December 01, 2009

Practical Outcomes

Our final evening together was the best session of the entire seminar. I was very impressed by all the ideas that were generated. We all made a commitment to work on our projects and to report back to each other at the beginning of the Pascha Book Study, on Wednesday April 7th, 2010. As is usually the case, our Pascha Study will be a follow-up to our Theological Seminar. During our readings and our discussion, it became clear to me that all the different aspects of community that we were considering converged in a very practical way around the topic of conflict—it is at that point that the authenticity of most communities is tested, and it is at that point that most communities disintegrate. So, for our Pascha Study, we will be looking further at the subject of forgiveness. We will start on April 7th by viewing a documentary entitled, Forgiving Dr Mengele, and we will then read a book about the Nickel Mines School shootings called Amish Grace.

In the meantime, here are the assignments we are undertaking. Please continue to pray for our parish and for this on-going project. Thanks to each of you for your participation in this work, and I look forward to seeing each of you during Bright Week and hearing about the progress you’ve made on your projects.

Father Aidan has committed to helping co-ordinate a Community Meal once a month, to inviting Beck Funeral Home to be available to help folks with funeral planning after two of this year’s Souls’ Saturday Liturgies, and to incorporating the Service of Foot Washing into the schedule for Holy Week.

Baker Galloway has committed to helping our parish work towards a goal of having only Orthros and Divine Liturgy and Fellowship on Sundays rather than the usual round of meetings, rehearsals, and other events.

Rebekah Galloway has committed to helping keep Christ the Lightgiver going—and, eventually, flourishing—and to encouraging others in the parish to develop relationships with monastics.

Linda Taylor has committed to discovering ways to maintain the intimacy of our parish even as we seek to reach out to others on an on-going basis.

Dorothy Stewart has committed to praying for the departed and requesting masses for them as well, and she wants the parish to know that she would like to provide accommodations for people who travel long distances during Holy Week (she has two rooms and private bath with one queen-size and two single beds. Ordinarily she would put a chocolate on each pillow - but not during Holy Week). She also offered her story about Oscar Dew*

Steve Bodnarchuk has committed to start a listing service on the internet (Steve’s List) that will help our parishioners and other Orthodox in Central Texas to help each other with resources and information.

David Morgan has made a commitment to personally greet each visitor after each Divine Liturgy.

Karen Morgan has committed to investing herself in her relationship with her godmother and with other parishioners and encouraging others to do the same by concretely charting the ‘alternative relationships’ that we all have at St John’s and by giving people opportunities to honor those relationships on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Brandon Wilson has committed to locating the graves of all the departed members of our community and to organizing quarterly pilgrimages to those graves for prayer and a meal.

Rigel Thurston has committed to moving closer to the parish in a timely fashion and to helping others do the same through special incentives that he can offer as a realtor.

Joe Wright has committed to do more guerilla art and to explore ways to encourage the arts in our parish and to continue his work with social events in our community.

Father Deacon Basil and Shamassy Josie Long have committed to have gatherings for new people and catechumens at their home twice each year.

Catherine Maclaughlin has committed to continue her work with our parish’s Dedicated Community and her work with the on-going Sunday Morning Book Study and to continue sponsoring speakers once a year.

Becky Thurner has committed to encouraging people to attend the Divine Liturgy on Souls’ Saturdays by putting together a schedule for remembering the departed, to help print up an explanation of the funeral service that can be shared with visitors, and to exploring ways we can help each other with truly weighty issues.

*Perhaps it is because everyone in a small town knows everyone else so intimately, but it does seem that there are more eccentrics per square yard as the population gets smaller in number. My home- town, Canastota, NY, is no exception. One of the most colorful eccentrics, a legend in Canastota, was Oscar Dew. There are many stories about him. One Thursday evening, he showed up at the Robotham home just at dinner- time. Since he made no move to leave, he was invited to stay for dinner. Thereafter, he showed up every Thursday night at the same time, and the family began automatically to lay another place for him. This went on for at least two years. One Thursday night, Oscar, decidedly unhappy over the entrée being served, threw down his fork and stated that he was never coming there again. Not only did he never again come for dinner, he never again even entered the Robotham home. I think it was ham and cabbage which so disgusted him. The most famous story about Oscar is the one I have chosen to tell you today. Oscar was an inveterate funeral-goer. Not only did he attend every funeral service in Canastota and environs but he also managed to get to the graveside service as well. Since he did not drive, it was a given that someone would make room for Oscar in his car. One graveside service was quite a distance from Canastota. Oscar had managed to get a ride to the cemetery but, for some reason, was without a ride home. He approached the undertaker and hearse driver to ask if he could ride back home with them. The only space available was in the back of the hearse, but that was fine with Oscar. He got in and saw that there was a great place to lie down. He did so and promptly went to sleep, rocked gently by the motion of the hearse.

In the meantime, the undertaker and driver noted that the hearse was low on gas and stopped at a gas station. The attendant, joking, asked if they were carrying anyone. They said that yes, they did have a passenger. Chastened, the attendant moved toward the back of the hearse, removed the gas tank cap, and was just inserting the hose when he glanced up. At that very moment, Oscar, straggly-haired, rheumy-eyed, still groggy from sleep and looking frankly cadaverous, pulled back the curtain at the side window of the hearse, to gaze straight into the eyes of the startled attendant who dropped the hose and began to run, ignoring the reassuring shouts of the undertaker and driver. He soon disappeared over the crest of the nearest hill.

The World

In this session we will be talking about the way in which our community should interact with the world. In Holy Scripture, the world is understood to be the broader culture within which the Church exists; throughout history, that culture has taken a wide variety of forms, but the overall message of Holy Scripture is very consistent: we are to limit our exposure to the world.

In the texts that we looked at from the Holy Gospels, Christ Jesus draws a clear distinction between His Kingdom, which is “not of this world” (St John 18.36), and the world itself, which, even though our Lord and Master created it, is now ruled by Satan (St Luke 4.6; St John 14.30) and which did not recognize Christ Jesus when He came to save it (St John 1.10). The texts that we looked at from the epistles build on this basic perspective: in his Letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that we are not to “be conformed to this world” (12.2); in his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle states that we should “deal with the world as though [we] had no dealings with it” since “the form of this world is passing away” (7.31). In his letter, St James, writes that we are to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (1.27), and, in his first letter, St John insists that we are not to “love the world or the things that are in the world,” and he adds that if we do love the world, “love for the Father is not in us” (2.15).

In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry does a good job of describing the social and economic impact that the world has on the community of Port William. At the beginning of World War II, Jayber observes that
A town like Port William in this age of the world is like a man on an icy slope, working hard to stay in one place and yet slowly sliding down-hill. It has to contend not just with local mortality, depravity, ignorance, natural deficiencies, and weather but also with what I suppose we might as wellcall The News. (p139)

But by 1961, Jayber is able to be more specific about the nature of this News:
The News of the World seemed to have to do principally with The War and The Economy ... The War and The Economy were seeming more and more to be independent operations ... The War, I thought, was just the single Hell that is always astir in the world ... And the nations were always preparing funds of weapons and machines and people to be used up whenever The War did break out in full force, which meant that sooner or later it would…Also, it seemed that The War and The Economy were more and more closely related…The War was good for the Economy…(p273)

He then goes on to chronicle the death of Port William at the hands of The War and The Economy by describing how all of its businesses close, how it loses its physician and school, how most of its young people move away (or are sacrificed to the nation’s armed conflicts), and how the local economies of home and farm are rendered obsolete. The primary symbols of this death are the new highway and, even more powerfully and personally, Troy’s destruction of the Nest Egg. Jayber regards all this as almost inevitable, but he also wonders out loud how “the world is improved by [Port William’s] dying” (p273)

Jayber also spends a good deal of time talking about the moral and spiritual impact that the world has on Port William. The two representative figures here are Troy Chatham and Cecelia Overhold. Troy is the greatest advocate of the military industrial complex and also, through the loss of his son Jimmy and his personal financial ruin, one of its most poignant victims. Cecelia’s dissatisfaction with everything local mirrors our larger society’s need for uniformity to the point that, towards the end of the novel, Jayber can observe that “the world had become pretty generally Ceceliafied” (p274).

The residents of Port William are either swept up in the changes that the world introduces into their community, or they resist by moving to the margins of society. Jayber takes his barbering business down to the river; the Branches make do with second hand gear and subsidence farming. But by the end of the novel, the world has triumphed; the larger society has moved in and taken over, and the Port William Membership no longer exists. Jayber’s faith is intact, and he is able to forgive Troy Chatham; he finally gets that special smile from Mattie, and, in the on-going world of the novel, there are probably grandchildren of Danny and Lyda Branch who are even now making a go of it down on the river, but the world wins. That’s because, as Jayber once succinctly observes, “Hate succeeds” (p249).

That’s a powerful message to those of us who want to see our community flourish. Because what we are up against is not just social forces or cultural paradigms; what is ranged against us is nothing less than the Kingdom of the Ruler of this World. And, on a historical level, socially and politically, that Kingdom is going to prevail. Of course, in the Holy Gospels and in the Book of the Apocalypse, we are assured that the Church will survive this tribulation; however, we are never assured that individual communities will survive intact.

Of course, American Christianity has yet to really come to grips with any of this. In fact, much of American Christianity is still trying to use the world to reach out to people who are without faith. But there is nothing in Holy Scripture to justify such an approach, and the results are plain to see: communities will start out using the world’s music or technology or thought processes in an effort to do mission work or evangelism, but the world always has a far greater impact on those communities than those communities have on the world. Other communities approach social and political issues as if the world was somehow less evil forty or fifty years ago; the thinking is that if we can just go back to living the way our grandparents or great grandparents did then everything would be fine or at least a whole lot better. However, the Kingdom of Satan is still the Kingdom of Satan no matter where it’s located in the course of history.

