A reader sent me an email the other day asking, in part, about a situation that inevitably comes up in the Orthodox life:
"What does a person do when his priest gives him advice he thinks is wrong or questionable?"
This was my reply (slightly edited):
Well, if the advice or counsel *clearly* violates the canons or moral teachings of the Church then you take it up with him privately. If he refuses to repent, you take it to the parish counsel. If you still can't resolve the problem, then you contact the ruling bishop of the diocese (following the pattern set in Matthew 18).
However, if the advice doesn't violate Church teaching but simply seems strict, unfair, uninformed, or just flat out strange, the witness of the saints says one thing and says it with gusto: obey with humility and pray for enlightenment and holiness to come *through that obedience.*
St. John Climacus, as always, perfectly expresses the paradox and beauty of this long forgotten virtue in today's Christian culture. He says, "Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions. Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioning movement, voluntary death, a life free of curiosity, carefree danger, unprepared defense before God, fearlessness of death, a safe voyage, a sleeper's progress."
"Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. A corpse does not argue or reason as to what is good or what seems to be bad. For he who has devoutly put the soul of the novice to death will answer for everything. Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment."
I love the paradox of that last line.
Remember, the spiritual father is like a doctor and he guides us as we incarnate the faith in our lives by helping us to diagnose our spiritual ills....What he tells others is really of no use for you. You aren't anyone else but yourself so the counsel you receive is going to be unique to you and your situation. What may seem "legalistic" or strict may be what one needs.
This is the glory of Orthodox relationships in the Church--the standards never change yet are applied pastorally and lived out personally. Would we have it any other way?
We also need to take responsibility for our part in this relationship. We must make sure our spiritual father gets a chance to know us so he can get a good grasp of where we are at in the spiritual life and what virtues we need to work on.
We tell small children "Don't touch that" or "Stay here" because we know that they need boundaries. The child may not fully understand but trusts that the advice will protect him in his weakness.
We need the same trust, faith, and obedience in the life of the Church. We can start exercising the virtue of obedience within the relationship with our spiritual father.