The Christian and the Community: A Relationship in God's Image

I have many beloved friends, men and women whom, if you were to spend a day with them, you would recognize as genuinely loving people, exceedingly good people. They are, without question, serious, kind, and deeply spiritual folks of one stripe or another. They also share a deep hunger for community, which they work to satisfy with a range of worthwhile activities. They also, oddly enough, share an abiding sense of alienation from the Body of Christ, at least as that Body is expressed in the media and quite often in their local churches.

Over our years together, many of them have blithely said, to my puzzlement and chagrin, that while they may be spiritual, they are not religious. I understand the unfortunate distinction being made by their parsing of terms, and that distinction continues to strike me as the result of an ongoing failure -- theirs, ours and mine.

Be that as it may, somehow or other and regardless, these beloveds must find their way home. They must find a way to a reconnect their faith to their communities and their communities to their faith. They must find a way to reconnect the spirit with the body. Satan, our tradition tells us, looks for any vessel sailing without a fleet, and it seems to me that an individualized, isolated "spirituality" is almost by definition Satanic.

My own difficulty with "fitting in" at the various churches I attended from my high school days through my early 30s left me hunkered in the same isolated boat. I went a good -- that is, a bad -- 10 or so years as a severed member, languishing alone. These days, I see more vividly how we are called to work out this perplexing business together, and I see that faith is not something that can be both solitary and healthy. The health and eventual fruitfulness of the severed limb depends utterly upon its being grafted onto the living tree.

This is, in part, what I suspect that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hoping to reintroduce to his community in Life Together, wrestling as he does to reclaim the sacrament of confession. He states matter-of-factly:

The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain; his brother's is sure.

Without batting an eye, Bonhoeffer insists that the presence of the brother -- or, more to the point, the presence of Christ borne in that brother's heart -- shores up one's own faith, comforts and assures one's own trembling heart. It is the fact of their being "two or more ... gathered in [Christ's] name" that enables their mutual apprehension of His assuring and unfailing presence.

This may be one reason why, even among the ruling monasteries of Mount Athos, the idiorrhythmic (individualized) rule has been set aside in favor of the more deeply traditional coenobitic (community) rule -- the fathers' lives in Christ are necessarily lives together. Even the increasingly rare eremite, the desert dweller, regularly leaves his bleak and rugged cave, trekking to the monastic enclave or his neighbor's chapel for the purpose of liturgical worship and communion. In the Orthodox tradition, there is no such thing as solitary communion.

This gift of a life together is not the property of monastics alone, but is encouraged of us all. The more troubling point remains, therefore, that until such time as each of us claims that gift and lives into it, the entire Body suffers, and we -- as severed members -- are inclined to dry up, becoming deadwood, little good to ourselves or to anyone else.

"Ignorance and sin are characteristic of isolated individuals," writes the Russian priest Father Alexander Elchaninov. "Only in the unity of the Church do we find these defects overcome. Man finds his true self in the Church alone; not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation but in the strength of his communion with his brothers and his Savior." Elsewhere this same wise priest, offers a word of caution. Quoting Saint Paul, he observes: "It is said of the Church that 'when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.' If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church."

Dwelling somewhere at the heart of this lies the Christian understanding of the human person, an understanding that begins with the conviction that every one of us -- of whatever religion or non-religion -- is fashioned in the image of God, and that we all continue to bear His divine image, however well or poorly we do so.

As the Orthodox like to say, we are all of us written as the icon of God.

The One God is said to exist in Three Persons engaged in a single perichorésis (περιχώρησις), a single circling dance, and our familiar (if inexplicable) trope of Trinity is our shared tradition's preferred manner of figuring God Himself as an essentially relational being.

The Image-bearing human person is therefore also understood as a necessarily relational being, so much so that for all Christians in the early Church, an individual is not considered the same thing as a person -- authentic personhood stipulates the communion of one with another.

Simply put, an isolated individual does not a person make.

As for what we call salvation, it is not to be understood simply as an individual or as a future condition, but as a moment-by-moment, present mode of being, even as an ongoing acquisition, a developing realization. This may have been, in part, what Jesus was teaching us when he said, "For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." This is what he may have been getting at when he announced, "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God."

Jesus did not misspeak. There were, without question, among his exponentially expanding band of followers, "some standing ... who would not taste death" before they had witnessed the kingdom of God, had tasted its power, and were already savoring its abundant life, even as they hobbled with the rest of us through the valley of the shadow of death.

According to the fathers, this is a kingdom, a power, a glory and a quality of life that is potentially no less apprehensible to us now. "The ladder of the Kingdom," writes Saint Isaac, "is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend."

Let this admonition mix with a further word from Archimandrite Sophrony:

What does salvation mean? Do our bodies have to die so that we can enter the kingdom of Christ? How can we develop our capacity to live according to Christ's commandments, according to the Holy Spirit? Only one thing counts: to keep the tension of prayer and of repentance. Then, death will not be a rupture, but a crossing to the Kingdom for which we will have prepared ourselves by communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, by prayer, and by the invocation of His name: "Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy upon me and upon Thy world."

In words like these, I hear a man speaking from within the kingdom already. The one who apprehends the reality of God's unfailing presence, the one who sustains ongoing conversation with His Holy Presence, is able to apprehend all things and all experiences -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, our loves and our afflictions, even our apparent deaths -- as purposeful. That blessed pilgrim is able, even through his or her tears, to taste and to see that the Lord is good, that even our pain is remedial, that even our suffering is grace.

My own earlier struggles with a fiery temper have also been mitigated in recent years by an increasing apprehension of God's holy kingdom here and now. Mulling all this over, there was a time when pride had me thinking that every insult, offense or error had to be corrected, and by me, and immediately. If someone were to treat me poorly, I made certain he knew about it. If someone unjustly blamed me for any petty thing that went awry, the blame was duly delivered to its rightful owner.

This is all in retrospect, but my subsequent practice of the Jesus prayer has helped me to deal with these occasions in a very different way. For one thing, the prayer has helped me to trust in God's unfailing presence, and that same trust has freed me, quietly but inexorably, from my need to let my offender know of his offense.

Over time, the knowledge that God witnessed these occasions with me has let that anger be replaced by something like embarrassment, something like regret. Nowadays I feel complicit in the whole mess, sorry for our mutual, human error. And forgiveness goes without saying. The fact that an offender may remain oblivious to that forgiveness is absolutely beside the point.

And so, sure, I too want very much to be saved. These days that means that I want to be saved from what passes for myself. This is because what passes for myself does not, always, feel quite like the self that is framed in the image of God and is thus united with those around me and is, allegedly, growing with them into His Likeness. I would like to replace this recurrently hamstrung, self-defeating and mostly isolated self with the more promising image: the person in communion with other persons. And while I'm at it, I wouldn't mind undergoing something like a lasting repair of heart and mind, body and soul.

As I continue to discover more fully, day by day, this journey toward wholeness is not something that one is able to undertake alone. Fellow travelers aren't merely a welcome luxury; they are crucial to our bearing our crosses as we seek to follow God. Of course, we are likely to find that before we can set about healing the rift between persons, we have a good bit of interior work ahead of us in terms of repairing and recovering the wholeness of our persons, as such.