…And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)
Rotating Obediences and the Plundering of Grace
by Monk Cosmas
As St. Paul says, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So we work. Assigned duties in our monastery are called “obediences” because they are done in obedience to the abbot or the man he designates to assign tasks, and ultimately in obedience both to God and to our brothers in Christ. They fall into two broad categories, revenue-generating on the one hand and housekeeping and upkeep on the other. We do various things to bring in the money needed to pay our bills, and these chores or jobs are given out partly on the basis of an individual’s skills and talents. Revenue-generating obediences include such things as the making of hand-dipped 100% beeswax candles which we sell to churches, a bookstore, our publishing operation, wooden coffins which we make on order, and the importing and selling of liturgical items, primarily priests’ vestments.
The revenue-generating obediences represent the business side of the monastery. What is more interesting in some ways is the set of obediences that fall under the housekeeping and upkeep side of monastic life. These fall into two groups—the long-term assignments and the rotating obediences. My long-term housekeeping and upkeep obediences include making coffee and cleaning the church, the guest bathroom, and the area around the guesthouse. Other people have to sweep and clean the public areas, especially the walkways, the other bathrooms, the office, the dorm, and the dining area. We have a number of vehicles—for the most part fairly old and decrepit—and each vehicle has a “steward” who is responsible for making sure that it has plenty of oil, antifreeze, a good spare tire, and that it is inspected for smog when necessary, and all the other sorts of things required to maintain a car “in the world.”
Now we come to an even more interesting topic—rotating obediences and the plundering of grace. I will try to explain how this works, because it shows the synergy between the rather ordinary and the more spiritual aspect of monastic obediences. Every week a new schedule is posted on the refrigerator in the trapeza—that is, the dining room. It lists the services for that week, including any special feasts and any visits we are making as a group to a nearby church. If we know that the bishop will be visiting that week, that is usually indicated as well, or if a new priest or deacon is coming to practice serving with us before going to his first parish assignment, that will be noted as well. Along the top of the week’s schedule are listed the rotating obediences for the week. There are three of them—dishes, trapeza and compline reader, and tables. Dishes means simply washing dishes after meals and unloading the dishwasher so that the table-setter has plenty of plates, dishes, bowls, glasses, coffee mugs, teacups, and silverware to put out for meals. The trapeza and compline reader has the one-week assignment of reading a selected spiritual or inspirational text while others eat—that is, until someone finishes his meal, and then the abbot nods to him to read so that the assigned reader can sit down to eat—and to be the main reader at the compline service in the evening which is also known as apodeipnon. The obedience we call “tables” consists of setting the table for each meal and gathering the dirty plates, dishes, bowls, glasses, coffee mugs, teacups, and silverware after the meal is over.
My own rule of thumb is that my cycle of rotating duties comes up about every seven weeks, and then I have three weeks of obediences in a row, going from one obedience to the next. In practice it isn’t quite that simple, because we do not have a single list containing all the rotating obediences, but three separate lists and a set of rules for the interaction between the lists. For example, a given person cannot have two of the obediences in the same week, nor can anyone be given dishwashing duty or table-clearing duty if he cooks that week. Besides that, one man has a blessing to be exempted from doing the readings. In addition, if someone is away from the monastery for a week—for example, on a visit to his family—he trades places with someone else. In other words, the formulae for calculating the rotating obediences are something like the formulae for determining moveable feasts and other such niceties of the liturgical calendar. In any case, what it means for me in a practical sense is that most weeks I check the calendar and exclaim, “Oh, cool!—I’m off the hook this week.”
This leads us to the most interesting part of the whole topic—the plundering of grace. As we know, salvation belongs to the violent. But how does “spiritual violence” apply to rotating obediences? Well, one application is that we can seek out opportunities to help our brother when it is not our own turn to do anything that week, and especially when there happen to be a lot of guests at the time. I recall when I was on dishwashing duty the week of Christmas. That night we had the bishop with us for dinner, and we sat around the table late into the night singing Christmas carols and chatting while I contemplated—with great dismay—the huge piles of dishes and pots and pans that I knew were waiting for me in the kitchen. When we finally got up from the table, two of my beloved brothers in Christ asked for a blessing to help me wash dishes, and as a result of their kindness, we were able to finish washing them shortly before midnight. The fact that they willingly helped their brother to bear his burden is a practical example of “taking the kingdom of heaven by force.” What is even more praiseworthy—and I won’t give any examples of it here so as not to spoil the grace of it—is when one of the brothers or fathers sees that someone has left part of his rotating obedience undone and simply does it for him quietly, without complaining about his brother’s lapse or calling attention to the fact that he did something he was not required to do.
Perhaps it seems like we are reading a lot into little ordinary things when we see something so simple as doing another person’s chores as a victory in the spiritual warfare, but stop and think about it. It can mean growth in humility and obedience, and an increased concern for the welfare of others. Those things—not mystical experiences and altered states—are what the real spiritual life in a monastery is all about.