October 22, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fr. aidan

October 13, 2009

Care for the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fr. aidan

October 07, 2009

Hospitality / Fellowship

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

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

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

Reach out to strangers
(Hebrews 13.2; Gal 6.10)

Reach out to all without distinction
(St James 2.1)

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

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

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

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

Support the leaders of our community
(Gal 6.6)

Pray constantly
(Romans 12.12)

Bear each other’s burdens
(Gal 6.2)

Restore those who are fallen into sin
(Gal 6.1)

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

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

Never quit
(Gal 6.9; Romans 12.11-12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fr. aidan