Learning Even from Those Who are Least

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” ‘” (Matthew 21:15)

St. John of Kronstadt reminds us that we might hear the truth spoken to us from people we would never even imagine had anything significant to teach us.  Sometimes we resent the person for being so presumptuous as to tell us something we don’t want to hear or acknowledge precisely because it’s true.

“Sometimes  younger people, or those of equal station, or older ones, teach you by means of hints which you cannot endure, and you are vexed with your teachers. We must endure and listen with love to everything useful coming from anyone, whoever he may be. Our self-love conceals our faults from us, but they are more visible to others. This is why they remark them to us. Remember, that “we are members of one another” (Ephesians IV. 25), and are thus even obliged to mutually correct each other.

If you do not bear being instructed by others, and are vexed with those who teach you, it means that you are proud, and this shows that the fault of which others hint that you should correct yourself is really in you.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 303-304).

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The Effects of Addiction

Many have said that when the Church is being the organism in which we practice loving one another, it is a hospital for sinners.  It is the community in which we are able to acknowledge our spiritual wounds and failures in order to remove all the obstacles to spiritual healing.

(Photo by Rob Stothard/GettyImages)

Church communities, however, being made of sinners, fallen human beings, are also subject at times to all of the ills that impact humanity living in the fallen world.  Sometimes we fail to acknowledge our own fallibleness as well as our fallenness.  We all, including leadership, can fall into denial about our true state of affairs.   Fr. John and Lyn Breck write:

Just as addictive nuclear families are plagued with denial, so too is the church family. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that allows people to go through life without considering how their thoughts and actions are at odds with the call to holiness. This leads to a moral dilemma. As A. W. Schaef and Diane Fassel write in The Addictive Organization, “Ethical deterioration is the inevitable outcome of immersion in the addictive system. It easy to understand how this happens. If your life is taken up by lying to yourself or others, attempting to control, perfectionism, denial, grabbing what you can for yourself, and refusing to let in information that would alter the addictive paradigm, then you are spiritually bankrupt.” (Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics, p. 181).

Denial is not merely a psychological state – it leads to “ethical deterioration”.  Right thinking yields right behavior.  Unfortunately, distorted thinking, wrong thinking leads to wrong behavior.  Healing restores us not only to physical health or mental health, but also to spiritual health.

The Divine Liturgy and Personal Prayers

While one’s personal prayer life and joining in the prayer at the Liturgy are integrally linked and inseparable  in the spiritual life of Orthodox Christians, they are also  two distinct types of prayer.  When one joins the community at the Liturgy, we are joining to pray communal prayers, to join our heart and mind to those of all the other believers assembled together.  It is both how we compose the Body of Christ and experience the Body of Christ in our own person.

 Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“Liturgical prayer is not simply the prayers of individual Christians joined into one. It is not a corporate ‘prayer service’ of many persons together. It is rather the official prayer of the Church formally assembled; the prayer of Christ in the Church, offering His ‘body’ and ‘bride’ to the Father in the Spirit. It is the Church’s participation in Christ’s perpetual prayer in the presence of God in the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Heb 7.24–25, 9.24).  . . .  In the Orthodox Church there is no tradition of corporate prayer which is not liturgical. Some consider this a lack, but most likely it is based on Christ’s teaching that the prayer of individuals should be done ‘in secret’ (Mt 6.5–6). This guards against vain repetition and the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others. It also protects persons from being subjected to the superficialities and shallowness of those, who instead of praying, merely express the opinions and desires of their own minds and hearts. . . .

When one participates in the liturgical prayer of the Church, he should make every effort to join himself fully with all the members of the body. He should not ‘say his own prayers’ in church, but should pray ‘with the Church.’ This does not mean that he forgets his own needs and desires, depersonalizing himself and becoming but one more voice in the crowd. It means rather that he should unite his own person, his own needs and desires, all of his life with those who are present, with the church throughout the world, with the angels and saints, indeed with Christ Himself in the one great ‘divine’ and ‘heavenly liturgy’ of all creation before God.   Practically this means that one who participates in liturgical prayer should put his whole being, his whole mind and heart, into each prayer and petition and liturgical action, making it come alive in himself. If each person does this, then the liturgical exclamations become genuine and true, and the whole assembly as one body will glorify God with ‘one mouth, one mind and one heart’…”   (SPIRITUALITY, pp 127-128)

We come to the church at liturgy to join and become part of the community (common-unity), to share in the life in the Body of Christ.  Communion and community are related words and concepts.

In this sense, we don’t come to the Liturgy to say our private prayers.  Christ taught us to do that at home, hidden from the eyes of others – to do such private praying in the privacy of our own room (Matthew 6:6).  The liturgy is a time to set aside our private prayer books and to pray the liturgy with everyone assembled.  If we pray with the community, and “go to church” exactly for that purpose, then perhaps we can also learn tolerance for others.  They are not there to annoy us, but are there exactly so that we can pray with them, sharing space and time in community.  The people who aren’t dressed appropriately, or the crying babies, over-active children, the people coming late, those walking in and out of liturgy – these are the people we are coming to church to pray with and for.  So they aren’t disrupting our liturgical prayer life, they aren’t distracting us, but are there for us to note them and pray with and for them.  We come to the Liturgy to be fully aware of those with whom we belong in the Body of Christ.  This is part of the love for one another of which Jesus spoke (John 15:11-17 – note that Christ taught that loving one another would increase our joy, not detract from it!).