A relatively new approach to all this is one of almost complete isolation. Down through history, Christians have attempted tried this from time to time, but it has started showing up again in the last couple of decades here in America. However, most of the people who attempt this approach are not consistent. They home school the children—until it’s time for them to go to college. They do without television—but they use the internet. They don’t listen to mainstream music—but they follow less popular, more obscure artists. At least these people are trying to put the teaching of Holy Scripture into practice, but the approach tends to be piece-meal and unsustainable over the long haul since it is hardly ever grounded in a community.

Unfortunately, in this country, Orthodox Christianity doesn’t provide us with a lot of good role models when it comes to dealing with the world. We have very worldly parishes, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, we have monasteries, but there is not much at all in-between. So what should we be doing as a community to limit, as much as possible, our exposure to the world?

To begin with, we should never underestimate the world’s virulence. Historically, politically, socially, and economically, the world is a highly complex system which involves the interaction of all sorts of different factors, but, spiritually, it all belongs to Satan, and he wants to destroy us. So, the world is never, ever a benign or neutral force, and that means that we interact with it at our peril. As in the case of Port William, the nature of that peril may not become clear until decades have passed, but we can be sure that the danger to us and our community is genuine.

However, having said that, we must not be afraid, since, as St John writes, “greater is He that is in [us] than he that is in the world” ( ). If we are motivated primarily by fear, then we will end up with a parish that is controlling and isolated in an unhealthy way—and this is precisely what happened to the community that the Longs were are part of back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This is what also happens to some of the folks who home school or house church or otherwise band together in order to ward off the evil influences of the world. Of course, the world is full of evil influence, but if a community’s primary reason for existence is a negative one, then it won’t be a community that reflects the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity; it will be a community that reflects the moral, spiritual, economic, pedagogical, and political values of a particular group of anxious people.

We must also get to the point where we no longer think of our interaction with the world in terms of personal life-style choices. On the one hand, we are free to watch any sort of movie or read any sort of book or purchase any kind of car or wear any kind of clothes or eat any sort of food, but, on the other hand, every one of those choices also has an impact, for good or for ill, on the other members of our community. So, for example, the decision to cultivate a relationship with a friend who is coarse and profane and dishonest and cynical is going to have consequences for everyone in our parish because if we are not stronger than this particular individual, if we are not capable of resisting and/or overlooking his or her ungodly qualities—or, worse yet, if we are actually attracted to this person because of those qualities—then we will eventually introduce those qualities into our community. We may regard our friendship with that person as no one else’s business, but we will still infect others with the contagion that we pick up from this individual.

So where do we place the boundaries? And how do we make those decisions? Confession and counsel with our spiritual father is a good place to begin, but that can also lead to an atomized, individualistic approach to dealing with the world, and that is precisely what finished off Port William, because when push came to shove, each person in the town made their own decisions about how to relate to the world. So, if we want to be an authentic community, then we will have to begin working on some of these issues with each other. Right now, we have a number of settings in which those discussions can occur (coffee hour, girls’ night, man night, the Wed Home School group, etc), but the question is whether we are willing to be open with each other and possibly surrender our individual wills and preferences to the will of the Most Holy Trinity as the purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is revealed in our parish (and on this pt we would do well to recall what we said during our discussion about authority). The health—indeed, the very survival—of our community depends on whether we will take this step.

fr. aidan

Toxic Communities

During this session, we looked at a number of passages from Holy Scripture and then we listened to Father Deacon Basil and Shamassy Josie Long talk about their experiences in a community that disintegrated into a cult. We also listened to Father Aidan Wilcoxson talk about his experiences with the organizational dysfunction of United Methodism. All this led to a good discussion of how to avoid these sorts of toxicity.
fr. aidan

November 04, 2009


This week’s topic presents us with the seminar’s biggest gap between Holy Scripture and the novel, Jayber Crow. Wendell Berry does a good job of analyzing the lengthy conflicts that Jayber has with Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham; however, the way that Jayber approaches these conflicts reflects his southern, small-town culture more than it reflects the teachings of Holy Scripture.

Let’s begin with the biblical texts that we read in preparation for this evening’s discussion. In St Paul’s letters to St Timothy and St Titus, the apostle encourages his younger brothers to avoid conflict and to avoid antagonistic people whenever possible: “Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know how they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone” (2 Tim 2.23-24); “But avoid stupid controversies…” (Titus 3.9). However, St Paul is also clear that conflict must be dealt with in a straight-forward manner; he tells St Timothy that the work of the “Lord’s servant” includes “correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2.25), and he gives these instructions to St Titus: “As for a man that is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him” (3.10). In the passage from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in St John’s Third Letter, we see both apostles dealing with conflict directly and decisively, and the instructions that Christ Jesus provides in St Matthew’s Gospel contain a four step process for handling conflict—and each step involves person to person interaction.

But it is precisely this personal interaction that is finally missing from Jayber’s relationship with Cecelia and Troy. Jayber has a number of confrontations with Cecelia: there’s the famous rock-throwing incident at the Grand Stand, and then there are years of snubs and slights. However, Jayber never confronts her or tries to heal the rift between them. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber states that he “forgave her easily enough for her dislike of [him]”, but he also admits that “she never asked [him] to do so” (p355). So it’s difficult to see what forgiveness actually meant in this situation apart from the fact that Jayber, at one point, stopped being angry with Cecelia. And Jayber’s relationship with Troy works the same way: Jayber never even tries to speak with Troy about the way he mistreats Mattie, and he never even tries to confront Troy about his arrogance and dishonesty. When Jayber finally is able to forgive Troy, there is some practical content to that forgiveness—Jayber actually becomes Troy’s friend. Nevertheless, there is the distinct possibility that Troy never knew that Jayber was ever anything but his friend.

Of course, to expect Jayber to deal openly and honestly with the conflict in his life is to also step out of the world of the novel. Because in small, southern towns, that’s just not the way conflict is handled. Folks in these communities gossip about conflict—and, of course, there is a whole lot of gossip in Port William—and sometimes conflict even erupts into actual violence—and there is a certain degree of violence in Port William. However, in the south, it is still considered rude to acknowledge a conflict with anyone other than a family member, and even family conflicts are dealt with in other, more nuanced ways. For example, Athey and Della Keith never intervene in Troy and Mattie’s life, but they also leave the farm solely to Mattie. So, in Jayber Crow, culture is more powerful than the specific teachings of Holy Scripture. Jayber does work through his conflicts with Cecelia and Troy, and his efforts are motivated, in part, by his Christian convictions, but those convictions are also culturally conditioned.

But what this finally means is that, when it comes to the real test of community, when it comes to conflict, the membership of Port William fails. In just about every other dynamic that we have considered, the characters in the novel provide us with an example of what authentic community looks like. But when there are strains and ruptures in their community, the individualistic nature of the Port William membership kicks in, and folks regard the troubles of others as something to be observed and commented on, but something that also, ultimately, isn’t their business. Related to this particular failure is the absence of any real spiritual authority in Port William. The clergymen who serve that small town are only there on a temporary basis; everyone knows that they are just passing through, and so they do not have the authority that comes from years of stability and trust and experience. So to expect any of Port William’s preachers to try and intervene in Jayber and Cecelia’s relationship or in the conflict between Troy and his in-laws would be, once again, to step outside of the world of the novel. Nevertheless, it is significant that the inability of the people of Port William to deal with conflict in a straight-forward and proactive way is never challenged by any of the men who are supposed to be providing the town with spiritual leadership.

Of course, Port William is not alone in its inability to deal with conflict. Badly handled conflict destroys a great many parishes and congregations. Most of the experimental Protestant communities that were started in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s fell apart because of conflict, and the book that many of us read about the current crop of similar communities reveals that nothing has really changed in the last thirty years: conflict is a huge problem. In analyzing conflict, Protestant and Roman Catholic thinkers frequently draw on the insights of psychology and the social sciences, and, while there is nothing wrong with that, we must never forget that, as Christians, we have a unique perspective on the subject. For example, the folks who study conflict from a therapeutic or sociological perspective like to say that it is just a part of life, and that is certainly true; however, it is also important to remember that Holy Scripture never regards conflict in a positive way since the presence of conflict presupposes the presence of sin. So even though conflict may be a part of life, we should never interpret that to mean that it is somehow a normal feature of life in community.

So how should we handle conflict in our community? Christ Jesus provides us with the paradigm in chapter eighteen of St Matthew’s gospel. As we mentioned earlier, there are four steps in this process:
1. The offended person is to talk to the person who has caused the offence. In most communities, the entire process goes off the rails right here at the beginning. Most people who are offended would never dream of talking to the person who has offended them—they would rather stew and mope about the situation, or they would rather talk about that person with their friends or family members. Our job in these sorts of situations is to, first of all, model the sort of behavior we want to see in our community by actually doing what our Lord and Master has instructed us to do, and, second, to encourage others to do the same thing, either by pointing out that stewing and moping won’t do them or anyone else any good, or by refusing to listen to their complaints about the person who has offended them until they agree to go and talk to that person.

2. If the initial conversation doesn’t go well—if there is no reconciliation—the next step is to talk to the offender with one or two friends. Again, in most communities, there is no precedent, and there are no guidelines for this sort of thing. But that is all the more reason to actually make sure that we set those precedents and establish those kinds of guidelines. This is the point where people will often ask me to get involved in these sorts of situations, but what that effectively does is collapse the steps that Christ Jesus has laid out for us. In other words, they ask me to go with them to talk to the offending person because they are apprehensive about the conversation, and because they haven’t had the courage to talk to the offender themselves; however, this is skipping step one, and combining steps two and three, because, when the priest gets involved, then the Church is involved, but that isn’t supposed to happen until the offended person has tried to reach out to the offender at least twice, once by themselves and once with a friend or two. The reason we have been given these steps is so that we can take personal responsibility for the conflicts that intrude upon our lives, so that we can take up the cross and offer up our pain and fear and heartache and stress as a sacrifice for the transformation of this world, but that won’t happen if we wimp out.

