug-of-war, the proponents of political change invariably observe in the structures built by the opposing side a perpetuation of inequality. Whether in the cries of “liberté, égalité, fraternité!” or in the promises of a communist utopia, there persists the hope that a new age of equality may be be allowed to rise if only those in power could be removed. Yet, no sooner are the powers toppled than new overlords rise up in their place and the dream of equality if shattered.

Saint Sophrony affirms the desire for equality, noting that this idea is deeply rooted in the human conscience by reason that we are all children of the same Lord.2 Yet, he also asks, “is equality possible where liberty is the fundamental principle of existence?”3 Despite the age-old struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, a “pyramid of being” persists—standing unshaken, with the princes of this world exercising dominion.4 Though revolution after revolution has swept across the pages of history, the tension between freedom and authority remains. How does Saint Sophrony see this untenable situation resolving?

On the day of Saint Sophrony’s departure from this life, his disciple, Archimandrite Zacharias, related to his bereft flock: “Christ our God is the sign of God for all generations of this age, because in his word we find salvation and the solution to every human problem.”5 Saint Sophrony also saw in the Person of Christ the model for every form of human life and interaction. Thus, in confronting the “pyramid of being,” he looks to Christ and he observes that, unlike any other “politician,” Christ takes up the cause of neither the oppressor, nor the oppressed. He notes:

The Lord does not deny the fact of inequality, hierarchy, division into upper and lower, into overlord and servant; but he turns the pyramid upside down and thus achieves the ultimate perfection.6

Christ, as Creator, is the apex of the “pyramid of being,” but having overturned this pyramid he is at once its summit and its base, bearing upon his torn and bloody shoulders the weight of the world in his voluntary Passion as both Lord and servant.

St. Sophrony sees the antinomy7 of equality and freedom thus solved in this novel way. He likewise observes in the person of Christ the antinomy of freedom and obedience brought together into harmony. In Christ’s self-emptying obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane, we have the supreme example of the Person—complete in his self-determination and freedom of being—who nonetheless freely, willingly, voluntarily chooses not his own will, but the will of his Father.8 Earlier that fateful evening, the Lord knelt down as a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. “Know ye what I have done to you?” he had asked them. Then he explained, “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”9

In these acts—obedience and servitude—one is tempted to see either a diminution of Christ’s Person, or at least the abolition of hierarchal authority structures. The social justice warriors of each age are quick to the raise the figure of the Son of Man as a banner in their battle to dismantle inequality. They ask: Has anyone the right to be called Lord? Has anyone the right to expect obedience? It is therefore necessary to point out that Christ affirms his title as Master and Lord: “ye say well; for so I am.”10 Furthermore, before his Ascension to the Father, he proclaims: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”11 It follows then that obedience and servitude must originate from a source different from bondage or hierarchal status. If Christ is the paradigm of personhood, then one may be, at the same time, both obedient and free.

This is precisely St. Silouan’s view of obedience. St. Sophrony transmits the words of his elder: “The obedient man has surrendered himself to God’s will, wherefore he is given the gifts of freedom and rest in God.”12 Obedience in no wise presents a restriction or diminution of personal freedom, but instead offers the fullest potential for authentic life. Such is the antinomy of Christian obedience. In an article on monasticism first published in 1953, St. Sophrony addresses the inevitable concern that arises when speaking of obedience, especially when exploring the relationship between a spiritual father and novice:

At first sight the abdication of free will and the power of reason might appear to run counter to God’s design for man, whom he has endowed with freedom like his own [. . . but] the obedient man may be compared to the eagle who rises on strong wings into the heavens and there serenely surveys the space which separates him from the earth.13

A large part of the freedom granted through obedience is the release from all desire to control the other. In the context of confession, Saint Sophrony warns against the penitent who “yields to a secret desire to influence the confessor to his own way of thinking.”14 The penitent who seeks to exert his own will in confession destroys the possibility that the sacrament might be a theological event and reduces it to the mere exchange of human opinion.