We also come to pray with and for the needs of the community.  In some places  it has become common practice to turn in long lists of names of the people for whom we privately are praying.  We somehow seem to think this makes the Liturgy personal.  But truthfully turning in such long lists of names does exactly what Fr. Hopko says shouldn’t happen at the liturgy: It turns the Liturgy, the common prayer of the people, into “the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others.”   You are supposed to pray personally and privately for all the people on your prayer list, but all those names aren’t meant to be expressed in the Liturgy.  The liturgy prays for virtually every one on earth in its various petitions.  Turning in long lists of names may seem pious and prayerful, but we are already praying for virtually everyone at the liturgy in the many categories of people we pray for in the various petitions.  Naming people at the Liturgy changes the nature of prayer at the Liturgy into private petitions.  It is appropriate for the local community to pray by name for people of special interest to the community that have special needs, but these should be names known by virtually everyone in the community and whose needs are well known too.

A friend tells me that turning in long lists of names to be read at the Liturgy is common in places where Communion is infrequent.  He thinks it is just another practice that has emerged in churches in which actual communion has disappeared.  Like the proskomedia, names are being offered because frequent Communion has disappeared.  It is the substitute for the reality of the sacrament.  If people are living the Christian life and joining in the community’s Eucharist, they are “in Christ” in reality, not just in name.

We “go to Church” in order to fully experience the sacramental reality of the Community’s Eucharist.  That is something we cannot experience at  home in our private prayer life.  Our private prayer life is in fact nourished by our liturgical prayer life in community.  But we should not be reducing Liturgical prayer to being just our private prayer.  Individualism is meant to be overcome in Christ in whom we become part of His body, members one of another (Romans 12:5).

 

The Parish as Christian Community

“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”  (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Christ chose 12 men to form a special community – his first disciples.  His Gospel commandments frequently deal with how His followers were to live with and for one another.  For us to continue to be His Body, which is one image St. Paul uses to describe Christian life and community, we have to learn how to live with one another.  St. Makarios of Egypt writes:

“Simplicity before others, guilelessness, mutual love, joy and humility of every kind, must be laid down as the foundation of the community. Otherwise, disparaging others or grumbling about them, we make our labor profitless. He who persists ceaselessly in prayer must not disparage the man incapable of doing this, nor must the man who devotes himself to serving the needs of the community complain about those who are dedicated to prayer. For if both the prayers and the service are offered in a spirit of simplicity and love for others, the superabundance of those dedicated to prayer will make up for the insufficiency of those who serve, and vice versa.

In this way the equality that St. Paul commends is maintained (cf. 2 Cor. 8:14): he who has  much does not have to excess and he who has little has no lack (cf. Exod. 16:18). God’s will is done on earth as in heaven when, in the way indicated, we do not disparage one another, and when not only are we without jealousy but we are united one to another in simplicity and in mutual love, peace and joy, and regard our brother’s progress as our own and his failure as our loss.” (The Philokalia, Vol. 3, p 295)

Feet Teach Us to Be Servants in Love

St. Basil the Great writes explaining why one cannot be a Christian alone, but rather why being a Christian means living life in community.

“As the foot has its own ability but lacks others, so that, without the assistance of the other members, it does not find in itself the power to subsist nor help to procure what is lacking to it, so, in the solitary life, what we have is without usefulness and we are without aid in what is lacking to us: for God, our creator, has decided that we should have need of one another, so that, as it is written, we should be united with one another. After this, in the same rule, he adds more:

See! The Lord, in the excess of His condescension, was not content to teach us His doctrine, but in order to give us a clear, an obvious example of His humility, in the perfection of His love, He washed and dried with a towel the feet of His disciples…

But whose feet will you wash? Whom will you care for? How will you put yourself in the last place, if you live alone with yourself? And this other word that it is pleasing and good for brothers to live together, how can this be verified in solitude? A community of brothers is, then, a stadium in which athletes are exercised, a good road towards progress, a continual training, a constant concern for the commandments of God: its end is the glory of God according to the commandment of our Lord, but it also preserves the example of the saints of who the Acts of the Apostles tell us: ‘All the believers were gathered together and they had all their possessions in common’, or again, ‘The multitude of the faithful had but one heart and one soul: there was no one who kept for himself anything that he possessed, but everything was in common.’”    (Louis Boyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament & The Fathers, p 337)

Flies, Bees and Seeing One’s Own Sin

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) writes:

“Let us not bite and chew others’ wounds; let us not imitate flies, but emulate bees: flies settle on wounds, bees fly onto flowers.