3. If the second encounter doesn’t lead to reconciliation, then the person who is offended is to tell the Church. The holy fathers interpret this to mean that the offended person is to confide in a clergyman, and then that deacon or priest will attempt to deal with the conflict. Unfortunately, most clergymen not only try to avoid taking sides, they also try, at all costs, to avoid offending anyone. This is a recipe for frustration, misunderstanding, and all-around disaster. In these sorts of situations, clergymen should speak clearly and compassionately; they should be able to tell the offending person what to do; they should be able to tell the offended person what to do. In other words, they should be able to provide caring and decisive spiritual leadership.
4. If the clergyman is unsuccessful in bringing about reconciliation, then Christ Jesus states that the offending person is to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18.17). This is not excommunication. In the Church, only a bishop can excommunicate someone, and that is typically done only as an official acknowledgement of actions the offending person has already taken (for example, leaving a spouse and moving in with a lover; joining a Protestant or Roman Catholic parish; publically and repeatedly rejecting some of the basic doctrines of the Church). What this refers to is the distance that is always a consequence of any refusal of reconciliation/responsibility. Some of that distance is going to be official in nature—for example, I would never ask anyone who refused reconciliation/responsibility to serve on the parish council or to help out with All Saints’ Club or to assist in the altar. Some of that distance is going to be of a personal nature—the tension and the awkwardness that is introduced into relationships whenever this sort of refusal occurs. Unless the offending person is antagonistic or dangerous, there is no reason to exclude them from the worship and fellowship of the community—again, that is what happens when someone is excommunicated; nevertheless, this ‘interim’ distance is real, and it must be acknowledged. In fact, one of the primary dynamics which causes conflict to become embedded in a community is the tendency that most people have to try and ignore it.

But to pretend that nothing has happened—or to act as if the conflict has been resolved when it has not—is dishonest, and this kind of dishonesty only generates even bigger problems. However, as uncomfortable as this last step might be, it is not intended to be punishing or punitive, but redemptive. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes that “love never fails”, so even when others have given up on any possibility of reconciliation, we must not. We must always be prepared to try again, if and when the appropriate opportunity presents itself.

And this is something that we can learn from Jayber Crow—the persevering patience and hard hope that is required of us when we are dealing with broken or damaged relationships. Because if we are committed to community, if we accept the requirement of stability, if we don’t simply leave when conflict arises, then there is a good chance that we will have to live on an on-going basis with a lot of unresolved conflict—and, further, we will have to live with the on-going possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. This is where the symbol of the man in the well comes in—and it is such a powerful passage, it’s worth quoting again:
A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost.He does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”. (p357)

Jayber didn’t follow the biblical paradigm for dealing with conflict, but he also didn’t give up on the people with whom he was in conflict. In a sense, he was willing to get down in the well with them and abide their anger and resentment and dishonesty and fear. That kind of faithfulness is not easy, but, in the end, it paid off, both for Jayber and for Troy and, even, in some way, for Cecelia.

If we will follow the biblical paradigm for dealing with conflict, then our community will be healthy, and it will flourish—but that does not mean that all of our conflicts will be successfully resolved; even our Lord and Master does not have that expectation. However, if we will respond to those broken relationships the way Jayber did, with patience and hope, then none of us, not a single member of our community will finally be lost. Because there will be miraculous rescues; we will be pulled up out of the well of despair by something that happens at Forgiveness Vespers or during the Kiss of Peace or even on a Saturday of Souls. Our job is to simply never, ever give up; our job is to put into action, in this specific community and with these particular people, the “love that never fails”.

fr. aidan

October 22, 2009


In the Introduction to this seminar, we defined economy as the way we order life in our community. That’s actually the original meaning of the root word in Greek, which is economia; the term referred to the management of a household, and the holy fathers eventually applied it to the Most Holy Trinity’s providential care for this creation and for the Church. Of course, management is not an end in itself (though it can become precisely that; we will address that specific problem later on), so it’s important to remember the goal of the Most Holy Trinity’s economy: in the words of the apostles, everything that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do in this creation is directed towards the union of heaven and earth (Eph 1.10), and everything that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do in the Church is designed to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2nd Peter 1.4). According to the fathers, the place where all that happens is the Divine Liturgy. So when we talk about ordering the life of our parish, what we should be looking for is a structure that keeps us focused on the liturgy.

However, at first glance, tonight’s scripture passages don’t appear to have a whole lot to do with the Divine Liturgy. When it comes to the material from the Acts of the Apostles, what everyone always comments on is the fact that those people “had everything in common” (4.32); but what St Luke emphasizes—and what is surely more significant—is the fact that “there was not a needy person among them” (4.34). So, whether we follow the example of the Jerusalem Christians or whether we follow the example of the Corinthian Christians (St Paul never suggests that the Corinthians should hold everything in common; he simply instructs them to “lay aside something” each week; 1 Cor 16.2), we should be able to meet the needs of the members of our parish.

St John builds on that point in his first letter. In fact, just before he talks about the obligation that we have to the members of our parish, he states that we “ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”. And then he adds this: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (3.16-17). So, taking care of each other, to the point of genuine sacrifice and real loss, is a basic obligation for life in community.

But the Church is not a relief agency. There should not be a needy person among us, and we should lay down our lives in order to make that happen; nevertheless, the reason why we should strive to make sure that everyone in our community has what they need is so that they can participate in the Divine Liturgy without distraction; so that they can truly “lay aside all earthly cares”. So when we help others with money for prescriptions or groceries or an unexpected bill, when we share baby equipment or children’s clothing or help to fix an appliance or a car, we are not acting as an informal social service agency, a ‘faith-based’ resource center. We do all that so that the members of our parish can get on with the work of becoming holy people, so that they can participate more fully in the Divine Liturgy and thereby become partakers of the divine nature.

However, it’s important to remember that when we speak of the work of becoming holy people, we are talking about hard work, and we are talking about our primary work. In the passage from Second Thessalonians, St Paul makes it clear that he went out and got a secular job so that he could do his parish work more effectively (3.9-10). The job he had in the world was certainly important—and the apostle expects the Thessalonians who are unemployed to follow his example—but it still was not as important as the work he was doing in the parish. Most of us have precisely the opposite perspective: our secular jobs are the most important things in our lives, and we devote our best energy and resources to those jobs, while our work in the parish is understood to be a seasonal or part-time endeavor which has to compete with hobbies, entertainment, and family events. But if we truly believe that what happens in the Divine Liturgy is nothing less than the union of heaven and earth, if we actually believe that we partake of the divine nature when we share in the Holy Eucharist, if we genuinely believe that what we do on Sunday morning is the expression of the Most Holy Trinity’s providential care for this cosmos, then we should adopt St Paul’s perspective and make what happens in this community the most important job we have and then we should work hard at that job.

So we are to make sure that no one among us is needy; we are to lay down our lives for each other; we are to make our parish work a priority, and we are to invest our time and money and energy in that work. And all of that should find expression in our liturgy which should be beautiful and peaceful and humble and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, in 21st century America, when we start to think about these scriptural obligations, we almost immediately start to translate them into programs. But programs tend to take on a life of their own, and that’s how parishes turn into job banks and food pantries and sites for after-school care. Those can all be important and effective efforts within the life of a parish, but the main reason we have parishes is not so that we can have programs; the main reason we have parishes is so that we can celebrate the Divine Liturgy and thereby become partakers of the divine nature. That’s the goal of the Most Holy Trinity’s economy, and that should be the goal of any parish economy.

But can we even envision a parish community without programs? In the Branch family, Wendell Berry provides us with a much more organic approach to the obligations which we find in Holy Scripture. Danny and his wife Lyda work very hard, and they live modestly Jayber tells us that Danny “never spent any money he didn’t have to spend” but he adds that Danny and Lyda “were generous people ... tight of pocket ... but free of heart” (p312). They take Jayber into their family as he gets older, and they allow him to stay in the cabin by the river even though they could presumably have rented it out to vacationers or fishermen. So Danny and Lyda lay down their lives for Jayber; they meet his needs, and Jayber finds his place in the economy of their home—and it all happens in a very natural way because Danny and Lyda understood the purpose of their work and the point of their lives. They “were uninterested in getting somewhere or making something of themselves”; they simply wanted “to make the old farm produce as much as it could of the things” they needed (pp313, 312)

Of course, Wendell Berry also provides us with a direct contrast to the Branch family in the hapless character of Troy Chatham. What motivates Troy is pride, “his own wants and his ambitions” (p338). But what fuels Troy’s pride and even gives it direction and structure is the advice of the agricultural experts:
All the way along—from his first adventures into the postwar mechanization, to the installation of the dairy, to the installation of the confinement hog-raising farm that replaced the dairy … he was under the influence of expert advice, first in the form of magazine articles and leaflets and pamphlets, and then in the persons of the writers of the articles and leaflets and pamphlets, who instructed him, gave him their language and point of view, took photographs of the results, spoke of him in public talks as an innovator and a man of the new age of agribusiness, and who simply had nothing to say when their recommendations only drew him deeper and deeper into debt. (p339)

Troy simply forgot what farming was all about. Certainly, it’s possible that he never actually understood the point of farming, but, if he ever did understand, his fascinations with the programs offered by the experts obscured that knowledge. But the very same thing happens to parishes: the clergymen who guide the community or the council which governs the community or the people who are members of the community forget that the concrete, practical purpose of the parish is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, and then, like Troy, they become interested in all sorts of other things that are only tangentially related to the liturgy.

In Holy Orthodoxy, the things that distract communities from the liturgy are usually pretty obvious: a building program, the preservation of an ethnic culture or, in the case of convert parishes, the desire for growth. But in American Christianity, there are entire industries that are devoted to these sorts of distractions, and some of them are very sophisticated. So it is not uncommon to find large congregations where the main priorities are: 1. running the physical plant 2. managing the staff 3.monitoring the budget 4. conducting meetings 5. resourcing programs.

