No, I have never physically met Elder Prophyrios. My relationship with the Elder began the first time his book, Wounded by Love came into my house. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it, so I got a copy. I jumped right in when my copy arrived and was quickly disturbed by what I read.
Obedience is the theme of the Elder’s monastic training, and I found that disturbing. It was disturbing not because God uses obedience to free us from ourselves (of which, Elder Prophyrios is an excellent example). It was disturbing because I have had not a little trouble in my life trying to understand and apply obedience. The first few pages of Wounded by Love brought many confusing thoughts and unpleasant memories to mind. I quickly lent the book to someone else who wanted to read it and haven’t seen it since.
That was about a year ago. Recently, several people whom I respect have suggested that I read it. They did not know about my first attempt. Nevertheless, “out of the mouth of two or three witnesses…” I decided to give it a go again. And behold, what should appear in the mail today, even before I had a chance to order a copy? My beloved oldest daughter sent Bonnie and me a copy of Wounded by Love as an anniversary gift (30th on Tuesday!).
I began reading again, and this time read far enough to come to this passage: “I can’t give you an example of what real obedience is. It’s not that we have a discussion about the virtue of obedience and then I say to you, ‘go and do a somersault,’ and you obey. That’s not obedience. You need to be entirely carefree and not thinking at all about the matter of obedience, and then suddenly you are asked to do something and you are ready to do it joyfully” (p.19).
Well, if that is obedience, I have not tasted much of it. In my early days of learning about obedience, it was much like what Elder Prophyrios says it’s not. We would talk about obedience, then an opportunity to obey would come along (usually in the form of a confrontation of some sort). Then, in the light of the teaching about obedience, I would chose to obey, believing that the act of my will to obey would somehow demonstrate that I loved God and would release Grace. Today when I think about it, that sounds almost like magic; but the truth is that despite my convoluted understanding of obedience, God did pour out quite a lot of Grace on our community: enough Grace to lead us to the Holy Orthodox Church.
But where I went wrong, I think, was that I reduced love to obedience. For Elder Prophyrios, love preceded obedience. Love was the foundation, or you might even say the fountain head out of which proceeded joy and freedom and obedience. Obedience, for the Elder, was not something to talk about because it flowed naturally out of his love for his elders.
I loved my spiritual father, certainly I did, though it was nothing like the love Elder Prophyrios describes. And therein, perhaps, was the source of my problems. Because of my inability to love with joy and freedom, my attempts at obedience were encumbered with fears and doubts and a good deal of confusion. But here is an amazing thing, in spite of my weaknesses and the weaknesses of our community, God was able to bring us into the Church, and lead us to the Saints (both glorified and still in the flesh) who show us what healthy human beings look like. Through Elder Prophyrios I can see what a healthy relationship with a spiritual father looks like: a “carefree” love full of joy. Although we may, for convenience, talk about obedience (or any virtue) as a distinct virtue, it cannot be experienced in isolation. Love, eros, is the fountain out of which virtue flows. We may force ourselves to do good, to obey or be kind or be generous, and certainly this is a start, an approximation. But in the life of Elder Prophyrios and other saints, we see that the transformative power of virtue is fully at work only when those virtues flow naturally out of a loving relationship.
I want to add here at the end that I do not regret my past approximations of obedience. We spend our lives trying our best to become who we are called to be. We see through a glass darkly, sometimes very darkly. We try and fail, sometimes totally, sometimes only partially. We are hurt by those who try to love and help us, and in turn we hurt those we are trying to love and help. In fits and starts we approximate ourselves closer to our goal, forgiving those who injure us along the way and begging forgiveness of those whom we injure.
“And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’”