Lingering incense from liturgy the night before mixed with the smell of fresh flowers that decorate the empty tomb; bright lights filling the small chapel; the sanctuary veil swept aside, the holy doors flung wide open. These are the first things I experience when arriving for Agape Vespers on Pascha evening. Everyone in the chapel is that tired-to-your-bones exhausted after midnight services and all-night feasting, the kind of tired that reminds us: you are alive and life is full of joy because Christ is risen!
The highlight of this Vespers service is the Gospel reading which is the story of Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples after His resurrection. It is read in as many languages that can be spoken by the people present. The readers can be non-ordained laity (the only time this is allowed), and they read from different areas of the church to emphasize the Good News of the Resurrection being spread throughout the world.
After hearing the Gospel in Greek, Latin, Gaelic, Spanish, Ukrainian, and English, the symbolic meaning of this hit me once we sat down for dinner. There with my husband, the monks, and a few visitors, I looked around the room and I was struck by just what a motley crew we were.
The small community of believers I belong to truly is a microcosm of the Church. It isn’t uncommon to have people of all the vocations (including a large number of children!) praying and enjoying a meal together. People of different traditions: East and West, Catholic, Orthodox, sometimes Protestant, all come to visit. The regular members are from various countries around the world and different states of the U.S. which means we also have quite a mix of personalities in a room even when we are a small crowd.
Because of my experience among such Christians, I want to share with you the insight I have gained over the past twenty years of striving to live a Christ-centered and community-centered life. Thanks to Rod Dreher and his book The Benedict Option, there is a lot of discussion about the need for Christians to live more community-centered lives. I don’t belong to an intentional community, though we certainly live with intention as Christians. I live in a small, Midwestern village where I regularly worship at a humble monastery from the Romanian Eastern-Catholic diocese having its seat in Canton, Ohio. The East is where the birth of Christian monasticism happened and where Saint Benedict, the founder of monasticism in the West, drew his inspiration. It’s the cenobitic monasteries people are looking to for direction as they discuss community life; a hot topic even outside of the Church as people are feeling the effects of losing the “front porch”connection. The breaking down of the family has left no one unharmed. As Christians, we have ancient wisdom on our side to these modern dilemmas.
The Answer to Radical Individualism
My American-grown, individualistic take on the world was turned upside down when I became a wife, mother, and practicing Catholic; even more so when I started regularly attending liturgy at Holy Resurrection Monastery. Before this, my Christianity was only about “me and Jesus.” I did not understand what it meant that I was a part of the “Body of Christ.” I did not know the depth of our interconnectedness.
We were not meant to travel through this world alone, and we are not even capable of doing so. We need community; we need communion; we need one another whether we like it or not–we cannot survive this world alone.
Community defines us because the Holy Trinity is a community–a communion of three persons making one God. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to live in community (or communion) with one another. We are one and united by stronger bonds than our sinfulness or desire for individual “freedom” could ever break: It is Christ who unites us.
Adam, Eve, and their children were the first community. The effects of sin within the first relationships were felt early on, and we have repeated the same sinful cycle. The struggle to live in communion with one another is the struggle humans have had since the Garden of Eden! So this conversation isn’t new it is just resurfacing as we are facing persecution across the world, a radical change in morality, and the breaking down of the family in modern times.
The fact that we have struggled with communion since Adam and Eve should not make us despair. It is true that broken families, friendships, communities, and broken hearts are proof of how often we fail at communion with each other. This understandably leads us to think ‘Why bother trying?’ So instead, we build walls to keep people out, we fulfill our obligations and go home, we keep people at a safe distance, and all the while we feel lonely, depressed, suffer from anxiety and can’t understand why. Our hope, however, lies in Christ alone and the union we already have with each other.
In my struggles of understanding these things, I am often surprised at how all this communion and grace works. Most of the graces come quietly, slowly over the years, and where least expected. Many of the graces come from years of growth together which means years of annoyances and conflict at times. After all, in a community we work out our salvation, so you better believe it is not always pretty.
When you are among a group of Christians who are striving after holiness, the evil one and his demons will be there trying to wreak havoc in any way possible. Of course, it is our sin that will cause the most trouble because living in community is a lot like family life: It is a mirror. Interacting with the same people year after year in normal life will show you your sins. You will know your brokenness, and you will not be able to run from it or get comfortable where you are. Community is the mirror we all need to shatter our egos and the false image of ourselves we’ve created. The good news is, a healthy community is also a refuge; a place to be loved and accepted while wrestling with your own demons. It is the path to true freedom if we commit to doing the hard work.
The actions of the Church over and over again emphasize that we are not primarily individuals. We are connected to each other–past, present, and future in the sacramental life of the Church. We need to understand these truths in our souls (not only our intellects), so we can arrange our lives according to the reality we are already living.
When we are baptized, we do not come to the door alone asking for entrance. We have sponsors. If we are a baby, it is the faith of our parents and godparents that allow us to pass through the waters. In Confession, the priest represents Christ and the rest of the members of the Church. Why? Because when we sin we are most definitely not harming only ourselves but the entire body. If you break your foot, your entire body will feel pain and be affected by the break. So it is with our “individual” sins. We do nothing alone in this world.
Holy Communion is the family meal, it is not received alone and is the same Eucharist that has been received and will be received by anyone who will ever partake of the Eucharist! Perfect communion is the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The eternal dance of agape. We must remember we are made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity.
If you visit the beautiful little chapel where I go for Liturgy, you will see the motley crew I mentioned. If you hang out long enough, you will understand things are not perfect around there because we are all sinful people. I know if you can see past our faults, you will also see a deep love and commitment to one another. The foundation of this love is the liturgical life of the monastery, the life of prayer and asceticism.
Through the liturgical life of the Church, we learn how to love as God has called us. We learn we must forgive before we receive the Eucharist. We get glimpses of how our Father sees each one of us so that we can see our brother in the same light. We see the work of the Holy Spirit moving among us. If anyone wants to seriously undertake the calling to build close community, they must begin with the liturgy.
The perfect antidote to radical individualism is worshipping together at Divine Liturgy where we pray as the one body of Christ and receive Him in communion. From our prayers and actions, we can learn what it means that we are one. It is from Divine Liturgy that we learn how to live as Christians in the world. We are sent out to the world, not to hide our light, but sent forth to live the truths we just participated in. All of life finds meaning in the worship of God during Divine Liturgy. Or as a friend Marco da Vinha wrote, “…part of our current crisis of faith is the inability to look at things liturgically. We do not see our lives as liturgy.”