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

September 19, 2009


Tonight we are going to be talking about what is, perhaps, the fundamental dimension of community; tonight we are going to be talking about stability. In our first session together, we defined stability as simply staying put and working things out where we are; we also noted that it is the basic condition for growth in the spiritual life. And I want to begin our discussion of tonight’s scripture passages by building on those insights.

Two of the texts we looked at are parables: St Matt 13.1-30 is the parable of the sower, one of the central stories in St Matthew’s gospel; St Luke 13.6-9 is the lesser known parable of the fig tree. However, what’s significant about both of these stories is the fact that they compare spiritual growth to the organic growth of plants—and, of course, plants have to be planted; they have to stay in the ground in order to mature and produce fruit. That may seem like a pretty dull insight, but it’s one that is often overlooked or completely neglected in modern American Christianity. In the gospel parables, Christ Jesus compares life in the kingdom to many, many things—a net full of fish, treasure in a field, an especially valuable pearl, a misplaced coin, a mustard seed, a shepherd searching for his sheep, a repentant son returning home. Some of those stories involve traveling, but the image of pilgrimage or journeying is not central to any of the parables. And that’s not an accident; our Lord and Master simply assumes that we are going to stay put and stay together because spiritual growth just can’t happen any other way.

But while the image of the pilgrimage or journey is not at all prominent in the Holy Gospels, it is very, very popular in contemporary American spirituality. People frequently speak about their own personal spiritual journey, and Christians have also adopted this same language—sometimes this represents a conscious attempt to reach out to spiritual seekers (for example, there is a congregation here in Cedar Park that is known simply as The Journey); sometimes it’s just unconscious cultural baggage. However, American Christians do move around a great deal, both physically and spiritually. We all know that we live in a very transient society, and, for several decades now, we’ve known that the average pastor stays in the same parish for a bit over two years (that’s the average, mind you), but, in a recent Pew Forum Survey, we also learned that over half of all American Christians currently belong to another denomination than the one in which they were raised.

Of course, Orthodox Christians are part of this mix as well. Orthodox clergy tend to stay in parishes longer than their Protestant or Roman Catholic counterparts, and that’s a good thing; however, it is also true that most children who are raised in the Church either end up in other Christian groups or they end up with little or no connection with Holy Orthodoxy. Even converts tend to be fairly restless: I’m not aware of any data on this subject, but anecdotal evidence suggests that people who are received into the Church from other Christian communions often have a hard time staying in one place; they are often on the look-out for just the right parish or just the right priest, and they typically refer to that quest as their journey.

Now, to the casual observer, there often appears to be some biblical warrant for this sort of language, and there appear to be some traditional models for this perspective. Certainly, many contemporary writers use this material for all that its worth. For example, folks who write and speak on the subject of spirituality often refer to the wilderness sojourning of the people of Israel or to the journeys of Celtic monks like St Brendan the Navigator, and the message is that the life of faith requires risk and uncertainty and the ability to let go of old and settled ways in order to launch out into the unknown future to which the Most Holy Trinity is calling us. However, all of this represents a modern misreading and misuse of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. After all, the only reason the people of Israel were out in the wilderness in the first place is because they disobeyed the Most Holy Trinity, and the point of that sojourning was not the journey but the eventual entrance into the Promised Land. Likewise, the pilgrimages undertaken by men such as St Brendan were either evangelistic in nature or they concluded with the travelers returning home in order to inspire their companions to renewed fervor in the spiritual life. Thus, neither in Holy Scripture nor in Holy Tradition are journeys regarded as especially valuable exercises; they might be necessary and even beneficial, but the necessity and the benefit is always a reflection of the destination, and open-ended wandering is never understood to be anything but an exception to a regular, normal, stable life.

So we are back to what we find in the parables of Christ Jesus: a healthy spiritual life, a life that is lived out in the kingdom, requires stability. We have to stay in the same place; we have to deal with the same people. And this is precisely what we find our Lord and Master doing. In St Matthew’s gospel, St Joseph and the Mother of God take the infant Christ to Egypt in order to escape King Herod, but, in 2.19-23 we read that

When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he learned that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Nazareth is where Christ Jesus lives until He begins His public ministry; in fact, in one of the passages that we read from St Luke’s gospel (2.39-40), the Evangelist refers to Nazareth as the Holy Family’s city. So our Lord and Master had a home town. And, in the passage quoted above, St Matthew sees that specific location as part of the Most Holy Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world. Now, it is true that Christ Jesus later moves His base of operations to Capernaum, but that city is less than thirty miles from Nazareth, and that shift is also understood to be part of the providential workings of the Most Holy Trinity:

Now when He heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled…(4.12-14)

During the three years of His public ministry, Christ Jesus moved around Galilee quite a bit, and He also made several trips to Jerusalem, but most of His life was not spent as an itinerant rabbi; most of His life was spent in one specific city. And it’s not as if our Lord and Master didn’t have options when it came time to begin His ministry. In fact, at one point in St John’s Gospel, His enemies speculate as to whether He might leave Palestine and begin working with the Jews of the Dispersion at Alexandria or Antioch or Rome (7.35). Nevertheless, Christ Jesus spent His entire life in an area that would fit nicely between Dallas and Austin.