And each one of those priorities is supported by an entire army of consultants, by an entire library of specialized literature, and by an entire calendar of training events. That may seem completely foreign to our experience in Holy Orthodoxy, but these concepts have a way of trickling down and showing up in jurisdictional magazines and seminary publications—and just because these ideas are ripped-off and warmed-over doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

So, again, we are back to the question—can we even envision a parish community without programs? Looked at from the perspective of history, that is actually a silly and very, very American sort of question, because, after all, this is precisely what parishes have always been. Archimandrite Vasileios has written extensively on what looks like. In this quotation, the archimandrite is writing about monasteries, but I have taken the liberty of inserting the word parish
Thus, every [parish] has a vocation which is the same yet different for each—and this vocation is to help each particular brother sanctify his vessel with repentance, asceticism, humility, and love…The order and rules governing [parish] life are certainly not like the arrangement of neatly stored objects, nor like the organization of an army barracks where certain people are doing compulsory service. They are more like the order and harmonious relationships between the members of a loving family. (“The Meaning of Typikon” p14)

Archimandrite Vasileios goes on to say that a particular community will take its vocation from the character of its founders—that is to say the people who actively constitute the parish. And that would be us—in fact, that is why we are participating in this seminar. So, now that we have acknowledged just how silly and just how American the question is, I think we will discover that it is even more immediate and even more pressing—can we envision a community without programs?

In regards to this question, I would like to offer a few observations, and I hope you will have more to share. To begin with, I believe that, when it comes to ordering our parish in a way that reflects the economy of the Most Holy Trinity, the daily services are absolutely essential. These services do occupy a good deal of time and energy, and others view our commitment to these services as either weird or heroic, but think about the situation that prevails in most parishes: even though the community exists in order to serve the Divine Liturgy, that only occupies three hours on a Sunday morning; a number of parishes will also have a mid-week service of some sort, but even after taking that into account, most communities only spend four hours a week on corporate prayer and worship; they only spend four hours a week doing what is their primary work. The rest of the time either nothing is happening at all or there is a schedule of meetings and social events. But if we are going to maintain our focus on the liturgy, and if the liturgy that we serve is going to be beautiful and peaceful and humble and awe-inspiring, then we need the preparation and the structure and the atmosphere of prayer which the daily services provide.

The second observation has to do with our expectations for how people participate in our community. The old adage is that 20% of the people do 80% of the work, and I think that is probably true in most parishes. Nevertheless, we need to help people understand that their commitment to our community goes beyond showing up on Sunday morning and pitching in to help with coffee hour every couple of months. Certainly, different people have different levels of energy and different kinds of talents and different sorts of resources. But our members need to realize that when they come ‘to church’ they are coming to work, and the work that they do here is the most important work in the world—it’s the work that will, ultimately, change the world and everyone in it, and it should thus take priority over everything and everyone else. And the way we help folks come to that realization is by modeling that kind of life for them. After all, in the back of their minds, most people are convinced that if a parish is the most important thing in your life then you will neglect your family and never be more than minimally employed and never, ever have any fun. However, if we can demonstrate to them that those assumptions are false, then they will begin to see just how rewarding and energizing and meaningful life in community can be.

Third, I want to repeat an observation I made back in our second session. The typical trajectory of parish life in this country looks like this: when a community is small, the members must do things for themselves (cleaning, teaching, caring for the children and for the youth and for each other); that is one of the clear marks of a small parish. However, the larger a community gets, the fewer things the members do for themselves—in fact, it is understood to be a sign of maturity and success when you can hire a janitor and nursery workers and staff people to work with the children and youth and an assistant priest to visit folks in the nursing home and the hospital. However, this approach separates people from what is actually happening in a parish, and community becomes something that they pay for and not something that they do—in fact, the staff people often become a separate community within the larger parish. So, we will need to resist this model at every level.

Of course, that means we will have to work harder, but we’ve already discussed that. It means that we will have to do of things that many parishes eventually turn over to professionals—pastoral care, youth work, Church School, music; it means that we will have to do many things that our culture regards as trivial or demeaning or inefficient—yard work, janitorial work, building maintenance, baking prosphora, providing lamp oil. But that is how our parish will become an authentic community and remain an authentic community. That is also how we can make sure that there is not a needy person among us, because one of the great unaddressed needs that people have is for purposeful work; most people can’t handle too much additional work, but the more we do ourselves, the more we will have to share with the members of our parish, and thus everyone will, each week, have a meaningful, hands-on way to make a contribution towards the Divine Liturgy and the on-going transformation of this cosmos and everyone in it.

Finally, I want to say a couple of things about community charters or statements or rules. These are documents which govern and guide the life of a community, and they have a long history in Western Christianity, especially in Western monasticism. These documents are making something of a come-back among those radical Protestants that have recently started doing some serious exploration of intentional community, but they have never been especially important in the Church. There are, in fact, many Orthodox monastic rules that have come down to us, but most of them are pretty brief and sketchy and none of them has ever attained the almost normative status that the Rule of St Benedict has in the West. We have a parish constitution, and that is a document that we share with all the communities in our archdiocese, but that is more a reflection of the requirements of the American legal system than it is a reflection of the needs of our community.

So, in the Church, there simply has never been a need to ‘spell out’ the specific duties and responsibilities and schedules of everyone in a particular community. In fact, one of the most vibrant and healthiest communities in contemporary Orthodoxy—the monastery of St John in Essex, England—simply has no Rule. The have community meetings and assignments are made on a person to person basis, but there is no over-all, governing document that guides the monastery in it’s day to day life. That’s because Elder Sophrony wanted humble love to be the guiding principle of that community—and, as St Columban once said (and as our community will soon discover)—“Love has no order.”

Thanks again to each of you for your prayerful participation in this seminar. I hope you will continue to share your thoughts throughout the week and on the bookstore’s blog.

fr. aidan

October 13, 2009

Care for the Dead

At the end of last week’s meeting, we observed that this session on the Care of the Dead is really just a continuation of our discussion of Fellowship and Hospitality. That’s because the departed are still part of our community; they continue to be present in our parish, and we have responsibilities to them which reflect the obligations of hospitality and fellowship that we owe to the living. We see these dynamics at work all throughout Jayber Crow.

In our last meeting, we mentioned that Jayber has two visions of the departed, and the most comprehensive of these visions occurs one day when he is cleaning the church:
Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) while Aunt Cordie sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seem them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying…I saw them all. (pp164-165)

The people of Port William sustain their fellowship with the dead in many different ways: Burley and Jayber fill in Mat Feltner’s grave; Mattie Chatham spends time at her daughter’s grave; Della Keith brings flowers to her husband’s grave; the entire community visits the cemetery on Decoration Day, and folks clean the graves of their family members and friends. Those are the tangible expressions of Port William’s fellowship with the dead, but Wendell Berry is just as adept at describing grief, which is the way a community maintains it’s emotional and psychological connection to the departed.

During the chapter on World War II, Berry has Jayber make this observation:
New grief when it came, you could feel filling the air. It took up all the room there was. The place itself, the whole place, became a reminder of the absence of the hurt or dead or missing one. I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure. (p148)
Towards the end of the novel, Berry has Jayber make these remarks about grief:
I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready. (p353)
So Port William has this organic connection with the members who have gone on before, and Jayber feels this connection and articulates this connection in poetic and powerful way.

Unfortunately, the connection depicted in the novel is no longer at work for most of 21st century America. The social structures which made our connections with the departed concrete have all but disappeared since most of us no longer live in small towns and most of us no longer have access to local cemeteries. Individuals and families may still tend graves or conduct annual memorials, but there is very little in our society that even approaches the kind of community fellowship with the dead that we find in the pages of Jayber Crow. And grief is now understood to be a psychological and emotional state which must be managed and should be worked through. Of course, another reason for the disappearance of this connection is the absence of any theological understanding of our fellowship with the departed. This is actually reflected in Wendell Berry’s novel: Port William is a Protestant community, and that means the membership has lost touch with all but a few echoes of what the Church has historically taught concerning the departed (and this is preserved primarily in hymns such as “In the Sweet By and By”). That is why, when he’s talking about the dead, Jayber relies more on his own personal experience than on theology. But, in 21st century America, there are no longer even any echoes of the Church’s teaching.

In fact, it is common for our brothers and sisters who are American Christians to maintain that Holy Scripture really has very little to say about how we should interact with the departed. I hope that the texts we looked at in preparation for this evening’s session have demonstrated just how mistaken that approach is. The two passages from Genesis are both quite long, and they both deal with funeral arrangements and funeral services: Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite to use as a family burial plot, and Joseph prepares the body of his father Jacob for burial and then takes the body to the same cave that Abraham had purchased. But the two passages from the Holy Gospels also deal with funeral arrangements. These arrangements are interrupted or rendered unnecessary by the resurrection of our Lord and Master, but the women who go to the tomb in St Luke’s Gospel, and St Joseph and St Nicodemus who prepare the body of Christ Jesus in St John’s Gospel, are participating in the concrete expression of our fellowship with the departed. So these sorts of activities are not inconsequential; they are not just cultural artifacts; they are important ways in which we maintain our connection to the dead.

Of course, many American Christians would insist that we have no real fellowship with the dead. But in the oldest piece of New Testament writing, in St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle addresses this subject. He assures the community in Thessalonica that the departed are simply sleeping; he tells the Thessalonian Christians that the dead will be awakened by Christ Jesus on the Great and Fearful Day of Judgment. And the use of language here is crucial: St Paul doesn’t say that the dead are gone; he doesn’t even use the word that the Church eventually adopted, which is the verb departed; he uses the word asleep. And while that word implies a separate state of consciousness, it does not require the person to be absent. In his letter to the Hebrews, there is a text which should be familiar to us all but which I neglected to put on the syllabus. In chapter eleven of that epistle, St Paul talks at length about the holy and righteous men and women of the Old Testament, and then, at the beginning of chapter twelve, he observes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Again, there is the clear sense that we are connected to these people, even though the apostle is talking about men and women who lived thousands of years before he wrote his letter.

