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

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