We Americans tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the fact that Christ Jesus led a very transient existence during the last three years of His life, but that overlooks the almost three decades of stability which were the foundation for that work. Also, we often forget that our Lord and Master spent all of His life with a relatively small group of people. The Holy Gospels speak of vast crowds and first-time encounters with all sorts of folks, but in the background of all this activity are the people who were truly committed to Christ Jesus, and a surprising number of these were His relatives: four of the Twelve were His cousins (St John and St James, the sons of Zebedee, St Matthew, and St James, son of Alpheus), and one of the Twelve may have been His half-brother, St Jude; St Cleopas was His uncle and one of the Seventy; St Cleopas’ son, St Simeon, was also one of the Seventy, and a half-brother of Christ Jesus, St Joseph or Justus, was also one of the Seventy; in addition, St Mary, the wife of Cleopas, and, of course, the Most Holy Theotokos actively supported our Lord and Master in His work. So the stability that Christ Jesus models for us not only operates on the level of geography, it should also be operative in our relationships.

Of course, the majority of the New Testament was written by one of the great religious travelers of all time, the apostle Paul, but it’s easy to forget that his letters were written to specific communities in specific places. Also, he saw his work as an extraordinary calling; in fact, when he outlines the norm for ministry in his letters to St Timothy and St Titus, itinerancy is simply not part of the picture. And this is the picture that we receive from the earliest descriptions of church life in works such as the Didache: stability is the assumed norm, and very specific instructions are given for dealing with wandering teachers or prophets in order to make sure that they don’t disrupt the community. But what is probably most surprising to modern sensibilities is the fact that a community’s or a saint’s location in a particular place is understood to be part of the Most Holy Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world. We are perhaps accustomed to seeing this in the Holy Gospels in connection with the life of Christ Jesus, but the same perspective is applied to the life of faithful men and women throughout history—geography matters. Thus, as Wendell Berry has written in one of his poems, “there are no unsacred places.” To be sure, the Church early on understood and emphasized the unique status of those sites which our Lord and Master frequented during His earthly life, but she has also always made it clear that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are at work everywhere and in all places. St Jerome had this to say on the subject:

...the spots that witnessed the crucifixion and the resurrection profit only those who bear their crosses, who day by day rise again with Christ…access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem ...

And, since I’m writing this on my Name’s Day, I’ll quote a passage from a hymn for St Aidan of Lindisfarne in order to further illustrate this principle:

O Lindisfarne, thou Holy Isle, washed everlastingly by the waves of the sea, as thou didst behold the spiritual struggles and feats of the holy hierarch Aidan, thy very stones bear witness to the glory he hath won for Christ. Wherefore, as thou art exalted above the tides, raise us up to praise Him.

So when the Church refers to St Gregory Nazianzen or St Hilda of Whitby, we need to understand that this link between a particular person and a particular place is not just an ancient catalogue technique; it’s a profound theological statement about the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are at work in this world—not in a general, vague, and abstract way, but in specific places and with specific people.

The great distance that exists between us and this perspective can be easily summed up in the fact that we simply can’t imagine someone from our parish becoming St Paula of Cedar Park. It just sounds silly; it just makes us laugh; and what we find incongruous, and, therefore, humorous about that idea is the suggestion that Cedar Park might actually produce a holy person and that Cedar Park might thus be revealed to be a holy place. But, in this case, we are confusing the world’s standards with the standards of the Kingdom. In the eyes of the world, Cedar Park is a really, really dumpy place; it’s a suburb that only exists because of it’s close proximity to the much more exciting and much more hip city of Austin. But from the perspective of the Kingdom, Cedar Park is just as important and just as capable of nurturing saints as Optina or Athos or the Thebaid. So perhaps one key to stability is the realization that the place where we are right now is at the very heart of the Most Holy Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world.

But when it comes to stability, we not only have to be convinced that this particular location is key to what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing, but we also need to understand that this specific group of people is essential to that work. Just as the world only pays attention to important places, so the world only respects those individuals who can draw a crowd. In fact, nothing so discredits a leader as the observation that most of his or her followers are relatives or close friends. According to this criterion, our Lord and Master would not merit any serious attention from our culture; nevertheless, He was content to invest Himself in a small, core group of followers that included a number of family members. So perhaps another key to stability is the realization that what legitimizes community is not an ever-expanding number of relationships; what will make our community an authentic expression of life in the Kingdom is the degree to which we are willing to invest ourselves in the relationships that we already have.

This dual investment in a particular place and a particular group of people is what enabled Jayber Crow to finally forgive Troy Chatham. We mentioned this last week, but it’s a wonderful example of the kind of spiritual work that can only take place through stability: Jayber’s forty year struggle to overcome his hatred of Troy is a powerful dramatization of what Christ Jesus means when He tells St Peter that we are to forgive seventy times seven, but it would never have happened if Jayber had not stayed in Port William and in close contact with Troy. Of course, Wendell Berry also provides us with a character who acts in direct contrast to Jayber, and that character is Cecelia Overhold. After years of wishing she were somewhere more important, after years of wishing she were with different people, Cecelia finally makes it to California only to be placed in a nursing home by her nephew, and, in Jayber’s words, she dies “forsaken”. Cecelia is never at peace with herself or her husband or the people of Port William because she never embraces stability; she never just accepts where she is or the relationships that she has.