However, the primary New Testament testimony to our fellowship with the departed is a personal and almost parenthetical remark that St Paul makes in his second letter to St Timothy. In the first chapter of that letter, the apostle prays that the Most Holy Trinity will be merciful to the household of Onesiphorus, and he later also prays that the "Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day” (1.18). The passage does not categorically state that Onesiphorus is dead, but the only objection one could have to such a reading would be that St Paul would not offer a prayer for a dead man. But that would be reading our presuppositions into the text, so what we have in this passage is the apostle praying for someone who has departed this life. That is the most intimate way in which we can maintain our fellowship with the dead, and the Church has followed the apostle’s example by providing us with many opportunities to pray for the departed.

In fact, the Church has taken each of the different aspects of our connection with the departed that we have identified in this very, very brief review of Holy Scripture and developed them in ways that are rich and nourishing. For example, the Church has always placed a great deal of emphasis on funeral services. In fact, in the early second century, many Roman observers thought that the Church was a funeral society—an association of people who would gather together and pay dues into a common fund in order to ensure that each member receive a decent funeral. Further, the Church prays frequently for those who did not receive a proper funeral, thus demonstrating the importance of the preparations and services. In addition, because each member of the Church receives the same funeral, there is not the atomized and idiosyncratic approach to services that we find in society and in American Christianity. And the Church’s approach to funerals requires us to take time and make preparations and actually work hard to pull it off. This makes the whole process much more personal (rather like Jayber digging the graves of his friends) when the entire tendency in our society and American Christianity is to hand the entire effort over to professionals and make everything as effortless as possible.

The Church also provides us with a way to express our grief. There is a specific calendar of activities which accompany the loss of a friend or loved one; there are certain kinds of clothes that should be worn and certain activities which are to be avoided. At first glance, many Americans would regard this kind of structure as oppressive and confining, but, on closer examination, it is easy to see that this framework provides guidance in a very confusing time and a clear, simple way to maintain our connection with a friend or loved one in the weeks and months immediately following that person’s death. Of even greater benefit is the fact that the Church allows us to be sad—both at the funeral itself, which is a somber service, and afterwards. Not only that, but the Church gives us a way to practice being sad in the two annual services of Lamentations—the one for Christ Jesus on Great and Holy Friday and the other for the Mother of God on the eve of her Dormition. This is a gift that is simply unavailable anywhere else in American culture or American Christianity, because sadness is one of the few social sins left in American society, and American Christianity does it’s best to reflect that emphasis (for example, the congregation that is currently the most popular in this part of Central Texas is called simply Celebration Church; so how do you have a funeral at a place that is named Celebration?).

And, of course, the Church provides us with opportunities for prayer: with the exception of the Hours, each and every service of the Church has fixed prayers for the departed (and prayers for the dead can certainly be inserted into the Hours); the liturgy includes prayers for the departed; there are specific services—akathists, memorials—that can be done for the dead; each Saturday is a general day of remembrance for the departed, and there are four Souls’ Saturdays during the year when the faithful are specifically tasked to pray for the dead. So we are talking about more than resources here; we’re talking about more than a schedule; this is a way of life in which our fellowship with the departed is a constant factor.

So, if we want our parish to be an authentic community in the fullest sense of the word, then we must include the departed in the fellowship of our parish. The easiest way to do that is to simply embrace the way of life that has been handed down to us in the Church, but that will require some intentionality, and intentionality presupposes planning. In other words, if we only start thinking about death and our fellowship with the departed after a member of our family or a close friend has died, then we will be over-taken by events and emotions and the expectations of others, and we will end up with an experience and a set of circumstances that reflect the values of our culture. Simply put, we have to let people know what kind of service we want and how we want our body to be prepared and where we want to be buried and what kind of memorials we wish to leave behind. To that end, I have asked the owners of Beck Funeral Home to join us for the first two Souls’ Saturdays in 2010; they will be with us on Sat, Feb 27th, and Sat, Mar 6th, to provide people with information about funeral arrangements and to even provide people with the opportunity to get started on those arrangements.

But, in addition to embracing the way of life the Church has given us, we also need to begin developing social structures within that way of life. Consequently, we need to encourage people to participate in the preparation of the body of their loved one or friend; we need to encourage people to have their funerals at the temple and not at a funeral home; we need to encourage people to be buried in the Cedar Park Cemetery and not in some far away location; we need to encourage people to offer annual memorials for their departed friends and family members. Washing and dressing the body of a loved one or friend is a powerful, final act of hands-on charity; it is a reflection of what the Myrrh-bearing Women and St Joseph and St Nicodemus did for our Lord and Master. Having the funeral in the temple gives the parish one last, tangible opportunity to worship with the departed person. Taking advantage of the cemetery down the road will make it easy for our community to have contact with the departed that is direct and concrete. (Many, many parishes wish they could have a cemetery on their property, but we have something that is almost as good which is a cemetery just a few blocks away. Yes, it’s not an especially attractive location, but what is going to make that cemetery beautiful is the same thing that has made our property here beautiful—our prayers and the presence of a loving, caring, committed community.) Having a local cemetery will also make it easier to have annual memorials: kollyva is offered during the liturgy; the family goes down to the cemetery afterwards for an additional memorial service, and then they all have a meal together. Emphasizing each of these structures will help our community maintain the fellowship it already has with the departed, and it will help us broaden our understanding of what it means to live for others. Wendell Berry has written, “love, sooner or later, forces us out of time”; the apostle Paul has written, “love never fails”; taking responsibility for how we care for the dead will help us put that kind of love into action.

Thank you for your on-going participation in and prayers for this project. Next week we will be talking about the Economy of our community.

fr. aidan

October 07, 2009

Hospitality / Fellowship

In our introduction, we defined hospitality as the means by which we welcome others into our community and fellowship as the way we support them in the life of our community. Our first passage of Holy Scripture deals with this dynamic in a very profound way, because, in Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah extend hospitality to the three men (and it’s important to note that they go out of their way to do this), those three men—who are a type of the Most Holy Trinity—reciprocate by inviting Abraham and Sarah into their fellowship. The men inform the holy and righteous couple that they will, in fact, have a child, and the men later inform Abraham about the fate of Sodom and actually negotiate with him concerning that city’s destiny. So, by sharing hospitality with the Most Holy Trinity, Abraham and Sarah are actually brought into the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The icon of this story also provides us with a graphic representation of this principle because the image is composed in such a way that the three men or angels occupy three sides of the table that is at the center of the icon, and the viewer is automatically drawn to the fourth side of the table.

Thus, fellowship and hospitality involve much more than just introducing others into our community and then helping them settle down and feel at home: our hospitality is an extension of the fellowship that we enjoy with the Most Holy Trinity. Just as the three angelic visitors drew Abraham and Sarah into their fellowship, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have included us in Their community, and we, in turn, share that same fellowship with others through the practice of hospitality. That’s the theological context for each of the other texts that we will be looking at this evening—our community is an extension of and a participation in the divine community of the Most Holy Trinity. And it’s important to keep that context in mind as we consider those texts and the instructions that are contained in them, because each of those passages comes from one of the New Testament epistles, and, with the exception of the passage from St James’ letter, each of those passages comes close to the end of the epistle, and it is therefore easy to regard the instructions contained in those passages as the sort of haphazard observations that people often tack on to the end of letters (Oh yeah, don’t forget to bear one another’s burdens. P.S. Contribute to the needs of the saints.) Of course, the fact that the apostles wrote their letters in the same way that we write our letters does not make them any less inspired, but it does mean that we need to remember that the apostles are not just giving us random tips on community building; they are instructing us on how we can more fully participate in the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how we can share that participation with others.

Here’s a summary of the instructions that the apostles give us. In regards to hospitality, we are told to

Reach out to strangers
(Hebrews 13.2; Gal 6.10)

Reach out to all without distinction
(St James 2.1)

Reach out especially to each other
(1st Peter 4.9; Gal 6.10)

In regards to fellowship, we are told to
Support ourselves
(1st Thess 4.11)

Employ our gifts and talents for the good of all
(1st Peter 4.10; Romans 12.3-8)

Contribute to the needs of those in the community
(Romans 12.13; Gal 6.10)

Support the leaders of our community
(Gal 6.6)

Pray constantly
(Romans 12.12)

Bear each other’s burdens
(Gal 6.2)

Restore those who are fallen into sin
(Gal 6.1)

Refuse hatred, resentment, and vengeance
(Romans 12.17-21)

Love one another
(Romans 12.-10; 1st Thess 4.9-10; Heb 13.1; 1st Peter 4.8)

Never quit
(Gal 6.9; Romans 12.11-12)

It would, however, be a mistake to think that if we could somehow adopt these behaviors that we would then become an authentic community. That’s the approach that American Christians often take: A program is created for each of these behaviors, a congregation’s administrative structure is reworked so that it supports each of these behaviors, study materials and educational events are used to promote each of these behaviors; nevertheless, while these efforts often generate a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and activities and projects, they simply do not produce genuine community. That’s because, as we noted in the introduction to this seminar, community is not something that we build or construct or assemble; community is given to us.

In our introduction, we said that ‘the basis, the foundation for community is the Holy Orthodox Faith, as that Faith is revealed in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, and as that Faith is lived out in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church’. But that’s just another way of saying that an authentic community is one that participates in, and is an extension of, the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So the instructions that the apostles give us in their letters are not the means by which we build community; those instructions are designed to help us learn how to live in the community which the Most Holy Trinity has already given us. That may seem like a really subtle theological distinction, but it is a distinction that is also evident at the level of sociology.

