As the Christian faith is seen more and more as a negative attribute in today’s society, our bonds with other members of the Church become more important. This is doubly so as the world around us is not only rejecting Christ, but rejecting strong relationships and friendships as well, leading to a general disintegration of community. Nevertheless, even in past times where persecutions abounded, we can find strong examples of Christian brotherhood.
Tertullian, one of the first great Latin theologians, gives us a good standard set by early Christians for this reflection, from the mouths of their pagan neighbors:
“Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).
This unifying and unyielding love is one of the hallmarks of a deeply rooted and practiced Christian faith. It is a light that penetrates the darkness of our world, beckons people to come taste and see the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and radiantly illumines those that fervently desire it. Love like this is often seen as a transformative virtue, highlighted by its transcendence and ubiquity. It is not conditional or demanding, but self-emptying and all-encompassing. A community that contains this love internally and radiates it externally has been granted an extraordinary blessing from God.
True reciprocal love of this type requires the desire to establish deep relationships with another person. However, in our age of individualism and consumerism, we have a tendency to view most relationships with others in transactional terms. We draw away from them, interacting not at the level of ‘I’ to ‘I’ but at the level of object and subject, simultaneously lacing many of our interactions with an air of both condescension and indifference. We live in an age where our first question is not “How can I serve you?” but “How can you serve me?”
English philosopher Roger Scruton, in The Soul of the World, sees the disappearance of God from the natural world as a result of the de-personalization of our relationship with Him:
The God of the philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second.
I think this concept rightly applies to the degradation of human relationships and community as well. This lack of second person ‘I’ to ‘I’, or rather ‘I’ to ‘you,’ is proliferated by the social atomization notoriously taking place in younger generations (but not absent in older ones). We may be more connected than ever but we mask ourselves behind screens (and now actual masks), interacting with the world under different guises and being able to be selectively vulnerable. Because a device mediates our every interaction, it is difficult to view our electronic conversations as anything but impersonal and ultimately less than meaningful. Thus, we see the death of common social skills among men and women across the social strata. True relationships are not born of this and communities cannot be sustained by such social atrophication.
As Christians, we need to be drawn to the opposite path. From the very beginning, God declares the importance of man’s fellowship with others:
And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’
The profundity of this statement cannot be understated. Our God, the treasury of all good things, realized that creating man to be alone was not good and remedied our situation. Furthermore, when He commands our ancestors to “be fruitful and multiply,” He blesses them, commanding them to “fill the Earth” with His creation. Thus, we have two situations – a declaration of goodness and a blessing to multiply opportunities for this goodness – to illustrate not just the necessity of others and forging relationships with them, but the goodness of it as declared by God.
An even more decisive act which demonstrates the importance of community is Christ’s establishment of His Church. This body, His Body, is what He left behind for the salvation of mankind, that we may achieve heavenly citizenship with our Father in Heaven. It is through the Church that we see the necessity of communal Christian life. Christ did not leave us an instructional handbook to be perused as we so find time for; He did not leave us a set of ethics to be adopted like any other philosophy; He left us a body of believers to worship together, sing His praises together, struggle together and seek salvation – together.
This body of believers requires participation with the saints who are alive and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. Everything in the Church is of a corporate nature and this nature extends across the entire history of the Church. We partake of the same Eucharist the apostles, saints and our forefathers did, the same Body and Blood our children will partake of. Because of this nature, we cannot avoid fellowship with other members of His Church of both past, present and future. As Hegumen Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Monastery explains:
The Church is the Body of Christ and by Her very nature is anything but an institution wherein one can be isolated from others. We only let it be so if we fail to involve ourselves as the people of God, with one another.
Thanks be to God that the Church, in her mercy, has structured herself to facilitate and promote this communal participation! The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, for instance, cannot begin unless the faithful give a firm Amen to the priest’s opening refrain:
Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
Furthermore, we hear the oft-repeated charge to “commend ourselves and others and all our life unto Christ our God.” The repetitiveness of this refrain highlights the importance of it, urging us to take the command seriously every single time. We are tasked with offering up the lives of our brothers and sisters to the Lord, showing Him the fruits of His Spirit that He has created in our communities. This means that we must sincerely pray for them.
Holy Communion, our life-blood, is also only to be received by Christians who, besides having properly prepared with confession, fasting and the set pre-communion prayers, are at peace with their neighbors. This requirement is taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.
Saint Paul also decries divisions in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.
Since we are not supposed to commune if it will be unto our judgement (being unworthy of it), commands against division and for the establishment of peaceful dispositions highlight the necessity of peaceful relations in living a Christian life worthy of the Eucharist. Such a requirement helps tie a community together by encouraging forgiveness amongst brothers and a harmonious spirit in our interaction with them. It also necessitates fellowship with others and the development of healthy and frequent relationships with them. We cannot be at peace with our neighbors if we do not interact with them; avoidance is not peace but cowardice.
This is why right before the beginning of Great Lent, an Orthodox Christian’s final service before the holy fast commences is Forgiveness Vespers. The faithful go up to every other member of the congregation, old and young, clergy and laity alike, to prostrate themselves before one another and seek their forgiveness. This is then sealed with the kiss of peace, allowing us to go into the journey of Lent together, having prepared ourselves to walk side by side anew with our brothers and sisters in the Faith. We must take these opportunities and all opportunities offered by the Church to reconcile with others and grow closer to them and to Christ.