Of course, Jayber is, in a very real sense, ‘from’ Port William. And one of the most compelling scenes in early chapters of the novel occurs when he is attending classes in Lexington and gradually realizes that, apart from his connection to Port William and its people, he has no true identity:

That old life had come to be like a little painted picture at the bottom of a well, and the well was getting deeper. The picture that I had inside me was more real than anything outside, and yet it was getting ever smaller and farther away and hard to call back. That, I guess, is why I got so sad. I was not living my life. So far as I could see, I was going nowhere. And now, more and more, I seemed to have come from nowhere. Without a loved life to live, I was becoming more and more of a theoretical person…(p72-3)

But an equally compelling scene occurs towards the end of the novel as Jayber speaks of the community to which he now belongs and the identity that community has given him:
I am an old man now ... My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remember the Civil War. I have word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such a mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. (p352-3)

But none of us are actually ‘from’ Cedar Park, and our parish is less than twenty years old—so how can we hope to have the same sort of connection with this community that Jayber had with Port William? If we don’t have biological and historical ties to this place or these people, then what exactly does stability mean?

It means that we acknowledge the fact that our parish is less than twenty years old and that none of us are Cedar Park natives and that most of us are converts to Holy Orthodoxy, but that, nevertheless, we do not want to be “theoretical people”, so we have decided to stay put in this community and with this group of people. It means that whereas Port William has deep roots which enabled it to weather many seasons, our parish is a new planting, and it is therefore fragile and requires careful nurturing. It means that we should enjoy the irony of a group of nomadic Americans finally wanting to settle down, and we should cherish that humility since it can keep us from ever becoming proud or judgmental or legalistic. It means that we shouldn't try to second-guess the past and the choices we previously made. But what, specifically, does it mean to ‘stay put’? Wendell Berry’s novel gives us two helpful and concrete suggestions. One of the most important things that Jayber does when he returns to Port William is that he buys property; it happens without much fanfare and fairly quickly, but the purchase of the barber shop gives him a tangible connection to the town. However, later on in the novel, there is something else that Jayber does which is just as important as his decision to acquire property: he gives the Port William Zephyr to Clydie Greatlow. He intentionally gives up his ability to move around at will, and that forces him to deal with the Port William membership and not seek distractions elsewhere.

How does all that apply to our community? We should encourage people to buy property and settle down within close proximity to our parish. Of course, some folks are not financially able to do that; others are financially committed to locations that are quite a distance away. But there are still things that we can do to make our relationships with this parish more permanent: for example, most people in our community do not yet have cemetery plots, and there’s a nice little cemetery just down the road. A cemetery plot is something that everyone will one day need; it’s something that just about everyone can afford, and, even if they currently live a long way from the parish, it will still give them a concrete connection to this place and this group of people. We will talk more about this on Oct 7 when we consider how our community should care for the dead. But we should also encourage people to intentionally give up their prerogative to move around. People in our culture move for all sorts of reasons: jobs, schooling, climate, boredom, but a congregation or parish rarely factors into that decision making process, and, if it does, folks tend to regard that as more than a bit odd. But we need to question that perspective and encourage others to do so. After all, it actually makes more sense to decide where you will live based on what a parish can do for you than based on what a company can do for you: Is a company going to stick with you in all sorts of different economic climates? Is a company going to love you and accept you despite your personal shortcomings and failures? Is a company going to visit you in the hospital or provide you with marital counseling or pray for you after you’re dead?

But, of course, when we talk about encouraging people to buy property and encouraging people to give up their ability to re-locate, the key word there is ‘encourage’. After all, life in community must be feely chosen, and our stability must be an expression of that free choice. When stability is accompanied by legalism, the results are oppressive, cultish, and tragic. So how can we encourage people in a way that enhances their freedom? By teaching about stability in venues such as this; by modeling stability through our own choices. For example, many of our young couples are buying property close to the parish. Many people who live a considerable distance away are praying for the opportunity to move closer. On a personal note, this past spring, Cynthia and I went ahead and bought two plots in the Cedar Park Cemetery, about a mile down Park Street. As an Orthodox priest, I do not have control over where I will live; I cannot canonically refuse a new assignment if my bishop thinks that is best—though I can refuse to actively lobby for a new assignment, and that kind of activity is more of a factor in most re-assignments than most laypeople are aware and most clergymen would like to admit. But even if Cynthia and I end up in another parish, we will always have ties to St John’s because, once we have departed this life, we will be coming back here, and it will be up to the folks in this community to host our funerals and pray for us. And the more people in our community who are willing to make those sorts of choices, the more stable our parish will be. And the more stable our parish is, the more this place will be revealed as the heart of the Most Holy Trinity’s work on this planet. And the more this place is sanctified, the more holy we all will become.

fr. aidan

September 11, 2009

Jayber Crow

Tonight we are going to be discussing Wendell Berry’s book Jayber Crow, and I want to begin by talking about why we are even bothering with a novel in the first place. After all, if Holy Scripture is the record of the Most Holy Trinity’s revelation to us, then why waste time with what someone else has written—especially if it is a work of fiction?

