جديد في الموقع
Word Magazine January 1975 Page 5-7
CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY-THE PARISH CHURCH
Rev. Joseph Allen
This article is presented as only a small part of what the parish as a community is meant to be. It is not an exploration of all the foundations of the community-Church as we experience it — boards of trustees, social welfare projects, dances, the church schools, choirs, etc. Neither is it an effort to discuss all of the theological foundations of the parish community. One would necessarily have to compose a paper for each of those, for example, the New Testamental and Old Testamental pre-suppositions, canonical norms, historical circumstances and sacramental —liturgical practices. This article is built upon some knowledge of those fundamental principles. But, I will try to uncover a different way to express community life in the Orthodox understanding.
All of us are “touched” in different ways by the same truth, and coming from another “angle,” such as the one here presented, perhaps some of us will be touched by a deeper truth about Orthodox community life that is in fact the underpinnings for all the various foundations which we have just mentioned.
No matter where one begins the “truth” about community life must include a vision of man and God. To discover that Truth we shall discuss community life as horizontal and vertical movements. This article is no more than some thoughts concerning man’s life with men and with God. The two are really quite inseparable movements, as we shall see.
Horizontal Aspects: man with man.
It is often in one extreme situations of life that we are able to get the clearest messages. Let us begin these thoughts, not in the local parish, but in the hospital. It is there, in the hospital, where the “nitty-gritty” things happen. It is there that the basic “stuff” of living is forced upon us: concern, food, love, blood, irritations, suffering, long nights, bed sores, B.M.’s, diets, injections, words, — HONESTY. The hospital, in a way, is a natural point of crossing with the Church-community; both deal with the intensity and the urgency of the realities of life and death.
Anyone who has had connections, as we all have at one time or another, with the hospital reality, knows that the strongest and sometimes strangest sociological realities occur there. That’s where we begin, but not where we will end!
I would like to begin with a specific instance of what I am referring to. In 1973 at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. Joyce Saunders spoke to a group of doctors and chaplains. She had just begun in England what she called a “new” concept for caring for the terminally ill. Actually, for the Church her approach seems like the most natural because it dealt with what she called the whole man, homo totus, a being with both a body and soul. In the “ordinary” hospital, there is an isolation from the dying person. Doctors shy away from and prescribe medicine from afar and through a nurse. Families also shy away, at least emotionally, knowing what is coming!
We cannot get into the whole question of death, either clinically or theologically. But for me, as an Orthodox pastor, the glimpse of life is sometimes grasped best through the glimpse of death!
The Fathers realized this — it is at the most critical points in life that we learn about life’s meaning.
For Dr. Saunders, the effort was to “maintain that dignity” befitting, not an object or a “specimen,” but a living, feeling, experiencing human being. It sounded very much like what we Christians mean by man’s having dignity because he is created in the image of God, the imago Deo. In maintaining that dignity, Saunders emphasized the fact that, in her new concept of the hospital, the patient was never “put on a high” by drugs, as we see so often in the normal hospital situation. Drugs, indeed, were used, but only to reduce anxiety. For her, it is even necessary to maintain a certain “pain level,” a way of keeping “in touch with oneself.” Her emphasis in this direction struck me as a very important one. With her new concept, families are brought into an informal setting; sons, daughters, grandchildren, god children, are brought into a “meeting garden” instead of the usual hospital-type room. Her entire purpose of using drugs in order to remove anxiety (but not to the level of a “high,”) was for one fundamental reason, and this is the point for beginning with this horizontal level: so that inter-action and participation could continue on the common/human level. As we know in the Church, to be human, one must relate to both God and men. Of course, Dr. Saunders was speaking in medical terms, i.e. in terms of drugs, highs and anxiety, as they hinder any relationship. But her point was extremely consistent with my own points; that is, that there is a need for “connectedness,” with our world, with creation, with other men, with God, with the depths of our own “roots.” Without this “connectedness,” we have no identity! We are left isolated and alienated, we are left separated. And this separation is not what God wants for us. This is nothing new for men. It is exactly what the Bible knows Adam experienced when he was “evicted from Paradise, from the Garden” for it was there, in the garden, where he, man, was in intimate contact with nature and God.
For Dr. Saunders, to treat her terminal patients as humans, meant to maintain their “connectedness.” For us Christians, it is the condition of every human life, from infancy onward. In fact, in this line, we have also learned by now the importance of even the infant’s feeling of “connectedness” through the life-source, the breast, or the mother’s warmth in general, through which the sense of belonging is transmitted. The need for “connectedness” is so deep, that it even touches the infant who is not as yet “conscious” of life. Think about that for a moment!
In terms of this horizontal aspect of the community of the Church, the parish, the value of such “connectedness” is obvious. We are truly connected with each other. Our very identity as Orthodox Christians is wrapped up with the need for a true organic community, the priest, the servers, the singers, the saints, indeed, the entire creation and all its materials.
Of course, the core and the focal point of being connected with each other as “one body,” is the Chalice, in which we pass to each-other as we “eat and drink” from the same source. As one can obviously see, and as we shall shortly discover, the vertical aspect is here involved also; the horizontal and vertical aspects of the community-Church are inextricably bound up together.
Staying with this horizontal aspect, for a moment, it is true that Christ, Himself, is here in our midst, “where two or three gather.” He is there among us. He is next to each of us, because He is alive in us, whenever we gather. I do mean horizontally here, for He is “connected” to each of us, and living within each of us who are “rooted” to Him: “I am the root, you are the branches.” Being alive both within me as well as within the one next to me, means that the Christ who is alive in me, makes contact with the Christ that is alive in the other. And that is the horizontal aspect.
Men like Martin Buber and Vladimir Solovyov, amongst others, expressed this deep inter-relatedness, upon which Dr. Saunders touched. Buber said: “It is through the THOU, the other, that man first becomes a self, an I.” Horizontally this means that we discover our own identity only when we discover the “other.” For the Christian, again, this understanding takes on the particular meaning of the community-Church when we discover that the “Thou” can be the “least of the brethren” in whom Christ is alive, in the presence of Christ through the Chalice, in the presence of the Priest who represents the offerer, just as Christ was the Offerer. Or the “‘Thou” can even be the absolutely “other,” the Almighty, God the Father, before whom we all stand. All these — God and men — can be the “Thou” through which we establish our own identity. This is so because the “other” is often a mirror against which we can measure ourselves.
Because of this strong emphasis on being “connected” as part of the community, some have accused the Church of “herding,” of removing individuality and self-identity. But in the community-Church two things are involved at once in the meeting of two beings: connection and separation. Because of this second aspect, separation, one’s individuality is not removed. Here is precisely the difference between the community and the collective! One is an individual, but has decided to live his life toward others, has become of “one mind” with others, has, in the spirit of true freedom, decided to be “connected.” One is, therefore, an “I” who gives himself up to the participation in the community’s life: “Let us say with one soul and one mind . . .” Or again, “let us lift up our hearts.” Such lines capture the meaning of the participation that is composed of the “I” and the “Thou” in the community.
One may realize, by now, that we have moved beyond the sociological realm to that of the community of faith. We have also moved beyond Dr. Saunder’s position. We are at a much deeper level in which “meeting” is a communion, common union. This meeting is the real atonement, is the common core area to which each of us has agreed to give up his self.
But before leaving this horizontal aspect for the vertical, I would like to relate an experience which occurred during the time I was working at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. I saw a solitary figure in a dim lit hall, walking toward the elevator. It was a picture of a broken man,
suffering internally. The man had just left his wife who had died. But what struck me, beside the death, was the terrible aloneness of this man. Such a tragedy, it seemed, that that man had to take that walk alone, without support. I pass this picture on to you only because in that one moment, I realized the great need for support from within a community. It is so fundamental, that I always hesitate to mention it. In the community there is a “support system” which is deeper than the surface hand-shake-it-will-be-all-right kind of empathizing. One feels a true sharing of both the suffering and joy that enters each of our lives.
Of course, I realize, there are those that will say that this is so only because “one has a need.” The answer is always the same: we all live by needs; we all have a need for God and each other. The question is hardly “whether or not” we have needs; it is more a question of “when” and “how” we need. It is anthropology! But it is an anthropology which was always blessed by, and lived in, the Christian communities.
