Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dispassion through Obedience

By Monk Cosmas

Until quite recently, the typicon for my workday on Fridays included a regularly planned and executed attitude problem. I scheduled it to begin just before vespers and to continue for several hours into the evening. I did not set out knowingly to make this a part of my work activity every Friday, but it grew a little at a time to the point that it became an integral part of the day. That attitude problem has gone away, however, through the smooth functioning of monastic obedience. It took several weeks.

My housekeeping obediences include maintaining the guest bathroom. This task involves minor upkeep throughout the week, and then a more thorough cleaning before the weekend, to keep it presentable for visitors. I did the major cleaning on Friday afternoon. The floor-mopping led to the attitude problem.

Our monastery is in a damp and cool climate. The mold grows so fast that you can see it creep along from one day to the next, and every so often we have to scrub the walls and ceilings with bleach. When we mop any of the rooms, we like to let the floor dry as quickly as possible. Whenever I mopped that floor, then, I worried about two things—how could I get the floor to dry quickly, and how could I make sure that nobody walked across the freshly-mopped floor? For a while I turned on the heater and fan in the wall by the door of the bathroom and moved another portable heater into the room to help, but the floor did not seem to dry much faster.

The first few times I carried out this obedience, I leaned the mop diagonally across the door as a sign to keep people out. They paid no attention. No, they would walk across the freshly-mopped floor, leaving footprints that rendered it dirtier than when I started. My attitude problem began at this point. Didn’t they realize how bad this looked for guests? Didn’t they understand how important is was to keep things clean? I would go back from time to time to check on two things—was the floor beginning to dry, and were there any footprints? Meanwhile my inspection process—which would last several hours—led me to feel more and more agitated if things did not seem to go well. If I saw footprints, I conceived a resentment against the person or persons who had walked across my freshly mopped floor.

Since the mop handle did not serve as a clear enough indication to stay out, I changed tactics. I closed the door and posted a sign on it:

FLOOR FRESHLY MOPPED.

People walked across the floor anyway. I closed the door and put up a new sign:

FLOOR FRESHLY MOPPED. PLEASE USE A DIFFERENT BATHROOM UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. THANK YOU.

Footprints still appeared on my freshly mopped floor. Sometimes I caught people in the act and had indignant conversations with them. The floor stayed wet, the footprints kept appearing, and I grew less and less dispassionate. Not only that, but sometimes people would take down my sign before the floor had dried, walk on the wet floor, and then leave the door open with the floor still wet, and dirty besides.

I brought this problem to the obedience master and asked him to make an announcement about it after dinner. Then came an unexpected development. The abbot told me that he was the one who had taken down the sign, and that it was unacceptable to close the bathroom for hours so that the floor could dry. He told me to mop the floor and then put the matter out of my mind. If someone walks over the floor after I have mopped it, he said, I should consider that to be one of the normal vicissitudes of life and not give it any further thought. I was under obedience to him, he said, and if he told me not to worry about it, then I should stop worrying about it.

It turned out that nobody had ever told him about the broken ceiling fan. Lo and behold, he sent someone to the hardware store a few days later to buy a new fan.

All the same, the next week came, and on Friday, I swept and mopped the guest bathroom, and then left it, grumbling and muttering to myself that if a member of the brotherhood tracked it up with footprints, it would serve my abbot right, but then again it was his decision, so that was that. As we were about to have dinner, one of my brothers asked me if I minded if he used the bathroom. I told him that it made no difference to me, because the abbot had told me just to mop the floor and then forget about it, and so I had not put a sign on the door as I used to do. Well, it seems someone else had closed the door, retrieved my old sign, and posted it on the door. I said, “Well, whatever. I didn’t post the sign.” Someone else overheard the conversation and asked, “Is that right?” Our abbot replied, “Yes, that’s right.” I took a peek after dinner, and the bathroom did not look too bad.

It took the passage of another week, though, to leave the attitude problem out of my schedule for Friday. I decided to clean the bathroom in the morning. After I mopped the floor, I left the door open but put a new sign on it:

CAUTION. WET FLOOR.

My typicon for Friday has grown simpler. My duties still include cleaning the guest bathroom, but they do not involve worrying about how long it will take to dry, whether my brothers in Christ walk on the wet floor, or when it will get dirty again. I have realized that I do not have to maintain the cleanliness of the bathroom once I have done my job—no, I am responsible only for doing my job. This small experience of enlightenment has allowed me to renounce my attachment to the results of my work and also to stop inspecting the task after I have completed it so make sure that nobody does anything that will affect my work. This may seem like a small thing, but in fact it is important to me to recognize that I was never asked to monitor anyone else’s behavior. That was something unnecessary that I took on myself. I can now renounce all of those concerns, because they have nothing to do with the obedience that was given to me.

I am under obedience not to worry about any of those things.

Cosmas (formerly Cyril) was born at the mid-point of the twentieth century, in 1950. He was raised Methodist and was the son of a minister. Soon after entering college he drifted away from Christianity, seduced by the allurements of secularism and decadence, and spent many years in the spiritual far country of depravity, degeneracy, defiance, and bad attitudinality. He entered the Greek Orthodox Church in 1996 the old-fashioned way as a repentant sinner. Anything that might be construed as a journey to Orthodoxy was confided to his spiritual father in life confession and sealed with the prayers for absolution. He is a tonsured reader / chanter. In 1997 he joined the translation team to complete the Orthodox Study Bible by producing a version of the Old Testament with commentary which conformed to the Septuagint Greek text and was made chairman of the translation committee. His work on that project continued until 2004, when he joined the brotherhood of the Monastery of St. John. He was tonsured to the small schema on March 20, 2008 with the name Cosmas. His patron saint is Cosmas of Aetolia. Among the obediences and other activities at the monastery of Fr. Cosmas are copy editing, proofreading, translating, and some writing for Divine Ascent Press, hauling trash to the dump, dipping and chopping candles, and making coffee.

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