We touched on the answer to this question at the end of last week’s session:
The reason we always begin these seminars with a novel is the same reason Christ Jesus told stories. Stories help us experience the truth in a way that engages not just our rational equipment but our whole person. The only way most of us have ever studied Holy Scripture is with a list of questions, but stories help us get at the same issues in a way that is more profound and more immediate.

I want to build on that with an extended quotation from Eugene Peterson’s study of spiritual writing, a work entitled Eat This Book. Rev. Peterson writes:
What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of…verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history ... bringing about legible, coherent writing that has continuities from generation to generation, a narrative with plot and characters and scenery.

Rev. Peterson continues:

The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. (p 101)

So rather than using the fortune cookie approach to Holy Scripture—looking up all the possible references to community in a concordance and then using those verses as an outline for our study (or, worse yet, going out and purchasing a series entitled Ten Principles for Building Community, a kit that comes complete with ice breakers and discussion questions)—what we are doing is immersing ourselves in the story of a particular community—the town of Port William. As we grow old with Jayber, as we listen to him look back across the years, we enter into his community, and since Jayber’s story has, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “continuities from generation to generation”, since his story is “a narrative with plot and characters and scenery”—in other words, since it works precisely the same way that the Bible does—once we are finished with this story then we are much better prepared to listen carefully to what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are saying to us, to our “actual communities of men and women with names in history”.

But, as I also said in our last session, it’s important that we understand that Jayber Crow is not an instruction manual; it is not a blueprint for community. The novel is, after all, an idealized depiction of rural life in Kentucky during the mid-20th century. Wendell Berry does a masterful job of describing the joys and hardships and the conflicts that were part of that life, but he also completely ignores other, very important issues. To pick just one example, racism is never really a factor in the book. There is an elderly African-American couple that appears briefly in the early chapters of the novel; there is a reference to an African-American man at the beginning of chapter eleven, and, finally, there is a memorable incident in chapter twenty where Athey Keith scolds Hiram Hench for making racist comments. However, during the mid-20th century, Kentucky was ground-zero for the Ku Klux Klan, and that organization is only mentioned once, briefly, as part of the background for an extended bit of humor in chapter twenty-one. Of course, all writers make choices, and Wendell Berry chose not to focus on racism. That doesn’t make Jayber Crow a badly written book; it certainly doesn’t make it an immoral book, but it does mean that, like all books, it has limitations.

And, for our purposes, those limitations are especially obvious when it comes to the subject of religion. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber has this to say about his spiritual life: “I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road” (p321). That is not at all an understatement, because, while Jayber lives in a community that is, in many ways, intensely interdependent, his relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is intensely individualistic. For example, during his time as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College, and, to some degree, throughout the entire novel, Jayber wrestles with how Holy Scripture is to be interpreted. The questions that he asks are profound, but, apart from a few conversations with the faculty at the college, he is content to simply mull the issues over in his mind and heart; in other words, it never occurs to him that the historic Church may have had already addressed those questions. And, while Wendell Berry’s description of religious life in Port William is a spot-on depiction of a typical rural Protestant parish in the middle decades of the last century—rotating pastors, absence of male leadership or even men in general, religion understood as a feminine undertaking—Jayber also has only a distant relationship with the flesh and blood congregation, as a congregation. He cleans their building; he rings their bell; he digs their graves; he dreams about the communion that they all share, but he never truly is a part of that parish. In fact, at the end of the novel, he admits that he feels “more religious” down by the river, “and yet every Sunday morning [he] walk[s] up there, over a cobble of quibbles” (p321).

So the Christianity that is available to Jayber is not the historic Faith of the Church. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal that we can learn from this character and from the community of Port William. What I want to do with the rest of this presentation is to briefly touch on the various dimensions of community that we will be talking about in the weeks ahead, and I want to demonstrate how this novel came help us think about those dimensions in some really compelling ways. We will, of course, be talking about the book throughout this entire seminar, but, tonight, I want to provide you with an over-view of some of the key issues and some of the most important passages.

Next Wednesday night, we will be talking about stability. Last week, we said that stability means staying put and working things out where you are; we said that it is the fundamental condition for growth in the spiritual life—both our own personal life and the life that we share. In fact, without stability, there are certain things which simply will not happen. For example, if Jayber had not spent his entire adult life in Port William in the close vicinity of Troy Chatham, one of the novel’s most powerful, concluding scenes would never have taken place:

So there he was, a man who had been given everything and did
not know it, who had lost it all and now knew it, and who was
boasting and grinning only to pretend for a few hours longer
that he did not know it…And there I was, a man losing what I
was never given, a man yet rich with love, a man whose knees
were weakening against gravity, who needed to go somewhere
and lie down. I stood facing that man I had hated for forty
years, and I did not hate him…If I could have done it, I would
have liked to pick him up like a child and carry him to some
place of safety and calm. (pp360-1)

Jayber could have packed up the Port William Zephyr and moved to Louisville, but he consciously chose to stay in his small town, and that choice of stability gave him the opportunity to do some profound and transforming spiritual work. In the same way, if we are willing to make the choice of staying put in this particular parish with this particular group of people, we will give ourselves and others the opportunity to do similar kinds of work. But if we only see this parish as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else, then we will never make any real spiritual progress, let alone do the sort of transforming work Jayber did.