For example, Cynthia and I recently finished reading a book about the Amish school shootings that took place in 2006. The book is by three academics who have been studying Amish culture for many years, and these three professors analyzed the forgiveness that the Amish extended to the family of the man who committed the crime. But the most interesting observations they made had to do with the fact that the Amish response to the tragedy was almost instinctual, that it was an expression of their on-going community life, and, consequently, it was not something that could be easily reproduced in other settings:

If there’s one thing we learned from this story, it’s this: the Amish commitment to forgive is not a small patch tacked onto their fabric of faithfulness. Rather, the commitment to forgive is intricately woven into their lives and their communities—so intricately that it’s hard to talk about Amish forgiveness without talking about dozens of other things…The web of words that emerged in these conversations pointed to the holistic, integrated nature of Amish life. Unlike many of their consumer-oriented neighbors, the Amish do not assemble their spirituality piecemeal by personal preference. Rather, Amish spirituality is a precious heirloom, woven together over the centuries and passed down with care.
(Amish Grace, p174-5)

But what is reflected in those sociological observations is the theological principle that genuine community is not something we can construct: the Amish receive their way of life as a ‘precious heirloom’; in a similar way, we also receive our way of life through participating in the Holy Orthodox Church, but that participation also goes beyond the process of historical transmission, because our life in the Church is also our participation in the life of the Most Holy Trinity.

We see both of these dynamics at work in Jayber Crow. At the level of sociology, there are examples of hospitality and fellowship all throughout the novel: Burley welcomes Jayber back into the life of Port William by taking him home for a meal and helping him get settled in a business and by inviting him to the ‘little worter dranking party’. Jayber provides Mattie with bail money for Jimmy, and he goes once or twice a week to shave Athey Keith when the old farmer can no longer get to the barber shop. Jayber listens as Mat Feltner recounts the dream he had about his dead son, Virgil. Jayber perseveres in his relationship with Troy Chatham and is finally able to forgive him. Danny and Lyda Branch start to cook for Jayber when he gets old. However, all of that hospitality and all of that fellowship are simply expressions of the on-going life of the town, a way of life that each person in the Port William membership has received from previous generations. Wendell Berry conveys this in a compelling way as he describes the role of the women in the town:
You don’t have to know Port William long before you see that whatever coherence it has is largely owing to certain women … it is the women more than the men who see to it that cooked food goes where it is needed, that no house goes without fuel in the winter, that no child goes without toys at Christmas, that the preacher knows where he should go with a word of comfort…Margaret Feltner was one of the women who saw to such things; so was Della Keith; so, as she came into her time,was Mattie Chatham. (pp189-190)

At several points in the novel, Jayber makes it clear that the community of Port William and its life included “the church rather than the other way around” (p190). Nevertheless, there are quite a few moments in the book where Jayber’s participation in the Port William community transcends history and blood lines and the normal boundaries of the membership to reflect a participation in a much larger, more comprehensive community. There are, for example, the two powerful dreams that Jayber has involving the departed: In the first vision, he falls asleep in the church, and he sees “all the people gathered there who had ever been there” (p164); the second dream is even more personal—he joins Athey and Art Rowanberry and Burley and Elton Penn and sits on the porch with them while the sun stands still, and watches while, in one exquisite moment, “Elton pick[s] up Art’s hand and kisse[s] it” (p 333).

But the portion of the book which most clearly communicates Jayber’s participation in a transcendent community is his relationship with Mattie Chatham. What begins as romantic love mixed with jealousy and hatred is transformed through a conversion experience (“But I was thinking too, as Troy winked at me and raised his sign: “We’re not alike!’ And that was what sickened me, because I wasn’t sure.” p238) and a long, ascetic commitment (“But to be a keeper of a solemn, secret vow is no easier that it sounds.” p259)to become a profound, genuinely spiritual friendship (“Though I remembered a time when it seemed to me I would gladly have died even to touch the back of her hand, now I was not disturbed” p349).

Wendell Berry conveys the depth and majesty of this friendship through those beautiful scenes where Jayber and Mattie walk together through the Nest Egg like the First Man and Woman in the Garden of Paradise:
We walked and looked about, or stood and looked. Sometimes, less often, we would sit down. We did not often speak. The place spoke for us and was a kind of speech. We spoke to each other in the things we saw. As we went along, ways would open before us, alleys and aisles and winding paths…We saw warblers, wood ducks, thrushes, deer. Around us always were the passing graces of moving air, lights and shadows, bird flight, songs, calls, drummings. Each of us knew what the other saw and heard. There was no need to ask, no need to say. (p349)

And, in fact, it is this relationship that redeems Jayber’s entire life and the lives of many, many others in the Port William membership:
It seemed to me that because of my vow, a possibility—of faith, of faithfulness—that I could no longer live without had begun leaking into the world. (p259)

The day would come…when I would be, in the small ways that were possible, [Troy’s] friend…I would listen to him and talk to him, ignoring his self-pity and his lapses into grandeur and meaness, giving him a good welcome and a pat on the shoulder, because I wanted to. For finally he was redeemed, in my eyes, by Maggie’s long-abiding love for him, as I myself had been by my love for her. (p361)

What we gradually come to realize is that this strange relationship actually contains within it the paradigm for all our relationships. Thus, if we can learn to do what Jayber did, if we can learn how to live for someone else and persevere in that commitment, then we will actually begin to see that other person the way they are meant to be seen, and then we will eventually begin to see all people they way they are meant to be seen—the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit see them. This is how Wendell Berry puts it:
But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. It is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier ... It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity…And then I saw something that a normal life with a normal marriage might never have allowed me to see.I saw that Mattie ... was a living soul and could be loved forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. (p249)

So the central irony of the novel is also its brightest truth: this quirky and eccentric ‘marriage’ reveals the pattern for all our relationships.

But as Orthodox Christians, we also must come to grips with the fact that, Jayber’s ‘marriage’ isn’t as strange as it might have appeared to the rest of the Port William membership, because, in the Church, we have a long history of alternative relationships. In fact, what Jayber stumbled on through a romantic attraction is what we have specifically been given in and through the life of the Church. This network of relationships parallels those that we have through history and blood lines, but this network of relationships is also an expression of our life in the Kingdom. For example, in the first three gospels, Christ Jesus specifically tells the apostles that, in the kingdom, they will receive new brothers, sisters, parents, children, and spouses (St Matt 19.23-30; St Mark 10.23-27; St Luke 18.24-27).

In addition, when our Lord and Master is told that His mother and brothers are waiting to see Him, He responds by saying that whoever does the will of His Father is His mother and brother and sister (St Matt 12.46-50; St Mark 3.31-35; St Luke 8.19-21). In St John’s Gospel, when our Lord and Master is hanging on the cross, He tells the Evangelist and the Most Holy Theotokos that they are now mother and son (19.25-27)—and the Holy Fathers understand that passage to mean that we are all now children of the Mother of God. We also find references to these alternative relationship systems in the epistles: In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul tells the Christians there that he “became [their] father in Christ Jesus through the gospel, and, in his letter to the Galatians, he writes to his “little children” that he is “in travail until Christ be formed” in them (4.19). St John frequently uses the phrase “little children”; St James and St Paul both use the term “brethren”, and St Peter uses the word, “beloved”.

In 21st century America, talking about alternative relationship systems almost immediately brings to mind cultic organizations and their methods, because one of the classic signs of a cult is the insistence that members sever all ties with biological family and regard the members of the organization as their ‘true’ family. But that is not what we are talking about. What we find in Holy Scripture—and what we see in the ‘marriage’ of Jayber and Mattie—is not the rejection of history and biology, but their transformation. Thus, if our family relationships are healthy and holy, then, through the Church, we will be able to broaden that network of relationships, and our family will actually expand. On the other hand, if our family relationships are dysfunctional and diseased, then, through the Church, we will be able to supplement those relationships and get them healed. But in both cases, we end up with additional fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and, yes, spouses (See Note A). So the alternative relationships that we have in the Church are not intended to compete with or replace the relationships that we have with our biological families; these alternative relationships should transcend the relationships we have with our relatives and transform those relationships by drawing them into the Kingdom and grounding them in the divine community of the Most Holy Trinity.

But the problem is that we do not take these alternative relationships seriously. Most American Christians regard the language that Holy Scripture uses to describe these relationships as figurative or metaphorical, and that is understandable. After all, unlike the Amish and the residents of Port William, most American Christians no longer inherit a way of life that involves any sort of community, so they tend to regard their relationships even with their biological family as subject to all sorts of redefinition and reconfiguration. Consequently, it’s easy to see why they would regard biblical terms such as father and brothers as mere imagery. However, in Holy Orthodoxy, even though we have inherited a specific way of life in the Church, we often trivialize that inheritance. Thus, in a great many parishes, being a godmother simply means buying a candle and standing next to someone during a ceremony; being a brother just means going out for a beer every once in a while and sharing lots of back-slapping hugs; having a sister merely means an additional friend for shopping or gossip; having a spiritual father means little more than knowing someone who can dispense you from the Friday fast if there is a party you want to attend. But when we reduce the way of life we have inherited in the Church to a social system, then we lose sight of what fellowship is actually all about, and those relationships that were meant to be redeeming and transforming become, at best, empty traditions, and, at worst, expressions of various exotic ethnic cultures.

Ultimately, fellowship is what Jayber did and what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do—it is living for the sake of others. And that is why we need to invest ourselves in these Kingdom relationships. Because this network of alternative relationships has been given to us so that we can learn how to do what Jayber did and what the Most Holy Trinity does, so that we can learn all ten of the behaviors that the apostles mention in their letters. Also, when we talk about living for others, we are immediately reminded of the fact that all this has ramifications which go beyond our own needs and our own lives. Because if we don’t know what true fellowship is, if we don’t see our participation in this community as the way we share in the very fellowship of the Most Holy Trinity, and if we don’t have a commitment to this community that reflects that perspective, then we won’t be able to practice genuine hospitality—because, ultimately, the only thing we will have to share with others is the life of an organization or the life of an ethnic enclave.