Hence it is the latter who form honeycombs, whereas the former carry diseases to the bodies they alight on; they are loathed, while the bees are desirable and welcome. Let us, therefore, have our soul fly over the meadow of the virtue of holy people, and constantly stimulate the fragrance of their good deeds instead of biting the wounds of the neighbor.

If, however, we should see some people doing the latter, let us silence them, stopping their mouths with the fear of punishment, reminding them of their kinship with their brethren. But if they do not respond to any of this, let us refer to them as flies in the hope that the reproach of this name may make them desist from their wicked occupation, so that they may rid themselves of this evil pursuit and devote all their time to studying their own vices.” (Old Testament Homilies: Vol. 3, Translated by Robert Charles Hill, p 51)

The Unity of the CommUNITY

Teaching  by parable or story has been normative in Christianity since the time of Jesus, who himself taught in parables.  Parables present us with a special way of coming to the truth.  For parables or stories show the words themselves are not enough – one has to interpret the story to come to the truth.  Interpretation requires wisdom and knowledge.  Interpretation is key to the Gospel message.

In Mark 8:27-29, we see clearly how essential interpretation is to the Gospel:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”*

Even having Jesus standing right in your midst or having the ability to observe Jesus’ deeds and words does not automatically give one the knowledge of the truth.  Jesus asks his disciples, “How are people interpreting me?”   And those who had observed Jesus’ teachings and miracles, still came to differing conclusions about who Jesus is.  The same is true for having the Bible – the truth is in the interpretation of the words.  The Bible alone cannot give you the truth.

And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch … was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. 

We need reliable spiritual guides to help us interpret the Scriptures.  This is clear in the Scriptures themselves!

What follows is a story for the desert fathers, also used to teach us how to live the Gospel.  We need to take time to think about the story and to know the Kingdom of God is found in the meaning the story conveys.  The monk John Colobos related the following story:

“A brother asked Abba Sisoes: ‘If we are walking along the way and our guide goes astray, should we tell him?’ ‘No,’ the elder brother said to him. ‘Should we let him lead us astray then?’ said the brother? The elder said to him: ‘What else? Are you going to take a stick and beat him? I know some brothers who were walking along and their guide went astray in the night. They were twelve in number and they all knew they had gone astray; they were each one at pains not to say anything. At daybreak their guide learnt that they had strayed from the way. “Forgive me,” he said to them; “I have gone astray.” They all said: “We too knew that but we kept silent.” ’ [The brother] was astounded when he heard this and [Abba Sisoes] said: ‘The brothers disciplined themselves not to speak [of it] until death,’ and he glorified God. The extent to which they had gone astray was twelve miles.” (Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers,  p 288)

Are we to beat with a rod a member who becomes lost in the spiritual life?  What does it take to preserve the unity of community?  What seem to be the most important values to these monks?  What virtues do they exhibit?  The story is really counter intuitive for many practically minded Americans who would simply want to “fix” the errant problem.  What does love have to do with this lesson?

 

The Purpose of the Parish

In the writings of St. Francis of Assisi we gain insight into how he viewed his disciples and fellow Christians.

“Francis’s writing suggests that he understood the gift of brothers as more than simply supportive instruments of the Lord. They were both necessary conditions and necessary expressions of the Gospel life, which demands witness to the Community of God’s Love, that is, the Trinity. In order to bring to birth the ‘spirit of the truth of the Gospel,’ he needed brothers ‘according to the Spirit.’”

(Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, p 17)

We all need our fellow parishioners, our brothers and sisters in Christ, in order for us to fulfill the Lord’s commandment that we love one another (John 13:34; 15:12).

The Eucharist: Nurturing Relationships

“The Eucharistic meal dynamically realizes and foreshadows the reversal of the stipulations of the natural need to receive nourishment: the bread and the wine in the Eucharist are shared in, not consumed individualistically, and the eating and drinking serve relation, not nature; life, not survival. Sharing in the bread and wine of the Eucharist refers to the transformation not of mortals or of conduct but of mode of existence. That is why the Eucharist is the sign that reveals the Church’s identity, the event that realizes and manifests the Church.” (Christos Yannaras, Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, p 44)

Holy Communion is the common meal of the Christian community.  Communion cannot be separated from the community, nor is the community separate from the communicant.   We receive communion to inspire us to love one another and to abide in the community of love.

Hope in Christ

“There are many others in the parish, too, who tend to keep to themselves their personal stress and suffering. Yet their eyes and their body language betray the weight of their burdens they carry. Some are caring at home for elderly parents who are afflicted with dementia or alcoholism. Others are struggling to offer love, support and guidance to disruptive or promiscuous adolescents; or depriving themselves in order to feed and clothe their children after their business collapsed or they fell victim to ‘downsizing’. Multitudes of different stories, yet with one common theme: they long ago placed their trust and their hope in Christ, the source and end of their most intense longing, and in these past few days they gathered together to celebrate their faith and their hope at the Feast of feasts, Holy Pascha.” (John Breck, Longing for God, p 155)

We hope in Christ, but also need help from our parish community. It is in and through our fellow members that we experience the love of Christ.