On Wed, Sept 23, we will talk about authority. Authority means knowing who’s in charge and what that means and how that works. Jayber Crow provides us with both positive and negative models when it comes to authority. One of Jayber’s life-long fears has to do with “the man behind the desk”; it’s an image that arises from his experience at the Good Shepherd Orphanage, and it becomes incarnate in the polite and foreboding (and anonymous) state inspector that appears in Jayber’s shop at the end of the novel. Thus, contrived authority is always going to be impersonal (“He was—I believe he said—Mr. Mumble Something of the Forces of Health and Sanitation) unaccountable (He did not speak for himself but for a man behind a desk who spoke for a man behind another desk, who also did not speak for himself) and implacable (“If they don’t bother me, I surely won’t bother them” “I understand. But they are in the business of bothering you”). But the book also contains a powerfully positive model of authority in the character of Athey Keith. Athey has authority in Port William not only because he is a virtuous man, but also because he knows his place in the cosmos; he is respected because he respects the basic realities of life. This is clear in the way Jayber describes Athey’s approach to farming:

The law of the farm was in the balance between crops (including hay and pasture) and livestock. The farm would have no more livestock than it could carry without strain. no more land would be plowed for grain crops than could be fertilized with manure from the animals. No more grain would be grown than the animals could eat … This was a conserving principle; it strictly limited both the amount of land that would be plowed and the amount of supplies that would be bought. (p185).

The application to community life in our parish should be obvious: in order for authority to be wielded properly in our parish, it must be grounded in a larger, more comprehensive matrix of authority, and that matrix must be an organic, creative expression of scripture, tradition, spiritual experience, and personal direction. Authority that operates apart from that matrix is illegitimate and unhealthy.

On Wed, Sept 30 we will talk about hospitality and fellowship; it is how we welcome others into community and support them in the life of community. Jayber Crow contains many scenes of what we traditionally think of as hospitality and fellowship (for example, Jayber is part of an on-going game of rummy in Jasper Lathrop’s store throughout the Second World War, and he is welcomed into the family of Danny and Lyda Branch when his age begins to limit his ability to care for himself), but, essentially, hospitality and fellowship have to do with love, and there is no better example of love in this novel than Jayber’s vicarious marriage to Mattie: he becomes the man that Mattie needs in her life. All this is explained to us in the dialogue that Jayber has with himself as he is trudging home from the Riverwood Christmas Dance:

“So her need, then, you’re saying, is to have a faithful husband?”
“Yes, that must be what I’m saying.”
“Well, where is she going to get one?”
“Well, I don’t know. It seems a stupid question. She has already got a husband.”
“But is he not unfaithful?”
“Yes, he is unfaithful.”
“And she needs a faithful one.”
“Yes, she does.”…
“But where could—how could—she get one?”
“Well, if she is ever going to have one, I’m sure, of course,
it will have to be me.” (p242)

That is how love works in the community that we call the Church: we form new relationships, not to replace, but to supplement and support and, ultimately, redeem and transform the relationships that we have out in the world. Nurturing people into those relationships is what we call hospitality; living within those relationships is what we call fellowship.

On Wed, Oct 7, we will talk about Care for the Dead. After Jayber becomes the grave-digger for the congregation, a good deal of the novel takes place in and around the Port William cemetery. This plot development gives us a graphic feel for the passing of the generations, but it also demonstrates how a healthy community interacts with the departed. Jayber first discovers this when he has settled once again in Port William:

Another new thing happened to me after I came back to Port William was the feeling of loss. I began to live my losses … The place itself and all its conversation surrounded me with remindings. Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy and the Thripples and Put Woolfork … all the people of that early world I once thought would last forever, and then thought I had left forever—[they] were always coming back to my mind because of something I saw or heard … The grief that came to me then was nothing like the grief I had felt for myself alone, at the end of my stay in Lexington. This grief had something in it of generosity, some nearness to joy. In a strange way, it added to me what I had lost. (pp130-2)

As Orthodox Christians, we have something that many Christians no longer have because the Church provides us with a framework for interacting with the departed. We have unique liturgical responsibilities to and for the dead, but we must also find concrete, practical ways in which to ‘live our losses’; we must develop the relationship that we have with those of our community who have gone on before us; we must find ways to extend hospitality and fellowship into the next life.

On Wed, Oct 14, we will talk about the Economy of our community. We will talk about how we order our life together. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber describes how Mattie organized her home life:

Through all the time and troubles of her marriage to Troy, she held as well as she could to the old ways. She never let the economies of her household sink down. She was a woman of great energy, whose movements always had a certain force and momentum and resolution, as well as grace. She kept house, kept a flock of chickens, gardened, canned, and peserved food, made clothes, practiced every sort of ingenuity and frugality. (p341)

In discussing this particular dimension of community life, I am not suggesting that all the members of our parish should learn to be self-sufficient and live off the land. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but, what we do need to be thinking about—and what I want us to talk about on Oct 14th—is the typical trajectory of parish life in this country: 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. But is that truly the way we want to order our life together?