So how to go about all this? I have two practical suggestions, and I’m hoping that you will have more. First of all, I think we need to continue to emphasize the catechumen process because that is how people are first introduced into this alternative network of relationships: we extend hospitality to them over several months, and then they choose or they are given a godparent, and that relationship should provide them with their first opportunity for participating in the genuine fellowship of our community. Hopefully, by that time, they have had fun hanging out at coffee hour, and they have been blessed by participating in the services, and they have met lots of people, and they have attended some classes and visited with the priest, but starting out with a godparent should represent a new level of commitment and intimacy. And the decision to become a godparent should be approached in the same way we would approach an adoption—with the utmost seriousness and with the understanding that this is a relationship that we undertake for the sake of someone else.

The second suggestion I have takes us back to the opening scripture passage for this session, Genesis 18, and the iconographic representation of that passage. As I have noted, when we view the icon, we become the fourth person at the table; this represents, first and foremost, our partaking of the Holy Eucharist, our ultimate participation in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. But, as social scientists frequently observe, close families are the families that eat together frequently. So, when we move into our new facility, we are going to start having community meals on a regular basis. Some of these meals will be on the Sundays which are feast days; some of these meals will simply be on regular Sundays; the will average out to be about once a month. But this will not merely be an expanded version of coffee hour. During coffee hour, we go through a serving line and get our food and then we scatter all over the property. At our community meals, the food will be placed on the tables; we will sing the troparia for the day and bless the food; we will all sit down and eat together; when we are done, we will sing the closing blessing together. So, while it will be a personal and relaxed and fun time, it will also be something of a formal meal. And to emphasize that formal aspect, we are going to use real plates and silverware and glasses and napkins since paper products communicate impermanence and also have unfortunate consequences for the environment. Finally, to highlight that this is a community meal, we will have prayer request cards on the tables, and, at the end of the meal, we will gather up those cards and briefly review them as a parish. We will then take those requests and use them in the prayer list that we read through at the liturgy and the daily services and that we also send out to the parish via email.

However, neither of these suggestions should be understood as means by which we can build community. As we have pointed out time and again, we already have access to the divine community of the Most Holy Trinity; continuing to emphasize the catechumen process and starting these meals will only provide us with further opportunities to invest ourselves in the life that has been handed down to us in the Church and through the network of relationships that we have in this parish community.

Thank you again for your participation in this seminar. I ask that you continue to pray for our work together. Next week, we will continue our discussion of fellowship as we consider our Care for the Dead.

Note A: Some people will be creeped out by the idea that we might somehow have alternative spouses in the Church. But what we are talking about here is what already happens in our parish: A single mom needs help moving, and the men of the parish pitch in to get that done; the men of our community are acting, in that instance, as husbands; they are filling in for the man that single mother does not have. So this does not involve anything that is sexually inappropriate. And it’s not just something that happens in connection with folks who are divorced or widowed, because the men of our community have been known to take up the slack for a husband who is less than responsible, and the women of our community often provide support for a wife who is overwhelmed.

fr. aidan

September 26, 2009


Tonight we are going to be talking about authority. In the introduction to this seminar, we defined authority as ‘knowing who’s in charge and what that means and how that works’, and, for Orthodox Christians, there’s simply no question about who’s in charge—that would be Christ Jesus. In fact, our Lord and Master spells that out in tonight’s first scripture passage: just before His ascension, Christ Jesus tell the apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” (St Matt 28.18). So, the head of each and every parish community is none other than Christ Jesus Himself, but we still need to consider what that means and how that works.

What that means is expressed in the next three scripture passages; each of those texts is from one of St Paul’s epistles, and, in each of them, the apostle describes the nature of our Lord and Master’s authority. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul writes:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (2.5-11)

The authority of our Lord and Master is thus sourced not in power and prestige, position and privilege, but in humility and obedience and a willingness to suffer. And it’s important to notice, that this authority, this “mind”, this way of life, belongs to all of us; it is ours “in Christ Jesus”. So, when we talk about authority, we’re not just talking about something that is given to leaders and wielded by leaders; we’re talking about something that is given to the entire community and is consequently the responsibility of everyone in the community.

This perspective finds dramatic expression in the next two passages from Second Corinthians. In these texts, St Paul is defending his work as an apostle, and what he emphasizes more than anything else is his voluntary abasement and his willingness to suffer “for all the churches” (11.28):

... as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger ... (6.4-5)

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a day and a night I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.(11.24-27)

But, in these passages, St Paul is doing more than just defending his apostolic calling; he is also showing the Corinthian Christians, and each one of us, the true nature of authority; he is showing the Corinthian Christians, and each one of us, that we participate in the authority of Christ Jesus to the extent that we are willing to share in the humility and the suffering of our Lord and Master. So, when St Paul models this kind of authority, when he specifically calls on the Corinthians, and each one of us, to “be imitators of [him] as [he] is of Christ” (11.1), he is demonstrating how we should take responsibility for the authority that is ours “in Christ Jesus”; he is calling on us to embrace the humility and the suffering of our Lord and Master.

And what that meant for the Christians in Corinth is what it means for most of us; I doubt any of us will ever be shipwrecked; chances are slim that any of us will ever be beaten with rods; however, we can share in the authority of Christ Jesus through obedience. In our society, authority and obedience are usually set in opposition to each other—if you are obedient, that is typically understood to mean that you just don’t have any authority. However, that is not the “mind that is [ours] in Christ Jesus”. Christ Jesus was given all authority “in heaven and on earth” precisely because He was obedient; therefore, if we want to share His authority, then we must also learn how to be obedient. And that requires humility; that requires suffering; that requires us to lay aside our own perspectives and preferences and plans.

St Paul talks specifically about obedience in the next two scripture passages: he tells the Thessalonians to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess 5.12); he tells the readers of Hebrews to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (13.17). Now in the Church, there is no question as to who our leaders are; there is no question about who is ‘over us in the Lord’. There is a specific and detailed hierarchy of leadership that goes all the way back to the apostles, and that hierarchy begins with the bishops and includes the priests and the deacons and the lesser clerical orders. However, authority is not limited to the Church’s hierarchy of leadership. In Orthodox America, that is often the way things work, but that is clericalism; that is a tragic distortion of what we find in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Thus, authority does not belong solely to the clergy; obedience is not simply the role of the laity. Rather, Christ Jesus gives His authority to the entire Church, both clergy and laity, and we access that authority together, but only to the extent that we are willing to follow His example of humility and obedience and suffering.

But rather than opposing clericalism with an authentic understanding of how authority works in the Church, what most American Orthodox have tried to do is oppose clericalism with the values and procedures of the democratic process. But it doesn’t do any good at all to replace privilege and position and power with petitions and elections and open assemblies. We may feel that the democratic process is more equitable; we may feel more comfortable with that way of doing things; however, approaching authority as an expression of politics is only a very slight improvement over clericalism, and, furthermore, the democratic process simply has no foundation in Holy Scripture or Holy Tradition. That doesn’t make democracy somehow evil or illegitimate, but it does mean that it is not essential to the life of the Church.

Ironically, what this means on a practical level is that Orthodox Christians are often just as confused about authority as American Christians. And American Christians are, indeed, confused when it comes to this subject. Since Protestants no longer have a hierarchy of leadership that is organically linked to the apostles, most Protestant congregations and denominations work with one of two models for authority: either there is a charismatic kind of clericalism that focuses on one individual who is talented and compelling and, therefore, powerful, or, there is a quasi-corporate model with committees and boards who do their work in accordance with the guidelines contained in a foundational document such as a constitution. Roman Catholics have maintained a hierarchical leadership that can be traced back to the apostles, but that has not provided American Catholics with any more clarity when it comes to the subject of authority.

Fifty years ago, American Roman Catholicism was essentially a vast exercise in clericalism, and, while that has changed significantly, the changes have largely been in the direction of the Protestant quasi-corporate model. At several points in this seminar, we have referred to a radical element in contemporary Protestantism that is working hard to explore what community should look like in 21st century America, but when I have looked at the literature this small movement has produced, either there is no discussion of authority at all beyond a rejection of the examples that are currently available in American Christianity, or there are vague references to ‘getting together to talk about things’ along with similarly vague references to ‘the process of discernment’.

That’s the big picture when it comes to authority in American Christianity and American Orthodoxy—lots of confusion, very few answers. So what does the local Orthodox picture look like? What are individual Orthodox Christians and particular parishes doing when it comes to the issue of authority? The only evidence that I have to offer on this subject is anecdotal, but I have been listening carefully and watching intently for the past twelve years, and the unfortunate generalization that I have to make concerning parishes is that most communities simply reflect the broader tensions over hierarchy and democracy that are at work within American Orthodoxy: you’ve got a priest, and you’ve got a parish council, and either there is out-right conflict or there is an uneasy, working relationship, or the priest and the council simply ignore each other. I only know of a few communities where the priest and the parish council have a close, working relationship. As to individual Orthodox Christians, I think most receive guidance from a number of sources: friends within the parish, godparents, homilies or classes, the ‘overheard’, collective wisdom of the community, their own prayers, and direct conversations with their spiritual father. And this is how it should be. Nevertheless, I think most Orthodox Christians long for more direct guidance from the Most Holy Trinity; they want to experience the personal authority of Christ Jesus at work in their lives. And this desire often finds expression in two ways: through the search for a clairvoyant elder or eldress, and through the exploration of various procedures for what is called discernment.

The search for an elder or eldress is the more traditional route. And there are, in fact, in the Church, holy men and women who can look into the heart of another person and talk to that person about what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit want to do in his or her life. Most of these people are in monasteries, and I think that many people visit monasteries with the hope of finding one of these holy men and women. Occasionally, people will go to great lengths to meet a clairvoyant elder or eldress and will either re-locate to be close to that person or will do a lot of traveling in order to receive guidance from that person on a regular basis. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but the implication that often accompanies this sort of activity is that those people who stay in their parish communities and don’t seek out these holy men and women are not going to really be able to experience the personal authority of our Lord and Master. The suggestion is that people who stay in their parish communities simply have to make do with guidance that is second-hand or with guidance that is generally available and generally applicable to just about everyone.