“Obedience,” St. Sophrony relates, “is a mystery which is revealed only by the Holy Spirit . . . no human concept is applicable to it.”15 However, if there is a key to understanding how, at the same time, one may offer unquestioning obedience and yet remain entirely free, it must be by means of one thing: love. Genuine obedience is a voluntary self-emptying, or to adopt St. Sophrony’s idiom: it is a kenotic love. He remarks that it is “with confidence, love, and joy [that] the novice readily submits his will and jurisdiction over himself to his spiritual father.”16 In other words, it is paramount that obedience be an act of the will, by choice, without any form of coercion. Christ himself reminds “No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”17 Christ can offer self-emptying obedience to the Father and yet not relinquish his divinity in any degree precisely because this obedience is offered in love. In the same manner, we can observe the Father’s authority over the Son without detecting any desire to control because such is done in purest love of the Other.

Love as kenosis is therefore the bridge that unites the opposite poles of freedom and obedience and, in the political sphere it unites the freedom essential to authentic personhood with the collective good of the other. A comparison may be illustrated by the two figures below:

Figure 1: The dichotomy of liberalism and absolutism

Figure 2: The trinity of the upturned pyramid of being

We are thus presented with this antinomy: authentic personhood consists of complete obedience to the other, while at the same time allowing complete freedom. This is made possible by the mutual love of those holding authority and those granting it, ultimately a love that is divine Life. Without reciprocal love between the one in authority and the one in obedience there can be neither genuine obedience nor authentic freedom, political or otherwise. In our final essay, we will explore this maxim in a variety of specific contexts. If in this essay we have emphasized the need for complete obedience in the realization of personhood, our next essay will focus primarily on the dangers presented to those in authority.


1 See Matthew Crawford “A brief history of freedom,” in The World Beyond Our Head for an illuminating look at the history of the European Enlightenment in terms of authority (pp. 115–123). This is such a broad and fascinating topic that one could easily write many pages and only brush the surface. We have limited the discussion for the sake of returning to our main theme: St. Sophrony’s threefold vision of freedom, love, and obedience.
2  Saint Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press) 237.
3 Ibid. Note: This is a rhetorical question; St. Sophrony elsewhere equates liberty with the essential nature of human existence.
4 Matt. 20:25.
5 Saint Silouan, 237

6 Arch. Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd edition (Essex, UK: Community of St. John, 2012) 122.
7  “Antinomy” is adapted from St. Sophrony’s frequent use of the term, which he undoubtably adopted from Pavel Florensky. See “Letter Eleven” in The Cross of Loneliness, 58. The word can be treated here as being synonymous with paradox.

8 The subordination of the Son as observed in the Garden of Gethsemane has received little comment from the church fathers. St. John Chrysostom takes the opportunity to remark upon the authenticity of Christ’s human nature [Homily 84 on Matthew] and the example Christ’s submission provides to Christians but he does not address the question of subordination in terms of freedom and self-determination on the plane of Christ’s divine nature. St. Maximus the Confessor devoted most of his polemic work in defending the integrity of Christ’s human will but he does not answer the perplexity presented by Christ’s obedience [see St. Maximus the Confessor, Disputations with Pyrrhus]. The eternal subordination of the Son, as taught by Arius in the 4th century and condemned at the First Ecumenical Council of 325 AD, implies an inequality between the Father and the Son. The full divinity and single essence of the Father and the Son has been firmly upheld within the Orthodox Church. Submission is typically attributed to the obedience of Christ’s human nature to his divine nature. However, this explanation seems to neglect the seeming eternal character of his subordination as witnessed particularly in the Gospel of John [See John 5:33; John 8:28, etc.].
The mutual kenosis or self-emptying among the Persons of the Holy Trinity, as expressed by St. Sophrony, appears to offer a promising direction for understanding Christ’s subordination. In his discussion of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane he writes, “Through Christ we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over [kenosis]. The Father in generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” [Видеть Бога как Он есть, 233–34, translated by Nicholas Sakharov in I Love Therefore I Am, 95.)]
9 Jn. 13:12–14.
10 Jn. 13:13.
11 Matt. 28:18
12 Saint Silouan, 420.
13 Arch. Sophrony, Truth and Life (Essex, UK: Community of St. John, 2014) 83–84. Originally published in Messager de l’Exarchat du Patriarche Russe en Europe Occidententale, vol. 13 and 14 (Paris, 1953).
14 Saint Silouan, 86.
15 Truth and Life, 83.
16 Ibid.
17 Jn. 10:18. Note: As another instance of antinomy, Christ immediately follows this assertion of freedom with the admission: “This commandment have I received of my Father.”

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