On Wed, Oct 21, we will talk about conflict. The novel is full of conflict, from the first chapter when Jayber talks about Fee Berlew, the “only man [he] ever had to (so to speak) throw out of [his] shop” (p7), to the on-going, antagonistic relationships that Jayber has with Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham. In fact, towards the end of the book, Jayber has this to say about his life in Port William:

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell—where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need most, where we see no hope and have no faith… (p355)

So this novel is not going to provide us with a blue-print for conflict resolution any more than it is going to turn out to be an instruction manual for community. However, Jayber’s honest assessment about his life in a small town ends with the story of the man in the well, which is one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the entire book:

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)

The key, then, to conflict in community is not so much the techniques we use to manage it or even resolve it as much as whether or not we are, ultimately, willing to suffer on behalf of others, whether we are willing to enter into and bear up under the pain and loss and fear that this world generates, the way Christ Jesus did on the cross.

On Wed, Oct 28, we will talk about toxic community. Jayber is honest and gracious in his assessment of the various communities that he has been a part of at different times in his life. Even when he is thinking back on his time at the Good Shepherd, he observes that, even though he “dislike[s] the life of institutions and organizations,” “if confronted with a hundred or so orphan children of two sexes and diverse ages and characters all to be raised and educated together…I can’t say with confidence that I would do better” (p33). However, at the end of the novel, Jayber visits the Keith farm, and he has nothing good to say about what he sees:

Every scrap of land that a tractor could stand on had been plowed and cropped in corn or soybeans or tobacco. And,yet, in spite of this complete and relentless putting to use,the whole place, from the house and garden all the way back to the river, looked deserted. It did not look like a place where anybody had ever wanted to be. It and the farming on it looked like an afterthought. It looked like what Troy had thought about last, after thinking about himself, his status, his machinery, and his debts. (p340)

The poison at work in Troy’s soul has had a tragic impact not only on his wife and children, but on the land itself. And the older he gets, the more Jayber sees evidence of this same kind of toxicity throughout the broader culture that is beginning to intrude on Port William:

The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither to the left nor right. (p331)

We often think of toxic communities solely in terms of cultic behavior and the abuse of authority, but Jayber’s observations remind us that, when communities begin to sicken, then the impact of that dysfunction is going to be felt not only at the level of our relationships with each other and the Most Holy Trinity, it will also be felt throughout society as a whole, and even in our relationships with the natural world.

On Wed, Nov 4, we will talk about the world, how we interact with our culture, and how that interaction affects the life of our community. In Jayber Crow, the world is symbolized by 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)

Jayber’s on-going descriptions of how the world changes the community of Port William are very poignant, but we must not let that obscure the ugly fact that, in the end, the War and the Economy win: the local school is closed, the town’s stores all fail, the highway arrives, the cemetery is filled with the patriotic dead, and, finally, the Nest Egg is cut down. As we talk about the life of our parish, we need to keep in mind the fact that our hope is an eschatological one: All communities eventually lose to the War and the Economy, so we are not talking about this subject in the hopes of sustaining our parish indefinitely; we are talking about this subject because what we do in this life extends into the next. Our faithfulness may not make an appreciable difference at the level of history, but it can have a transforming difference on eternity.

On Wed, Nov 11, we will finish up by talking about Practical Outcomes. As I said last week, this will be the most important session of the entire seminar, because we will be talking about specific things we can do in our parish to live out true community. That takes us beyond the scope of Jayber Crow, but I hope that tonight I have demonstrated that this novel can be a tremendous resource for us in our work, and we will certainly be referencing the book throughout the rest of the seminar. Let me encourage you to keep this project in your prayers and to carefully read through all the scripture passages before each session. I look forward to being with you again next Wed night when we will be talking about the importance of stability.

fr. aidan

September 08, 2009

Introduction - Community

Welcome to our 2010 Fall Theological Seminar. This is the fourth such seminar our parish has hosted; in the past, we’ve focused on apocalypticism, men and women, and suffering, but, this year, we will be talking about community--and this topic has generated more interest than any of the others. I think that is because community is something that we all long for, and I think that is a longing that we share with American society (see Note A). We want to be part of a network of caring relationships; we want to have friendships that last a life-time; we want to belong to a fellowship that will support us and nurture us and hold us accountable; we want our marriages to flourish; we want families that are loving and strong.

However, all of this eludes our culture, and many Americans have given up on the whole idea of long-term community. What these folks now hope for is a series of temporary communities that come together through their neighborhoods and work places and schools; nevertheless, the expectation is that these communities will, at some point, dissolve—and marriage and family are increasingly viewed in the very same way. A lot of American Christians now approach community with similar expectations: they develop relationships within a small group or a congregation, but they don’t expect to stay in that group or congregation for very long; and since American Christians get divorced and remarried at the same rate as the rest of the culture, Christian marriages and Christian families have now become very transient arrangements.

Now there is a radical element within American Christianity that is attempting to nurture long-term community in a very intentional way. This past summer, here in the parish, we’ve been passing around a book which is an anthology of articles by folks who are involved in this ‘movement’. Some of the communities that are featured in this book have been around since the late sixties; some of them are only a few years old, but none of them is very large, and, what is even more significant, none of these communities understand themselves as a worshipping congregation; none of these communities see themselves as a parish. A few of these communities have developed relationships with established parishes, but most of these folks have consciously set themselves apart from the more traditional models for Christian community, and several of the writers who are featured in the book wonder if true community is even possible in a typical American congregation.

