I sometimes see reflections of my Eastern Orthodox faith in unexpected places. Take the hit CBS television show Elementary, a contemporary rendition of the great Sherlock Holmes stories.
Johnny Lee Miller captures the iconic detective in all his obsessive-compulsive glory. Living in New York as a recovering drug addict—heroin in place of the prototype’s cocaine—Holmes has entered a twelve-step recovery program, although as far as I can tell, unlike the original, our modern-day Sherlock accepts no power higher than his own prodigious intellect.
Dr. Watson—Joan, not John—is played as the quintessential contemporary liberated, urban woman by Lucy Liu. Where the original character was a bit of a fuddy-duddy and a loyal friend who happily joined Holmes as sidekick in his adventures, Joan is personally assertive and a bit judgmental as she maintains a reserved distance in her relationships with others.
In the first two years of the series, Watson lives platonically with Holmes, first as his counselor in overcoming addiction and then, having become fascinated with detection, as his protégée in solving criminal mysteries. But that relationship can’t last long in our feminist culture. Feeling suffocated by Holmes’s solipsistic demands and unwilling to play second fiddle any longer, she moves out and opens her own detective agency (although she and Holmes now regularly collaborate in solving cases).
So where is the Orthodoxy? In Holmes’s new apprentice, Kitty Winter, played with subdued intensity by Ophelia Lovibond. Before we meet her, Kitty was the victim of a vicious kidnapping and gang rape that left her shattered and suicidal. Between seasons, she accepts Holmes’s offer to mentor her in the detecting game as a means both of her healing and of fulfilling his need to be a pedagogue.
Kitty Winter is no Joan Watson. She eschews her own will and submits herself in unquestioning obedience to Holmes in learning his deductive technique. If he tells her to buy coffee, she uncomplainingly complies; if she cleverly spots a clue, but her idea is rejected by Holmes, she uncomplainingly yields to his authority. And through Kitty’s wholehearted submission, Holmes is subtly changed for the better, becoming, if not less supercilious, at least more empathetic.
It is here, in the relationship between Kitty and Holmes, that we see a prototype of the Orthodox relationship between a monastic spiritual father (or mother) and child. In Orthodox theology, submission leads to obedience, the key that opens the door to true humility. Humility is essential for attaining theosis—the deepest communion with God—which is the goal of Orthodox Christian practice.
Indeed, obedience has been essential to Christian monasticism from its inception.The Sayings of the Desert Fathers—a glimpse into a mostly vanished ascetic way of Christian living that emerged in the fourth century—repeatedly extols the virtue’s importance to spiritual growth:
Abba Mius of Belos said, ‘Obedience responds to obedience. When someone obeys God, God obeys his request.’
Then there is the story of Abba John the Dwarf:
It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, ‘Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.’ Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’
And this psalm of Abba Rufus:
O obedience, salvation of the faithful!
O obedience, mother of all the virtues!
O obedience, discloser of the kingdom!
O obedience opening the heavens, and making men to ascend there from earth!
O obedience, food of all the saints, whose milk they have sucked, through you they have become perfect!
O obedience, companion of the angels!
The obedience these elders commend is the mirror opposite of a slave’s forced compliance. This distinction was once brought forcefully home to me when I was visiting an Orthodox monastery and watched the abbot give his monks their obediences (work) for the day. One monk, upon receiving his instructions, closed his eyes and—in seeming bliss—laid his head on the table. I was deeply moved by the spiritual power and paradoxical freedom of his complete submission.
This is a hard word for us to receive in the modern day, particularly as Americans. But there is much to be gained in giving ourselves over to the humility of obedience as we have opportunity and find ourselves able.
So, bravo to Elementary for creating a character so refreshingly out of step with the times. I just hope they don’t turn Kitty Winter into Joan Watson—or, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes!