Archive for May 11th, 2009

The Communion of Saints

May 11, 2009


610xWe are told in the book of Hebrews that our struggle here is “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. This Divine reality is probably not what many modern Christians would expect. 


I recall the question being put to me some years ago, by a young widow (not Orthodox). I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain. When her young husband died, her question was, “Will he be aware of me when he goes to heaven?”


To a degree, her question and her anxiety were driven by a two-storey vision of the universe. Her departed husband was going to live “up there.” Would he know what is happening in my life “down here?”


The perceived gap (a theological construction) places her husband somewhere that potentially is unaware of our life. The Scriptures, however, teach us something quite different. The “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is, in fact, the great company of heaven – the departed who are in the “hands of God.” Their concerns are not separated from us, for they are not separated from the Body of Christ.


If you read the Revelation of St. John, it becomes clear that the primary concern of the inhabitants of heaven, within the great saint’s vision, is with the battle here on earth. There is a battle here and there is a war there. The “place of verdure, a place of rest, etc.” found in the Church’s prayers (particularly for the departed) are, in holy Scriptures, a place with a great deal of turmoil. I suspect that the place described in our prayers for the departed are “eschatological” visions of what will be when the battle is over and the strife is past.


But it is quite clear that Scripture has no notion of a two-storey world in which part of us are struggling for the salvation of our souls, while the rest can wipe their brows and say, “I’m glad that’s over.”


The Body of Christ is one Body. There is only One Church – not divided by those who have fallen asleep in Christ and those of us who remain behind. Whether we are here or in the hand of God, the struggle is the struggle of the whole Church. My success or failure in my spiritual life is not my private business, but the concern of a great cloud of witnesses. Neither are they watching only as interested bystanders. Like all witnesses they urge us on and support us with their prayers. Were they to watch us without participating at the same time in our struggles – the watching would be like torture. As it is, their watching is prayer and participation of the deepest sort.


It is for this reason (among many) that many Orthodox services contain the phrase, “Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers have mercy on us and save us.” It is a humility of sorts, demurring to the prayers of greater Christians – but it is also calling on a reality that abides. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses stands with me and in me in prayer.


Every prayer we ourselves offer is itself always a participation in the life of the world. We have a participation in the great cloud of witnesses – but we also have a participation in everyone who is. The prayer of a righteous few has an amazing salvific impact on the life of the world. But a few more men and Sodom and Gomorrah would still be standing. To this day we do not know how many or how few in their righteous prayers preserve us before God.


I can recall a conversation with one of my brothers some years back. He wondered about the hermits in the desert. He had an admiration for the asceticism of their lifestyle. His question however was, “But what is the value when no one knows they are there.” The truth is that God knows they are there. The devil knows they are there and he trembles. And we all know they are there whether it is a conscious knowing or not. For their prayers permeate us and our prayers and join with them as they rise before God. 


Before God and the witness of heaven there are no secret places. Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us.



What Is My Life?

May 11, 2009

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusI have written often on the subject of “personhood,” drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Elder Sophrony, and to a lesser extent on the theology of Met. John Zizioulas. The heart of their thought is to direct us to the reality that to exist as “persons” is precisely the same thing (or similar) when we speak of the “persons” of the Holy Trinity. And further, that this is true existence for human beings.

In our popular speech, we use the word person in a manner that is interchangeable with individual. This is to equate personhood with a word that stand for its near opposite.

We are used to thinking of ourselves in individual terms – terms which emphasize our role as active, choosing agents. A collection of individuals is especially a collection of unique and competing wills. Thus it is always possible that the competing wills with whom I associate will be in direct competition with myself. Their good and my good may not be at all the same thing.

Thus we wind up with various versions of the social contract, in which we agree by various means, to give as much room to other competing wills as possible, while allowing sufficient attention to our own. It is like belonging to a merchant’s organization.

These social contracts exist primarily to keep us from killing each other and to help maximize one another’s profits, whether they be profits of the material kind or otherwise. It is so strong a force in our culture that even Christians, within the “mega church” movement, speak of their “target” congregation as a “market.” We are defined by the market to which we belong. We are the consumers of religious product. This has a way of working and even of prospering, in that a market approach tends to separate Christians from one another before they become “competing agents.” A congregation that is a statistical slice of our culture would argue over music, sermon, reason for existence, etc. 

Of course, regardless of the rhetoric used to support a marketing approach to human beings for religious ends is simply sinful. It is disrespectful of the purpose of Christ’s body and erects monuments to human sin (as manifest in our marketing choices). Such efforts, regardless of intention, are simply not the Church. They are anti-Church.

Among many things for which Christ gave us His body, our growth and fulfillment of our lives as true human persons is among the greatest. To exist as person is to exist as free, as loving, as sacrificing of self, as having an existence which can only be defined by its relational existence to others. So St. Paul uses the metaphor of body parts. We are like hands and feet, ears and eyes. We have a true existence, and yet that existence only makes sense because it is part of something else. An eye by itself does not “see.” An ear by itself does not hear. We are members of the Body of Christ and we only have true existence inasmuch as we are functioning members of that Body. It is in this manner that we are persons.

Personhood is not a moral goal – it is not a description of how we “ought to behave.” We do not live “as if” the existence of others were an inherent and necessary part of our proper existence. Personhood is a description of what it is to truly exist. To live in a manner that is not properly personal is not an “immoral” existence, it is a falling away from existence itself.

It seems to me that this distinction is important. I have written elsewhere that Christ did not die to make bad men good but to make dead men live. Our living in communion and participation with others is not a metaphorical act of moral behavior but a description of the manner in which we truly existence. Forgiveness of my enemy is more than an act of kindness – it is a recognition of the proper mode of my existence. 

I love my enemy for he, too, is my life. These are not choices we make – or rather they are not things that are true because I choose them to be true. They are simply true. My choice is whether to accept them or reject them. This is our salvation by grace. By grace we have been given an existence that is greater than we might ever have morally wanted (apart from this grace). It is the feast God has set before us. It is the richness of life in His image. It is what salvation looks like.