800px-Noe_fettersOn another occasion also St. Columba prophesied in the following manner of Cormac, grandson of Lethan, a truly pious man, who not less than three times went in search of a desert in the ocean, but did not find it. “In his desire to find a desert, Cormac is this day, for the second time, now embarking from that district which lies at the other side of the river Moda (the Moy, in Sligo), and is called Eirros, Domno (Erris, in Mayo); nor even this time shall he find what he seeks, and that for no other fault than that he has irregularly allowed to accompany him in the voyage a monk who is going away from his own proper abbot without obtaining his consent.”

~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 6

While I know I’m supposed to be continuing my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, as the spiritual father of all the Irish, one cannot escape his spirit in the saints who rose up after him and continued his missionary efforts. In the case of this story, we have St. Columcille again (i.e. St. Columba) and St. Cormac. There are two themes in this story that caught my attention, both of which also reach back beyond St. Patrick to the desert fathers who figure so prominently on this blog: the desert and obedience.

Beginning with the second, obedience is one of the three monastic virtues, the other two being virginity and poverty. I have said before that these are perhaps the three least popular things in our culture today. Nevertheless, I’ve found that virginity sells, so why not obedience too?

For starters, obedience struggles to be popular in a society in which cowboys, hippies, and gangsters are cultural icons. All three of these types have in common the characteristic of being above the law in some way. Cowboys and gangsters live above (or apart from or against) the law in the legal sense. Hippies attempt to be above the mores of culture and, in some cases, the law of nature (e.g. the sexual revolution). Outside of Amish romance novels (virginity sells!), what room do we have for obedience?

Well, I would answer with another question: without obedience, how can we have a society? Obedience, often uncharitably thought of in terms of masters and slaves, is essential to the social order. Simply put, obedience is the denial of one’s own will for the sake of another’s, and we would fast slip into anarchy without it.

Understood in this way, everybody practices obedience to some degree (though some not enough): children to parents, spouses to each other, employees to employers, laypeople to clergy, citizens to the law. Indeed, according to St. John the Theologian, “sin is lawlessness.” That is, sin is the negation of order; it is chaotic, unnatural, insane even. In its corruptible, disorderly character, sin is a foretaste of death, the dissolution of the bond between body and soul. Those who scorn obedience unwittingly praise self-corruption as if it were the epitome of freedom, liberty, independence, and autonomy. Not only is lawlessness none of these things, it is the exact opposite.

In the story above, we read that St. Cormac, who is somewhat paradoxically seeking “a desert in the ocean,” will not find his desert “for no other fault than that he has irregularly allowed to accompany him in the voyage a monk who is going away from his own proper abbot without obtaining his consent.” Whether or not St. Cormac was aware of this is not stated, but one way or another this disobedient monk with disharmony in his soul prevents St. Cormac from finding the peace and harmony he seeks in the desert.

Why the desert? Why the wildnerness, untamed and barren? I have written before about the spirit of the desert, how it is a place of peace, apart from the world’s anxieties. In this story, we see a connection between that peace and the self-denial of obedience. Far from slavery, obedience frees us from the tyranny of our own wills.

How much anxiety comes from always wanting everything our own way! What a chore to try to coerce others to do what we want all the time! I certainly know that for me, my will is my chain.

St. Paul knew this all too well:

I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

How often do we will what is good only to do what is evil? That is where the discipline of obedience is such a blessing. All of the people in our lives present us with an opportunity to practice obedience, to those over us, to those along side us, even to those below us, and first and most of all, to Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom we are delivered from the bondage of our wills.

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