However, a genuine parish community should be able to directly convey the authority of Christ Jesus in the very same way that a clairvoyant elder or eldress communicates that authority. To suggest otherwise is to deny that the Church is, in fact, the Body of our Lord and Master. Many parishes may not be living up to their potential; many parishes may be less than faithful to their calling; nevertheless, in an authentic parish community, the members should have access to the personal authority of Christ Jesus because that community is the Body of Christ; it is the living presence of the Risen Lord.

Let’s think for a moment about how that might work. We are all familiar with the stories of people who go to see a holy man or woman, and that man or woman reveals the innermost truth about that visitor. I would submit that the same thing happens on a regular basis in a healthy community. Let’s say someone shows up in a parish community where a high value is placed on direct and honest communication. However, this new person has a long history of hiding behind a carefully constructed façade, a front which gives the impression that their life is essentially problem-free. Eventually, the members of the parish will realize that this new person is not who they claim to be, and, while the parishioners will continue to be polite and caring and kind, the new person will also, sooner or later, figure out that everyone has seen through the façade, and, at that point, the new person will either quietly drop out or loudly act out, depending on their particular personality. Nevertheless, if that new person continues in the community, they will also have to change, and that change will be in response to the personal authority of Christ Jesus, as that authority is expressed in and through the parish. That process of change will, most likely, be gradual, as the new person gradually realizes that their façade is unnecessary and that communicating directly and honestly with others is not as complicated nor as frightening as they thought. There will also probably be some dramatic and even confrontational moments in that process through, say, the Mystery of Holy Confession or through some revealing and insightful interactions with friends. But the sum total of the entire process is the very same thing that our hypothetical new person would have received from a clairvoyant elder or eldress—the experience of the authority of our Lord and Master.

So how does a parish become the sort of community where that kind of encounter can take place? A parish becomes holy in the same way that a man or a woman becomes holy; a community participates in the authority of Christ Jesus in the same way that an elder or eldress participate in that authority—through humility and suffering, through obedience. Now this does not mean that parishes must become monasteries, but it does mean that clergymen and other leaders have a responsibility to model this kind of life in a ways that are very specific and very intentional, and it does mean that all parishioners are called to be humble and obedient and to embrace suffering according to their measure, as their situations and circumstances will allow. And once all that has begun, the rest just happens—the authority of our Lord and Master begins to be experienced in the community in a way that is positively organic.

But a few minutes ago, we also said that, in their desire to access the authority of Christ Jesus, some Orthodox are starting to look into the process of discernment. This process is something that Roman Catholics began developing during the Renaissance, and it is a procedure whereby individuals or entire communities can determine how the Most Holy Trinity is at work in a particular situation. In the last thirty years, this process has become popular among Protestants, and, of course, if there is something that both Protestants and Roman Catholics are using, then, sooner or later, there are some Orthodox who feel compelled to also give it a try. However, it is important to understand that discernment is, in fact, a process; there are specific steps to be followed; there are procedures to be observed, and these steps and procedures are now often combined with insights gleaned from the social sciences. But, ultimately, what makes discernment so appealing is the fact that it is a technology, a technology which, if used properly, claims to provide an individual or a community with access to the authority of our Lord and Master.

Of course, we should be as suspicious of spiritual technology as Wendell Berry is of agricultural technology. In Jayber Crow, it is, ironically, agricultural technology which ruins the local agriculture, and the character who buys whole-heartedly into this technology is, not surprisingly, Troy Chatham:

Troy would answer [his critics] by talking about man-hours, efficiency, economy of scale, and volume. He was attending meetings, listening to experts, and he had their language. (p 278)

What attracts Troy to the technology of farming is the illusion of control, and that desire for control is just an extension of his pride. All of this is in direct contrast to the approach that Athey Keith takes to his work. The Keith Farm flourished because Athey was humble enough to know his own limitations, because he was obedient to the natural cycles of the land, and because he was willing to suffer the hard, slow, relentless pace of the work:

A day, to Athey, was measured by daylight and by the endurance of living bodies; it was divided in two by dinner-time; it ended at supper time. Athey work at a gait that in his time some had found to be too swift, but which was now revealed as patient. (p 186)

Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a ‘landowner’. He was the farm’s farmer, but also it’s creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter. (p 182)

And because of Athey, because of his humble, obedient leadership, because of his willingness to suffer, the farm simply did what farms do:

Its patterns and cycles were virtually the farm’s own understanding of what it was doing, of what it could do without diminishment. This order was not unintelligent or rigid. It tightened and slackened, shifted and changed in response to the markets and the weather…Its cycles of cropping and grazing, thought and work, were articulations of its wish to cohere and to last. The farm, so to speak,desired all of its lives to flourish. (p 182)

Troy’s agricultural technology was designed to do was enhance and exploit these natural cycles and patterns, but, ultimately, technology could not control the farm’s instinctive life; it could only destroy it.

And there is a direct application here to the way a parish community should function. As the Body of Christ, each parish has access to the authority of our Lord and Master just by virtue of its very existence. And, as we have already seen, we participate in that authority by acquiring the mind that is ours in Christ Jesus, by imitating His humility and obedience, by joining Him in His suffering. But there is no need to organize or structure that participation; in fact, if we try to turn that participation into a process or a procedure then that means we are looking for control, it means we are looking to replace the authority of Christ Jesus with our own authority. So, rather than apply a technological solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, all we have to do is what genuine communities have always done--we should strive after humility and seek to be obedient and embrace the suffering that comes our way. Then our parish will just do what parishes naturally do, and we will know what Christ Jesus is doing among us and how He wants us to share in His work, and that will not require any technology. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, that knowledge will simply be part of our community’s own understanding of what it is doing.

A good example of this sort of thing is the way our parish council functions. When the members of the council find themselves at odds—either through a heated discussion or a surprisingly close vote—or when the members just can’t figure out what to do about a particular situation or problem, what the council usually does is postpone the whole matter until the next meeting. But this is done with the understanding that everyone will be praying and thinking and talking about the issue. So, in the weeks between the meetings, the members of the council attend the divine services, they keep the fasting days, they stay up with their giving, they say their prayers and read the Holy Scriptures, they make their confession, they exchange a few emails on the subject at hand, and they talk about it a couple of times during coffee hour. And the following month, when the council convenes, a solution or a strategy simply presents itself, and everyone can see that it is clearly the best approach to take. That is the natural way that we experience the authority of Christ Jesus—through the organic life of the community.

But we want that to be true for our entire community, and not just for the parish council. The council plays a key part in helping our entire community to experience the authority of our Lord and Master since the members of the council are leaders in our parish, but the particular responsibility for this work falls on the clergy: they must model a life of humility and obedience and a willingness to suffer. Practically speaking, that means they must be the first to show up for events and among the last to leave; that means they must fast more fervently and give more generously and spend more time in prayer and spiritual reading than other people in our community; that means that they should be willing to do just about anything for the sake of our parish—yard work, teaching Church School, taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, shopping for supplies. Of course, ultimately, we want everyone in our parish to do these sorts of things. However, the more our clergymen invest themselves in this way of life, the more the other members of our parish will be moved to follow their example, and the more our community will be able to naturally access the authority of Christ Jesus.

This is why our parish council does an annual priest evaluation. As far as I have been able to tell, this exercise may actually be unique to our community. The parish council has put together a job description which is a combination of material that is contained in the Priest’s Handbook that is published by our archdiocese and material that reflects the unique needs and expectations of our parish, and, every fall, they go through this job description with me. But this exercise is not designed to be some sort of check on the authority of the priest; it is designed to encourage the priest to model the kind of life which will enable our entire community to acquire the mind that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Another important thing we can do to symbolize and thus encourage all this is to begin offering the Service for the Washing of Feet on Great and Holy Thursday. This service commemorates the episode in St John’s Gospel where Christ Jesus washes the feet of the apostles; the service is done in connection with the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, but the priest carries a reminder of this with him throughout the year as part of his vestments, because the square of cloth that hangs at his side is a symbol of the towel that our Lord and Master used to wash his disciples’ feet. Restoring this important service to its proper place will renew that symbolism and help our clergy model the life to which we have all been called.

But we also need to work constantly to help the members of our community understand that the spiritual disciplines are not designed to simply enhance our own personal relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Rather, when we fast, pray, give, serve, and study, those activities also help everyone in our parish because we are creating the kind of community where each and every one of us have access to the mind which is ours in Christ Jesus; we are building the kind of parish where each and every one of us has access to the personal authority of our Lord and Master.

We’ve covered a lot of material already tonight, but there are still two passages of Holy Scripture that we haven’t considered: Romans, chapter 13, and 1 Peter 2.13-17. Both of those texts speak about how our community should interact with secular authorities, and what is most striking about those passages is that both St Paul and St Peter understand the secular authorities to also be participants in the authority of Christ Jesus: We are to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (1 Pet 2.13; Rom 13.1). Of course, the secular authorities that St Paul and St Peter are urging us to respect are those who worked for the Roman Empire, and it is that very same empire which would eventually claim the lives of both apostles—so adolescent, oppositional radicalism and uncritical, devout patriotism are both excluded. Thus, the modern, all-encompassing nation-state is not an instrument of the anti-Christ, but neither is it going to bring about the Kingdom of God. So we should always obey the law, short of sin; we should be respectful in all our dealings with the secular authorities; and, if we are somehow required to sin, then we should humbly refuse and be willing to suffer the consequences, demonstrating our obedience to the One to Whom all authority, both in heaven and on earth, has been given.

fr. aidan