Unfortunately, in this country, Orthodoxy pretty much mirrors the experience of American Christianity. There are large, historically ethnic parishes where folks come together for liturgy on Sunday and an occasional activity during the week, but, generally speaking, apart from their own relatives/extended families, the members of these parishes are every bit as (or, actually, more) invested in the lives of their co-workers and friends than they are in the lives of their fellow Orthodox Christians. There have been convert parishes which have experimented with an intentional approach to community, similar to that of the more radical groups within American Christianity, but the results have been mixed, and, at times, downright tragic: in fact, a surprising number of these parishes have come very close to becoming cults. You would think that monasticism would provide at least a model or a template for what community should look like in Orthodox parishes, but, for a variety of reasons, monasticism is having a hard time getting off the ground in this country—and, unfortunately, the monasteries that have been established are sometimes represented as the only context within which genuine community (or, for that matter, real Christianity) can occur—as if a parish can never provide folks with more than just a distant approximation of the fullness of the Christian life or what that life looks like in community (see Note B).

Of course, there are, I am sure, Orthodox parishes like ours where people want to live in community, and those folks are undoubtedly finding ways to make that happen. The Holy Spirit is, after all, at work among us, and it is my hope that one of the practical outcomes of this seminar is that we will be able to form close relationships with some of those parishes so that we can support and encourage one another. However, what we need to do now is begin our work, and the first point I want to make is one that we will be returning to each time we get together: Community is not something that we construct or achieve or manufacture; it is given to us. During this seminar, we are going to be talking about seven aspects of community life—stability, authority, fellowship or hospitality, care for the dead, economy, how we handle conflict, and our relationship with the world. I’ll be providing you with a brief overview of each of those elements in just a moment. But it’s extremely important that we understand that those elements, those dimensions, those aspects of community life are not a foundation for community. In other words, it’s not the case that if we work really, really hard and come together and find a way to care for the dead and practice hospitality and figure out how authority should be wielded and how the economy of our parish should function and how all of that can be lived out in a stable way that we will somehow then become a community. It just doesn’t happen that way; if you somehow need to be convinced of that, then all you have to do is look at the sad and, in some cases, spectacular, wreckage generated by groups that approached community in that fashion.

But here’s how it does work; this is how we will become a genuine parish community: 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. Nevertheless, we have to learn how to live out that Faith, we have to figure out how to be the Church, and we do that in community, as we learn how to be a community. In the prayer that we say about two-thirds of the way through each of the services of the Hours, we ask that “we may attain unto the unity of the Faith and unto the comprehension of Thine ineffable glory”; so, while the Faith is given to us, but we must strive to “attain unto” its fullest expression—which is unity—and that is how we will all together, in community (notice, the pronouns in the prayer are plural), arrive at the goal of the Christian life—which is deification, the “comprehension” of the “ineffable glory” of the Most Holy Trinity. Another, more central example, comes at the very end of the anaphora, the long prayer that forms the very heart of the Divine Liturgy: the holy gifts have been consecrated, the prayers have been offered, and then the priest concludes with this exclamation:

And grant us with one mind and one heart to glorify and praise

Thine all honorable and majestic Name of the Father and of the

Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

At this point in the liturgy, we are offering up, we are expressing our highest aspirations, so, as Orthodox Christians, what we want more than anything else is for everything that we do and everything that we are to be an expression of community, of one mind and one heart that glorifies the Most Holy Trinity for ever and ever.

That is what unites us; that is what makes us one; that is the life that is the foundation of all true community. So, during this seminar, whenever we refer to any aspect of community, we need to remember that this all-important truth is the context within which we will be working. In this regard, our seminar will be a bit like some of the epistles of St Paul; for example, unless we have read and understood the breathtaking exposition of the Faith that the apostle provides for us in the first four chapters of his Epistle to the Ephesians, then we will never be able to figure out why he tells wives to be “subject to their husbands” in chapter five. And it works the same way when we are talking about community: in order for the details (stability, authority, etc) to make any sense at all, we must constantly have the big picture in mind, and, for our purposes, the big picture is nothing less than the fullness of life in the Holy Orthodox Church.

Let me re-emphasize all this in another way. Think back just a moment ago to the very brief and very general survey we did of how our striving for community is expressed here in America. What we are left with are some interesting and ironic extremes: On the one hand, we have some American Christians who are hard at work trying to determine how to do hospitality and what the economy of their fellowship should look like; however, because their efforts are not grounded in the historic and living Faith of the Church, the results will be, at best, really inconsistent and, quite probably, really impermanent. On the other hand, we have a great many Orthodox Christians who have been part of the historic and living Faith of the Church for many generations who simply have no desire to be part of a genuine community; they are not at all interested in discovering how the Faith should be expressed in and through their particular parish.

So, as we said at the beginning of this presentation, community eludes us. But that is one of the things this seminar is designed to address, and here’s how we are going to go about it: We’re going to use the same basic format that we’ve used in past years. We will start with a novel—in this case, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry—and then we will follow that up with several weeks’ worth of Bible study; each Wednesday evening, we will consider a specific selection of texts. However, in this year’s seminar, there will be two new dimensions to our work together. In the past, whenever we have considered passages of Holy Scripture, we have always provided you with some commentary from the Holy Fathers to go along with those texts. It was not practical to do that this year simply because of the sheer number of passages that we will be considering; also, most of the commentary that is readily accessible on these passages does not deal with the issues that we will be discussing. In previous years, our primary resource for the Fathers has been the Ancient Christian Commentary series, and that is a fine publication, but most of the material that is available there is strictly theological in nature, and we will be focusing primarily on practical or ascetical issues. But please feel free to consult the ACC series or any other patristic commentaries, and please feel free to share that material with the rest of the seminar participants.

