Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco: “We Listen to God, Because We Really Love Him”

The sudden thing was that I understood that God was there, in that church. But my final conversion was an unfolding, like a flower opens up. In time our relationship with God becomes more profound and deep. And this continues our whole life.
Sophia Moshura | 17 February 2012

Bishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West was able to give “PravMir” some of his time, which is lucky for us, because his huge territory covers eight states in the United States: Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. It is one of the largest dioceses in the world, so Bishop Benjamin travels about 180, 000 miles a year by plane and some more by car. I have known Vladyka for practically all of my life, because living in Los Angeles, I would go to the church he served at, and then attend Russian Saturday school and Christian summer camp he so caringly organized for us little ones. He still loves opera, cats, and inviting his parishioners over to dinners he so masterfully cooks himself. Even though the years passed and much has changed, for Vladyka was once a deacon serving in the Holy Virgin Cathedral in Los Angeles, and now he is the ruling hierarch of Western USA, he remains to this day the same good-humored, good-natured, true Orthodox Christian.

Sophia Moshura: Your Grace, what began Your search for Truth?

Bishop Benjamin: There was certain emptiness inside, a kind-of hole that could not be filled…

In high school, we had to pick a language to study, and I chose Russian, because this language was considered to be very suspicious, and I liked that. Then, my Russian class visited the Russian Holy Virgin Cathedral in the name of the Icon “Rescuer of the Perishing” in Los Angeles. There was something that interested me, the service was in Slavonic, I couldn’t understand anything, but I was comfortable there—God was there, I wanted to be there too. Like in any good Orthodox church, no one would talk to me for a year (laughs), only the man in the bookstore, where I would buy many books. After a year I asked the priest if I could become Orthodox, even though I wasn’t Russian. He said sure I could, and I started to sing in the choir…

Intellectually, what was the most important for me was the historical continuity of the Orthodoxy. The oldest protestant church is only about 400 years old, they are not old at all– it’s a-historical. Orthodoxy is a continuity of the Old Testament, the Apostles, and our history. What touched my heart was the liturgy. I realized that this was what I was created to do by God; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I still never feel more human than when I serve the liturgy.

So You steadily entered Orthodoxy, it wasn’t something sudden?

The sudden thing was that I understood that God was there, in that church. But my final conversion was an unfolding, like a flower opens up. In time our relationship with God becomes more profound and deep. And this continues our whole life.

You were obedient to the call of Your heart. How should we understand obedience in the modern world?

Obedience is a gift. There is a great difference between obedience and enslavement. When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden He asked them not to eat from that One Tree. Nothing else, just do not eat from that tree. This represents choice. Obedience is a free response that we give in love to the one who asks us to do something. As long as they responded to God’s request, they had an unbroken relationship with him. But they chose themselves over God, they broke that relationship.

In the modern world, obedience can be greatly abused. In our fallen world, it’s actually possible to abuse anything. The spiritual father can suggest something, not command. He should say “Perhaps consider doing this or not doing that”. The spiritual child must feel the love of his spiritual father, that his spiritual father will be able to give his life for him! Obedience is the loving response to someone that we trust utterly and completely.

Alarm bells must go off when the spiritual father commands to do this or that. This is enslavement, because the relationship between a spiritual father and his child must reflect the relationship of God and His creation. Yes, we have commandments, but God doesn’t say that if you do this, I will kill you, but rather that if you do this, you and the world around you will be broken. We listen to God, because we really love Him, not because He says that if you don’t do something, I will toast you. There’s a big difference.

There was an abbot in Ryazan, father Abel whom I would visit when coming to Russia, he was abbot of the St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mt. Athos for 18 years. He was asked by Patriarch Aleksey to come back when the situation in Russia changed. You know, I can speak a little Russian; I can talk about tables, chairs and windows, I understand what is being said, but I can’t communicate well. But to be in his presence was like feeling that you were in the presence of God. When you encountered St. Herman or St. Seraphim of Sarov, it was like being in the presence of God, you felt God in them. And the healthy human response is to say to these holy people “Yes, I will be obedient!” simply because we feel that connection of love.

But such a spiritual father is a rarity!

Every priest can be a confessor, but not a spiritual father. There are certain rare people, that God has given the gift of discernment. But when we try to force people to do something, it is a violation of humanity. We must get them to respond. As a bishop, I can’t control myself, or even my cats (laughs), how can I control other people? I have to love people, so that they feel my love, and then they want to respond to my requests.

Most of the books about obedience were written by monks, should we laymen also follow this exactly?

There is a difference between monks and lay people! The whole monastic life is built on obedience. The monk gives over his will to the abbot of the monastery. For a monk, searching for a monastery is like searching for a wife. You have to “date” a little, try to feel for yourself, if you are willing to give over your will to this abbot. Even then, absolute obedience is a gift from the one who asks to the one who responds. It’s a dynamic, free relationship. It’s never enslavement!

In the world you constantly have to use your brains and your judgment. Even in the relationship of a bishop and his priests, I have to consider the possibilities of the priest. I want the priest and his wife to be happy, because if they aren’t, they won’t be able to do the work to want them to do. I never command my priests to go somewhere. I say—please go home and think about it. The priest should not feel like a chess piece on a chessboard. The person that is asking has to love the person whom he asks. God doesn’t order us around, why should I order around my priests?