Vertical Aspect: man and God
The horizontal aspect alone is not sufficient to man’s life. It is this vertical aspect that gives a special meaning to the horizontal in the community-Church. In this vertical aspect one finds the radical distinction between the community-Church and the collective or, even, the country club or humanitarian institution.
Man is man when he is connected to God. To get the full concept of homo totus, the Church must always live in that reality. We mentioned earlier the sense that Adam — man — felt when he was disconnected and alienated from the Garden. To discover the basic value of a vertical connectedness, we must return to before that alienation, or as we call it, before the fall.
The first man, by whatever means he was created, and whoever he was, lived in the condition of complete openness to God’s presence. His entire world was from the hand of God and was recognized as coming from him. Everything was “caused” by God the Creator, including man. God’s presence was seen in everything; the whole world was given by God as a free gift. This free gift, the creation, and all the materials of that creation, was to man, a way, a medium, a passage and a crossing over, to God.
Already we have touched the point of this vertical aspect. No matter how many definitions we have heard of sacrament, it is this! The world to Adam, to men, was a sacrament, a way to commune with God. He saw God, the Source, through everything, through all materiality, which declares the Glory of God. This is not pantheism, but it is panentheism; not everything is God, but God is in everything. The psalms speak of this reality: “The earth is full of thy riches. Oh Lord, how manifold are Thy works. In wisdom hast Thou made them all!”
In the Orthodox use of the materials of our world we find this same understanding which has meaning in a vertical way; oil, water, wine, bread, are all ways of passage, are all sacramental signs, of the presence of God as the Source of life and fill our parish life. We are all, in this way, priests, as Adam was the first priest. We are all to continually give thanks and bless God in return for His blessings, as St. Paul said, “And give thanks with joy, to the Father who has made you fit to have your share of what God has reserved for his people in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1,11). The meaning of the word Eucharist is Thanksgiving, and in this act of thanksgiving, which we celebrate in our parish churches, and through these elements, we are not only connected horizontally to our brother Orthodox but also vertically to God.
But man, as homo religious, religious man, finds his way of operating with all these meanings, by knowing the secret of his own being, the secret of his own existence. His way of operation is to see his life as a living synthesis, a meeting place, of the vertical and horizontal. He knows that as man, he is limited, conditioned, dependent, relative, and in the deepest sense, “caused.” God is, on the other hand, He who is unlimited in all these qualities; indeed, He is the “causer” of them all. For any vertical understanding of the parish community, this knowledge is necessary. Man can not go somewhere unless he knows from where he has come and to where he is going. “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, are not only an invitation for a community to vertically transcend, to go to the Kingdom of God. It is also a statement of where man has to come from, that is what he has to leave behind. The entire point, of course, is that in any vertical understanding of the community, man must know this fundamental fact. He cannot say of himself, “I am who I am,” or that he exists by some “right of nature.” He is created by the Creator who calls him “out of nothingness” into being. Without this affirmation, there is a radical confusion in the order of existence and there can be no vertical movement or horizontal movement of genuine value.
Horizontal and Vertical Aspects:
All that has been said about these two aspects come together in the Liturgy of the parish community. These two aspects seem to cover a tremendous range so that one may wonder how it is that we have come from what seemed to be a mild socio-anthropolical approach (Dr. Saunders) to a sacramental approach. It is no surprise that one is astounded by this broad range. But the truth is that the community involves the entire human experience that is possible in life.
The Liturgy, as the focal point of the meaning of Orthodox community life, is the best example of the total expression of life’s experiences. The Liturgy is a celebration of life as a gift of God. All our senses, all our capabilities, efforts, energies, are brought into the liturgical effort. It speaks of being connected to one another, “Let us love one another,” and of being connected to God, “Let us lift up our hearts.” It speaks of the bond between love and sacrifice (The Great Entrance or Offertory) in which we “offer up” our lives out of love for God. It speaks of grace, truth, death, suffering and memory. All part of what “connects us with each other and with God.
In short, the Liturgy as the central act of the Orthodox Community speaks best about the need for “connectedness” that is found in both the horizontal and vertical aspects of our life together as the parish community.