My apologies to the young people reading this, but perhaps there are some of us who will remember this song made popular by Ella Fitzgerald:
There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see I hope that he turns out to be someone who’ll watch over me.
In these post-Watergate, Big Brother, electronic, computerized days of spying and lying, we know that the idea of personal privacy is an illusion. Yet we tend to block this out and live each day as if no one really knows what we are doing. We don’t want someone to watch over us. We want to live and not be accountable to anyone about how we spend our time or our money. With all the cases of domestic violence and stalking, the last thing we want is a spouse who is “watching” over us. Naturally, we want to be secure and safe from physical danger. We like to have someone who can protect us in this violent world, but we don’t want a watchman observing all that we say and do.
The 13th chapter of Hebrews speaks of watchmen:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: For they watch over your souls, as they that must give account, That they may do it with joy, and not with grief: For that is unprofitable to you.
Now here is a verse that falls hard on our modern, democratic ears: “Obey? them that rule? over you, and submit? yourselves?” Hardly! I mean this writer obviously doesn’t know my priest, or my spouse, or my boss! This kind of language sounds like some kind of cult. Certainly, such ideas have been abused. Yet, I want to propose that this idea of rule and obedience is crucial to living well, especially in religious life.
I go to my doctor and due to his knowledge and training, he rules over me. When he gives me a diagnosis and a course of treatment, I can obey and submit or not. So, when he tells me I need to keep my blood sugar down, I can obey, or I can eat Snicker bars every day. Such a thing does not bring him any joy.
I am pulled over by the State Trooper. In terms of the law, he rules over me. He tells me that I am speeding or driving recklessly. He can give me a ticker or a warning that I must obey the speed limit. From there, I can obey his rule, or not. If not, I then appear before a judge who really rules over the law. Once again, I can submit and obey his rule or not (with dire consequences).
I go to work and there my boss has the rule over me. I can work in the way that he has laid out, or not. However, if I continue to do it my way, soon my way will be out the door to the unemployment line.
I want to go swimming in the ocean and I don’t want anyone to bother me. Yet, there’s that lifeguard watching over me. When he blows his whistle, do I listen or do I ignore him? If he shouts commands at me, do I obey or just go on my way? Of course, I may find myself in a riptide, or I might become a snack for a shark.
These are practical examples, but how does this idea of submission and obedience apply to spiritual life? St. Paul says that watchmen watch over our souls. This sounds interesting, but who does it and how do they do it?
The first person that comes to mind is the priest. Given how people feel today, can he watch over anyone’s soul? We want to love our priest, and to feel that he loves us. We want him to guide us as long as he does not ask too much and doesn’t dig too deeply. We hide most of who we are and what we are doing from him. There is confession, but it is often infrequent and in a rush on Sunday morning. When he pleads that we come to Church on Saturday night, we listen politely, but we will not obey. We are busy and Saturday is often our catch up day, or relaxing day, or fun day. After all, we are Americans and Americans don’t go to Church on Saturday nights.
Forgive me if it seems like I am “beating a dead horse”, as the proverb goes. Just understand this from the viewpoint of the priest. To watch over my soul is his task, one for which he will be held accountable. But what good does it do to watch if, when he sees a problem that must be addressed, the person is offended or simply ignores what he says to them? You would think it odd if I was offended when my doctor told me I have Type II diabetes. I have had the experience that when I tried to lovingly tell someone the truth about their soul (not because I have great spiritual insight. I have simply spent time observing how they practice their faith), the end result was that they went away in a snit and never came back. Of course, we are always free to disagree with what we hear, but if we constantly disagree, what good is it to be a watchman or to want one?
It would be wonderful to think that I have a spouse who watches over my soul. This doesn’t mean that shes tries to micromanage all that I do. It means that she watches for the spiritual enemies that come against me. It means that she prays for me and watches over me. Yet, she may have the same problem as the priest. Does she dare tell me what she sees for fear of how I will react? After all, it may hurt my pride and offend me and after all, who does she think she is telling me these things, etc. So, she holds her tongue and my soul remains in danger of loss.
It would be wonderful to think that my Orthodox brothers and sisters are watching over me and that they observe my conduct and speech. It would be nice to believe that if they see a serious flaw, they would come to me, not in a spirit of criticism or scorn, but with a heart to help heal my weakness. Like the priest and the spouse, they may keep silent because they fear how I will react. The result is the same. I remain weak or I tumble into a ditch of my own making.
God watches over us, but how is that going for you? Do you submit to His will and obey his rule over you? The Saints watch over you as well. Does your life bring them joy or grief? Thankfully, they continue to watch and pray for me no matter how often I fail to submit and obey.
The Bible speak clearly about this: “A wise man loves to be corrected;” but “a fool is wise in his own eyes;” and “obedience is better than sacrifice.” This being so, it is clear that there are few watchmen today. We simply refuse to be corrected by anyone. Anyone who seeks to do so had better beware, for we will accuse them of not caring about our feelings.
It was not always this way, but now, if anyone is a watchman on this earth, he or she is practically unemployed.
What can we do? Seek true humility and seek someone who is willing to tell us what we need to hear, no matter how much it challenges us or embarrasses us. We need to let our watchmen know that we will hear them and not retaliate emotionally, so that they can truly watch over us. Finally, we can ask God to give us a heart that is willing to obey those who watch over us for the sake of our souls.