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.