Many years ago I had the tremendous privilege and joy of being befriended by a community of Iranian people who had been involved with a Hindu sect. They lived through a miraculous story of persecution while living in a blossoming spiritual community, an oasis of love, during the violent Iranian revolution.
They operated a chain of vegetarian restaurants throughout the country which served as both a source of income for the community, and their public face. Many young people were drawn to the warm welcome, the friendly, genuine, and compassionate staff. At the back of the restaurants, there would be a little sign that read something like: “Exercise classes (yoga) please call ____________.” The community would then vet whoever inquired and introduced them to some straight up yoga. After they might have become somewhat familiar with a participant they would make it known that there would be “Philosophy Classes” available in the tradition of Yoga.
This was the way they grew and nurtured a strong underground community following the path of Hinduism. The danger they faced cannot be understated. Many of them were arrested, imprisoned or killed. Yet, they tell of a profound community life—rich in love, compassion, deep devotion, prayer, spiritual practice and service to others.
They yearned for the day when they could travel to India, to be part of the life of the Temple, with the Guru, to be at the heart of their tradition. That day came—when the revolution reached its climax. They had to abandon everything just to escape with their lives, and many did not make it.
They travelled on foot and those who survived tell of the astonishment that awaited them when they arrived in Bangalore, their hope, their dream. They arrived to see their masters driving around in Mercedes with teenage American girls and their fellow devotees living in poverty selling Bhagavad Gitas or flowers on the Streets. Their faith was crushed, and they scattered.
In reflecting on their story, one friend said to me that years after he realized a great wisdom from this experience. He said: “It wasn’t those to whom we were obedient that transformed us and created that powerful community—it was our obedience.”
Obedience is such a difficult word for most of us, especially in the West, and with good reason. No need to waste typing on the myriad of ways power has been abused in politics or spiritual groups, including the Church. Unchecked allegiance and submission to other human beings seems fraught with problems. We also celebrate the autonomy of the individual in the Liberal West don’t we. Yet, I think we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Without exception, every bonafide religious tradition has at its core of spiritual discipline and practice the idea of obedience. Obedience to a Guru, a Sheikh, a Sensei, a Mother Superior or an Abbot, for example, all have a common theme where true freedom comes from the liberation from the cage of our own idolatry. The three evangelical councils in our own monastic tradition include the vow of obedience (which most monastics would confess is the only vow). The Prologue of the Rule of Benedict reads: “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” Thomas Merton himself spoke his new found freedom upon making his vows, the freedom of the cell (in the monastic enclosure).
In my view, all spiritual practice is ultimately with the sole aim of transforming the will from ‘me-oriented’ to ‘Thou-oriented’. We are consumed with our biological needs of affection/esteem, power/control, and security and seem to locate our happiness only there, a self-centred, self-reflecting me. The real spiritual combat is yielding to the divine indwelling, that “thy will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Yielding to the Truth, the divine intention of you as You, another Christ, as you are named at Baptism. It is by your hands that God acts, heals and loves his beloved children and creation.
Obedience is the straight path, the road to freeing the imprisoned will from the Pharaoh of ME. Trying times for our Church, but luckily for us, the one we are called to be obedient to has given up everything to welcome you home, your hope, your dream, his yoke is easy and his burden light, and his welcome does not exclude anyone, not even me.