What about obedience to the Church? Why we have to be obedient to it by fasting, wearing scarves and not wearing pants in church?

Fasting is a tool that is given to us in the Church. It is not the totality of Christian life. Rather it is something that can enrich our spiritual lives. Remember, the demons are much better at fasting than we are. They never eat. Fasting helps remind us that we need to control ourselves. Remember that Adam and Eve were given the first fast in the Garden. They could eat of every tree but one. And, they broke the fast. But we can over-do fasting too. I know some people who just drive themselves and everyone else crazy checking for whey or hidden dairy products in bread and cookies. Fasting can become an obsession too. It is a tool in Christian life, but Christian life is more than fasting. Perhaps we should practice not “eating our neighbor” by gossip. That may be even more important that whether or not there is an egg hidden in my salad. One thing that is nice about Russian culture, however, is that it is “informed” by Orthodox Christian life. Fasting and fasting food is sort of “built into” the culture. It is not this way in the West.

As for head coverings and pants, well, again it is not what our relationship is God is all about. But, it can be a sign of humility. In the West, many women choose not to cover their heads. I think those who do, choose to honor God by covering their heads. Women GET to cover their heads as a sign of their femininity, a sign of their respect for God. Men, on the other hand, uncover their heads as a sign of respect and honor God by praying with their heads uncovered. Let us honor God in everything we do. The covering of a woman’s head can be, in a sense, her offering of humility to God.

And the pants issue! You know I really don’t care. In our culture it is not so much of an issue. But, I know it is important in other cultures. Frankly, I have seen dresses that caused far more attention in Church than pants ever could. Pants cover up a lot more. I think the issue is not whether or not a woman wears pants or a dress, but rather “does she dress modestly?” If wearing pants in a given culture (let us say, Russian culture) is an issue and draws attention to her, then perhaps the modest, Christian thing to do is to avoid wearing them, to avoid tempting others. There are things we are free to do, but perhaps should choose not to do out of consideration for others. I remember when I visited Russia as a layman there were armies of little old ladies who meant very well. They were trying to protect the sanctity and decorum of the Church. But, some of them, in fact, chased people out of the Church by just being a little too overbearing. I think, man or woman, the Church is not the place to draw attention to ourselves. The Church calls us in the Liturgy to put aside all the distractions of this world and to become like the cherubim in heaven praying before God’s throne. If our clothing (or lack of it) distracts others, then we sin, we miss the mark. I remember one priest’s wife who wore a dress with a slit up the side in Church. Whenever she walked in the Church there was this flash of leg which I am sure caused some of the gentlemen present some distraction. In that case, maybe pants would have been a better choice, more modest.

Has time and experience as a hierarch evolved your understanding of obedience?

When we are young, we are always told what to do. Our mom tells us– don’t you ever cross the street! But we can’t be 35 and wait for someone to take our hand and cross the street with us. This isn’t what we are talking about. We start with rules, and as we become mature we understand the Commandments of God as not being capricious, but as being there to help us live a good, healthy human life. If you do this, it will be the worst for you, you will die. Not that if you do this, I will kill you. As I have gotten older I understand that I have to ask people to do something because I love them. The ultimate obedience is the obedience of Christ to the Father even unto death. He took on Adam’s flesh to bring Adam life. St. John Chrysostom in his sermon says– Hell swallowed a body and realized that it had ingested God! Hell is ruined, because Life has come. It could not have happened if Jesus was not obedient to his Father.

If obedience then is the start of all things, we understand this with our rational mind, then why is it so hard to be obedient?

Because obedience means putting ourselves in the second place! Obedience is a response to love. It’s the reverse of what happened in the Garden. Obedience is always the choice of the other. It’s really the story of human life. But obedience without freedom is slavery, and the one who seeks to enslave us is Satan. God never enslaves us, He asks us, and we respond.

But is it possible to have “too much” freedom? We feel free to criticize those around us, clergy, and hierarchs of the Church…

I am not sure that freedom is the problem. Freedom is a wonderful thing! The problem is our pride. We misuse our freedom; we can be selfish in how we use our freedom. It can be all about me, and not about you. But who cares what your opinions are? If I die today, no one will remember my opinion. There is even a psychological disease called borderline personality. You think everything has value in relationship to you. These people can’t love, they don’t have the machinery. The possibilities to misuse our freedom are numerous!

So our greatest treasure, as children of God, is our freedom. We are free even in our obedience, which is the result of unceasing love that God has for us.

In the Gospel of John, when the Good Shepherd is described, he is completely a Middle Eastern shepherd. He walks in front of his sheep; they know and respond to his voice. In Scotland, the shepherds are different; they have dogs that bite the legs of the sheep. We aren’t Scottish shepherds that terrorize the sheep into the Kingdom of Heaven. And even the fear of the Last Judgment is not of something scary, but that I will look into the deep, deep eyes of a loving God that did everything to save me, and come to the understanding that I have totally betrayed him. This betrayal is more fearful than any punishment. We love, and so we are obedient. When Adam disobeyed God, he was closed from Him. The relationship was broken, it was no longer free. The story of salvation is how Christ restored the relationship of God and Adam.

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