Also, in the past, our time together has been taken up primarily with what was often a very open and free-wheeling discussion. We will still have plenty of opportunity for that kind of discussion; however, because of the direct practical impact that this seminar will potentially have on our parish, I will be making a formal presentation at each session. I’ve always made lots of notes for myself before leading these seminars, but, this year, due to the absolutely critical nature of this material, I’ve decided to discipline myself and write everything out so that we will have a more structured context for our work. Also, after each session, I will post these presentations on our bookstore blog so that folks can re-read them (or, in the case of folks who live some distance away, read them for the first time), and so we can continue the discussion on-line.

What I want to do now is give you a quick over-view of the topics we will be considering. Next week, we will spend the entire session talking about Jayber Crow. I’ll say more about this next Wednesday evening, but the reason we always begin these seminars with a novel is the same reason Christ Jesus told stories. Stories help us experience the truth in a way that engages not just our rational equipment but our whole person. The only way most of us have ever studied Holy Scripture is with a list of questions, but stories help us get at the same issues in a way that is more profound and more immediate (and so let’s pause for a moment and offer a silent prayer of gratitude to the Holy Evangelists because they did not include study guides along with the gospels). And let me also add (and I’ll say more about this as well next Wednesday evening) that Wendell Berry’s novel is not, in and of itself, a blue-print for community—as if we could somehow achieve true community if we all relocated to a small town and started farming or cutting hair. Again, community is not something we achieve; it’s something given to us whether we live in a city or a small town, whether we farm or sit at a computer all day.

The subsequent eight Wednesday evenings will each be devoted to one aspect of community. Each of these dimensions of community is addressed in Jayber Crow, and each is dealt with in Holy Scripture. So, on any given Wednesday evening, I will make a presentation which ties all that together, then we will process any questions or concerns or outrage that you may have, and then we will also consider what it all means for our parish as we strive to actually live out the community that we have already received. Here are the aspects of community that we will consider; they are listed on your syllabus:

1. Stability- We will talk about this on Sept 16; it means staying put and working things out where you are. As we shall see, this is the fundamental condition for growth in the spiritual life—both our own personal life and the life that we share.

2. Authority- We will talk about this on Sept 23; this is one of the aspects of community life that is consistently missing from the discussion that American Christians are having; it means knowing who’s in charge and what that means and how that works. Of course, obedience is closely tied to this dynamic.

3. Hospitality/Fellowship- We will talk about this on Sept 30; it’s how we welcome others into community and support them in the life of the community. There’s more to this dimension than just having folks over for dinner.

4. Care for the Dead- We will talk about this on Oct 7; this is another aspect of community life that American Christians don’t address, but it goes right to the heart of who belongs in the community and how long our relationships with others actually last.

5. Economy- We will talk about this on Oct 14; this is the most misunderstood aspect of community life. It has to do with how we order our life together and only tangentially with how we participate in the commercial life of our culture.

6. Conflict- We will talk about this on Oct 21; unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with this dimension of community life; however, we don’t have much experience in dealing with it in a way that is healthy or hopeful.

7. Toxic Community- We will talk about this on Oct 28; sometimes the level of dysfunction in a particular fellowship becomes poisonous; we will not only consider what that looks like, we will actually hear the testimonies of some folks who have lived through it.

8. The World- We will talk about this on Nov 4; this is how we interact with the broader society and how that interaction impacts our life together.

9. Practical Outcomes- We will talk about this on Nov 11; this will be the most important session of the entire seminar. After all, we don’t just want to talk about community; we want to become a true parish community, and this is where we will decide what the next steps will be.

I’m thankful that you’ve chosen to participate in this seminar. I hope that you will do the reading and share your thoughts either in this setting or on-line. But most of all, I want to encourage you to pray for our work together, because our goal in all of this is to become a true community, to actually live into this dimension of what St Paul refers to as “the riches of [our] glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1.18).

Note A: If community is so important to us and something that we all want, then it’s worth asking why genuine community is so very rare. To be sure, there are major cultural dynamics that work against community: the transient nature of our society prevents us from settling down in one place, the compartmentalized nature of our society means that we don’t worship with the same group of people that we work with, and there are lots of other cultural factors that make community very difficult or, in some cases, even impossible. Nevertheless, I think that the main reason why true community is so rare is because it requires a whole lot of hard work and a great deal of commitment. We do want to be supported and nurtured and held accountable, but only up to a certain point, and once that support or nurturing or accountability becomes too burdensome, or if it begins to threaten our comfort zone, then it’s just much easier to move on. So we find new friends or we form a new family or we get a new job or we find a new parish, and we start the process all over again. So, you could make a good argument that what we actually want is not real community but pseudo community—all the benefits, none of the hassle.

Note B: However, it is worth pointing out that conservative Roman Catholic monastic communities are actually experiencing a revival in this country. Hopefully, that means that Orthodox monasticism will eventually be well received.

fr. aidan