"If the high Authority appoints you to an office, know this: every step upward on the ladder of offices is not a step into freedom but into bondage. The higher the office, the tighter the bondage. The greater the power of the office, the stricter the service. The stronger the personality, the less self-will." - Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game.
In Orthodoxy, as everywhere (acknowledged or not), from the pre-school sandbox to the hair salon to multinational corporations, there exists a definite hierarchy. But as in Hermann Hesse's novel, The Glass Bead Game, it is a hierarchy of bonded service, and I use 'bonded' and 'service' advisedly. A higher rank in the hierarch entails a great weight of responsibility, with a corresponding lesser freedom. Indeed, for those of highest rank among monastics, the Great Schema monks--those 'dead to the world'--such notions as "rank" become silly terms for the downward mobility and ironic authority in Christ's upside down kingdom. The "greatest" in the kingdom is servant of all after the pattern of the King who lays down his life on the Cross as ransom for the world.
Hierarchy might be the wrong term for such an 'ascent' ... maybe 'lower-archy' would suit better, or Roger Mitchell's kenarchy? (i.e. kenotic leadership or self-emptying service)
Three types miss this dynamic altogether in their notions of hierarchy.
- The ambitious: There are those who believe hierarchy constitutes an ascent to worldly forms of power. Of these, there are two experience: some embrace the hierarchy as a place to assert their own egoistic power and lord it over others. And others despise hierarchy because they desire that power for themselves but are frustrated in the goal of attaining it. The bondage here is to a spirit of ambition.
- The wounded: There are those who have been spiritually abused or have seen others being lorded over by those who abuse their position in a hierarchy to dominate and exploit. They imagine flight from hierarchy into the refuge of anarchy. And while they may truly need a prolonged season of detox, such wounds are ultimately healed in relationship with others whose true authority is servant love. The bondage here is lingering resentment and mistrust that establishes isolation.
- The self-willed: There are those who resist hierarchy because any structure whatsoever smells like bondage, when in fact the deeper bondage is to the spirit of self-will. In fact, those who recognize the true nature of hierarchy as self-giving service know its demands and may recoil from them. But they do well to reflect on their love of "freedom" and discern whether self-denying service or personal autonomy is the more oppressive jailor.
Of these, in recent years I've witnessed the mimetic rivalry and political duels among those ambitious for position and power, and been appalled at how the Darwinian victors and victims create their own pseudo-hierarchy or fall into a bestial pecking order. And it makes no difference that I can detect whether one thinks their in an institution or not. It's common to all the powers of any civilization. Praying Saint Ephraim's Prayer through lent (yes, with many full prostrations) has begun, over the years, to loosen the grip of that spirit of ambition in me. Or was it really rather weariness of the cruelty in the game.
But, through the help of others (and especially mentors, spiritual directors, sponsors and hierarchs), I am also becoming minimally self-aware -- enough to confess my white-knuckled vice-grip on self-will or rather, its grip on me. This self-will is at the root of my delusional need to manage, manipulate and control life, others and even God (as if I could). I cling to my supposed rights to my supposed freedoms. And I can see how even a single rung "up" (he says ironically) the ecclesial or corporate ladder seriously threatens that "freedom" to do and say and write whatever the hell I want. Yes, I submit to and even obey my spiritual fathers and mothers as best I can, but only to the measure I have chosen. They have not abused that trust or pushed for more. But I'd rather not give even an inch more, because the ego (the flesh, the addict, the craver) is a persistent and pernicious companion, adept at resisting death (death to self/death to the world) in any measure and avoiding the cross at any cost. Even at the cost of resurrection life?
Death. That sounds ominous. I thought that Christ is the abundant life-giver? What do we mean by death to self? What is this death to world? Isaac the Syrian explains:
“The world” is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world. But when we wish to distinguish them by their special names, we call them passions. The passions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honor which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is a source of rancor and resentment, and physical fear. Where these passions cease to be active, there the world is dead…. Someone has said of the Saints that while alive they were dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not live for the flesh. See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it.”
-St Isaac the Syrian (7th Century)
Yes, authentic hierarchy is a threat, because it deliberately seeks to crucify envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position. And in my case, self-will.
And an aberrant hierarchy is similarly a threat, fed as it is by these same passions to the point where they become demonic.
The fact that authentic and aberrant hierarchs fill posts in the same institutions (whether churches, schools, governments or businesses) makes you wonder: isn't it better to just walk away from hierarchy and institutions altogether? If you must. And perhaps some must.
A word about institutions
But there is a cost. In walking away or keeping a distance, it's important that we become aware of two stubborn facts:
- Gung-ho gurus: The most anti-institutional folks (with good reason) are also often the most vulnerable to further harm through the informal and invisible hierarchies into which they are drawn (and they are drawn, like kites free of their strings are drawn to trees). Many of these, by nature, gather around other wounded souls as sort of informal gurus who may answer to no one. Some are wonderfully sympathetic and act as effective wounded healers and spiritual parents. Some are responsible with this calling and I can think of a few good examples. But others are not. They may be unwitting spiritual predators who feed their own egos with the dependency of their acolytes. So please: exercise all the same wariness with these off-the-grid hierarchs that you would in the most rigid institution.
- One-generation faith: Brian Zahnd asks an important question: Will Christianity be possible for my grandchildren? By the grace of God, any individual can survive a life-time of uprooted faith. As Ron Dart would say, whether it's an endeavor by God or by the best among us, institutions form to preserve (however imperfectly) a civilizational memory when everything threatens to destroy it. Flight is a natural response to institutional decadence. But with no history, there is no memory and our individualistic and isolated faith becomes flaky, fragile and fragmented. We may be attracted to spiritually thin dilettantes who only contribute to the disintegration. But if our spirituality can rise above personal survival or self-gratification to a sense of responsibility to our progeny and to humanity itself, then we will have internalized a vision that can be passed on. Which is to say, we will institute ... or better, will serve in the institutions that are the means to that end. And yes, that is scary. But less so than the prospect that my grandchildren will have no faith inheritance to receive or soil from which it might sprout.
All of these thoughts are only that, but I think they need to be thought, especially by those for whom 'hierarchy' and 'institution' are assumed pejoratives and 'freedom' is a euphemism for self-will. I am not proposing as solution that involves rushing back to Pharaoh's slave pits, but hoping to raise questions for those who'd rather not wander in circles for another 40 years.