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.