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


Vicki Jones said...

Father, bless.

First, thank you, Fr. Aidan, for the thoughtfulness of this first session. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about community, and look forward to future sessions.

Unity as the goal of community - to "strive to “attain unto” its fullest expression [the faith] —which is unity" - requires hard work. I believe striving toward unity also requires the spiritual gift of discernment. I've frequently struggled to hear (i.e., discern) the "still, small voice" that leads me to live life according to the will of the Most Holy Trinity, and not my own (flawed) will. How is discernment manifested in community, as we corporately seek to understand His will for our community?

Vicki Jones said...

In relation to the previous post, here is the scriptural reference I was pondering as I reflected on the topics of unity and discernment:

In case the link doesn't work, the reference is I Corinthians, Chapter2.

In Christ,