There is an old story about the monk who was told to water a dry stick. For three years Abba John hauled water from a far away oasis in the desert and watered the stick. It took him most of the day, every day, to accomplish the task. At the end of three years the stick blossomed and the monk’s spiritual father took the fruit and showed it to the other monks saying “behold the fruit of obedience.”
To modern ears this story from the early desert monks of the 4th century sounds odd at best, ridiculous at worst, but the reality is that sometimes people we will never know will eat the fruit of our obedience.
Earlier this month we had the gift of hosting two sisters from our founding community in Sarnen, Switzerland. More than 125 years ago, two women none of us have ever known made decisions that still affect our lives. Worried about political unrest in Switzerland, Abbess Nicola Durrer decided to send sisters to start a new monastery in America. She chose Sr. Johanna Zumstein, who was only in her 20’s, to head this new endeavor. Apparently Johanna did not want to go. In our community history she is portrayed as weeping and hugging the convent walls in Sarnen before she leaves for America under obedience to the Abbess. This is poetic license, no one recorded exactly how she reacted, but it is clear that she only went because she was asked to by her Abbess.
Today, sixty sisters in far off America exist as the fruit of her obedience. For Johanna Zumstein going to America probably made as much sense as watering Abba John’s dead stick. She loved her community in Sarnen, her home country of Switzerland, and had no sense of adventure or desire to undertake a journey to a foreign country. But obedience means giving up our own ideas about what is possible, what we can do or want to do. In obedience we accept that sometimes we cannot live according to our own judgment.
In cenobitic, monastic life this often means taking jobs or assignments that we don’t want, don’t understand, and don’t think we can do. In families it may mean sacrificing for a spouse or children, doing what you would rather not do, sacrificing for the good of another. In obedience we give up that very fundamental sense of autonomy, that sense that we are in control of our own lives, and we submit to the choices that are not what we want, the choices we would not have made, all for a greater good.
When this obedience happens in faith, in a healthy community or family, it can become the source of miracles. In obedience we get out of the way and allow God to act in us and through us in the world. We no longer limit God to our vision of what is possible or what makes sense to us. In healthy obedience dried sticks blossom, a scared young woman plants the seeds of monasticism in a new land. When Abbess Pia and Sr. Rut Maria visited us this month we all had the chance to eat the fruit of obedience of a woman from 1882 whom none of us ever knew.
As we face difficult decisions in our lives, as we are called upon to do impossible things, when we feel like we are watering dried sticks, perhaps we need to think of the people who may eat the fruit of our obedience more than one hundred years from now.