11 May 2016

Abba John Colobos and the Fruit of Obedience

In the apothegmata (sayings) of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the story is told of Desert Abba John Colobos' elder (mentor) having taken a dry stick and planted it in the ground. He told Abba John to go every day and irrigate the stick. John did so even though water was a long way away and it meant John had to travel to the spring each evening only to return hours later at dawn. For three years John made this trip every day. At the end of this time we are told the stick turned green and flowered. John took the flowers to the Church, shared them with his brethren saying, "Behold the fruit of obedience!" We hear in this story a clear lesson on the importance and the fruitfulness of persisting in obedience, not merely in the sense of doing what one is told, but in the very much richer and more challenging terms of entrusting oneself to the wisdom and loving mentoring of an elder in a way which, over time, produces astonishing fruit despite the evident impossibility and apparent absurdity of the project undertaken.

Variations on the Original Story:

Unfortunately, today few are familiar with the original story but many have heard scaled down and skewed variations in which religious superiors demand something similar, usually in order to humiliate and bring to heel novices having difficulty submitting themselves to their superior's commands. In such stories obedience is less about entrusting oneself to the love of an elder as a necessary part of long term formation in life than it is about a blind "faith" which demands a subject check their intellect at the door or about breaking another's spirit and causing them to submit to one's will. It is less about opening oneself to a God one can trust to be present even in the darkness and more about simply saying yes to the absurd. It is far less about entrusting oneself to the wisdom of one who knows how to live eremitical life and who is immensely savvy in the ways of the human heart and far more about buying into a narrowly authoritarian notion of obedience.

It is not hard to see why believers and unbelievers alike ridicule the notion of religious obedience, and sometimes faith itself. We can hear them scoff: "Imagine someone persisting in the belief that a dead stick will one day flower! Imagine someone wasting their time, and even their entire lives in subjection to superiors (or a "gospel") that command such absurdities! Imagine such blind and entirely senseless 'faith' where someone submits to the punitive or at best misguided  commands of a superior moved by cruelty, ignorance, and even outright superstition!" We believers have not always done well with our foundational stories.

Desert Apothegm as Analogy of the Story of the Cross

I doubt that any of us today could imagine planting a wooden stick in the ground, watering it daily for years, and having anything fruitful at all come from such a project. Fewer still might listen to the story of Abba John Colobos and adopt such a stick as a symbol of profound hope, true wisdom, or supremely Good News. But it occurs to me that right at the heart of our faith is the story of a wooden stake planted in the ground  and watered with blood and tears to bring forth astonishing, even measureless  fruitfulness.  God takes the very symbol of barrenness, gratuitous suffering, senseless cruelty, hopelessness, and the despair of godless death and through the faithful obedience (the trusting, persevering, openness and  responsiveness) of his Son, redeems and transforms reality. Through this event God destroys sin and death, brings about the reconciliation of all creation, transfigures it into a new creation which shares intimately in his own divine life and prefigures the day of fulfillment when God will be all in all. In other words, it is through Jesus' own obedience that a barren stake of death is transformed by God into what Christians call today The Tree of Life.

And yet, we have not always done well in conveying this rock bottom foundational story of our faith either. As with Abba John's response to his desert elder, Jesus' obedience was not simply a matter of doing what he was told; it was a matter of faithfully entrusting his entire life --- every moment and mood of it --- to the One whose wisdom was greater than his own and whose powerful and kenotic love he would, over time, come to embody or incarnate exhaustively. Obedience here would mean becoming the actual counterpart of the One he called Abba just as it would mean Jesus' committing his whole self to the service of all those whom this One loved and yet loves with an everlasting love. I am sure there were many times when such openness to his Father's will tempted Jesus to see his mission as marked and marred with futility. I am positive that working with his disciples and with the religious leadership of his day felt like trying to teach brainless and heartless chunks of wood to explode in cascades of flowers and fruit. Perhaps this is why Jesus was so upset by the barren fig tree.

Over the past 40 some days we have heard a number of similar stories rooted in the power and model of Jesus. Paul's own story is one of a man converted to what must have seemed like a futile project and who persevered in his own obedience nonetheless. Certainly some of the original Apostles in Jerusalem thought his mission to the Gentiles made as much sense as John Colobos' apparently absurd stick-watering --- especially since they lacked the roots of the Jewish Law and covenant to build on. And yet, Paul and his pastoral assistants brought incredible fruit from what was considered to be Gentile's religious rootlessness and barrenness. Paul in particular entrusted himself to the crucified Christ, rethought Judaism in light of the cross and resurrection and forever changed the face of Christianity from a sect of Judaism to a worldwide faith with a mission to proclaim the Gospel to everyone without limits or boundaries. Every story of martyrdom, every witness to the Gospel, every call to forgive and be forgiven, every commission to minister to others in the power of the cross, reminds us that what we proclaim is a scandal to religious folks and foolishness to the wise of this world. It is our own revealed version of the stick-watering story of Abba John Colobos.

Applying the Story of Abba John Colobos Today:

In today's readings both Paul and Jesus entrust the story of the barren-stick-turned-fruitful-bough to us. This is the proclamation or kerygma we are entrusted with by God, a bit of Christian foolishness many will simply deride, the proclamation we call Gospel. This Friday we will hear the story of Peter's "rehabilitation" by the risen Christ and his call to "feed Christ's lambs, feed Christ's sheep." Because he entrusted himself to Christ's reconciling love we have a Church whose highest leadership is summoned to be a model of obedient love and servanthood.

The mission we are given, the obedience to which we are called -- a responsive commission ratified and empowered at Pentecost ---requires perseverance and trust in a love and wisdom greater than our own.  It means being asked to do great things in our world but often it means saying a trusting yes to small, ordinary acts of faithfulness which -- at least in the short term -- seem to be worthless and of no great moment at all. Especially it means opening ourselves daily so that the Holy Spirit of both the Father and Son together may empower a responsiveness that brings life out of death, hope out of despair, and an often pervasively barren world to flower in faith and new life.

Like Paul and Peter, like John Colobos and armies of Desert Abbas and Ammas, like Christians of every age and culture we are each called to labor daily to water all of these tasks and many others with ourselves, with our tears of love, joy, grief, and sometimes even with our very blood; more, we are asked to embrace and persevere in our commitments of self gift so that the scandal and foolishness of the Cross may continue to cause the whole creation to sing in joy, "Behold the New Creation, behold the fruit of obedience!"