Like the Eucharist, all sacraments are personal. The priest announces the name of each recipient as they receive them. They are not individualistic events though; all of the holy mysteries are of a communal nature and they are not administered outside of the church community. One cannot partake of communion alone. Instead, each time we commune we proclaim our oneness with those around us and those who have kept communion with Christ centuries or millennia before. In a similar way to the necessity of a public Amen for the continuation of the Liturgy, the church body gives an affirmative Yes to the newly illumined, newly married or newly ordained, welcoming and asserting their worthiness to take the next step in their path towards Christ. Baptisms and Chrismations require sponsors (a godparent) to receive the newly illumined into the Church, promising proper catechesis and upbringing of the child or adult in the Faith. None of these can be done by one’s self.
We can delve even further into the spirit of community and togetherness that exists within the Christian faith in the Gospel of Matthew. Christ says:
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
There is no nuance in the words, but a clear statement of Christ’s presence in the gathering of the faithful. If we truly desire to follow Him, this charge must be heeded.
We are not saved alone. This should not be something scary or disheartening! It is a realization that we, alone, do not have all of the answers. Together, however, we can prosper and reach Theosis, our salvation in Christ. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a church to foster a Christian:
We are not saved alone. Salvation is the will of God for everyone and everything (2 Peter 3:9). And many have united themselves already to the will of God. And like the will of God, they become part of our salvation. “It is not good for man to be alone.”
“Good” is not something that can be had “alone.” Thank God we are saved from it.
Christian community has its ontological importance, as we’ve examined above. It was built into our human nature to seek deep companionship with others and authentic participation in the Christian life necessitates the forging of relationships with our brothers and sisters, sharing in the full range of experience that comes from it – both the joys and the sorrows. Besides this, revitalizing Christian fellowship also has its importance in our increasingly atomized age on a practical level.
Deep relationships of the type we need to rekindle as Christians require two key elements: vulnerability and self-emptying love. Vulnerability is a particular dangerous word nowadays, but we are not using it in the context that Freudian psychoanalysts would recognize, but rather in the sense that it allows us to follow the commands of Christ and bear each others’ burdens. These can be difficult tasks even for those not living in our age of isolation. It means we must see others ‘I’ to ‘I’; more challenging is actually opening ourselves up to be shared, a necessary reciprocity. Self-emptying love also means that we avoid judgement and strive to love others as Christ loves the world.
These things cannot be learned or bettered by reading, thought or analysis. No legalistic reasoning will lead to true love of one’s brothers and sisters and deep relationships with them. Analogous to Evagrius’ famous quote on prayer (“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian”), the only way to achieve this sacrificial, other-oriented love is to actually practice it. As much as one may hope, this cannot be done correctly over text or even video messaging. The true giving of oneself to another means that we relinquish our position as arbiter of our own image – we cannot be able to craft who we are or how we are seen, but must approach others face to face as we actually are. What better place to practice these Christian virtues than with our brothers and sisters in the faith, both in our worship of Christ and after? It is but one reason why we shouldn’t merely go through the motions by viewing Sunday liturgy as only an obligation, shirking any communion with fellow Christians after the service or during the week.
Placing ourselves firmly in the center of a community oriented towards Christ also enables us to receive guidance about walking the Christian paths from our spiritual father and the brethren that struggle for the same thing alongside us. It’s important to reiterate that we truly cannot do it alone. This publication’s patron, St. Benedict of Nursia, in his Rule, writes that even the greatest anchorites required the advice of their brothers to advance to their level of mastery:
Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil.
Furthermore, we know that surrounding oneself with a body of people all aiming towards a single objective helps one stay accountable. As Christians, our attempts at obtaining godly virtue can only be truly fostered by the advice of a sage guide, a spiritual father who has walked the path before you. Nevertheless, if we do not see the actions of others orienting themselves towards the same path, one designed at cultivating love for God, the words of even the most wise or saintly priest can ring hollow as we feel the temptations to slip back into earthly ways. A good community acts as a buffer, exhorting us to holiness and the pursuit of Christ and helping us get up when we fall. It is an essential part of the Christian walk.
Part of the idea of being vulnerable with other is aimed at cultivating accountability. Yes, it is important to feel shame from time to time. However, our vulnerability with others is not at making ourselves feel totally depraved or incapable of the love of God or others. Shame is not something to be dwelt upon. We have a tendency at imagining the worst when it comes to the reactions of others or of Christ Himself, while we forget that God will always love us. We must remember that loving truly is giving others a part of ourselves, an action that is sometimes painful because we are fallen men in a fallen world. If we muster the strength to share our joys – and struggles – with others, we will find that they may share many of them. God helps us learn from others so that we may grow on our own Christian walk. It’s important top not let ourselves become hardened by pride or by fear so that we may open our hearts to all of our brothers and sisters to welcome them into our life and take the first step in letting us be welcomed into theirs.
A healthy degree of fellowship is the place where we dash our egos against the rocks of community and allow our own individuality to be molded by our fellow Christians and Christ Himself. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, gives us an image of the spirit with which we should embrace Christian struggles with others:
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Self-emptying love, the second requirement, requires a revolution of how we in an individualistic age love others. It requires self-sacrifice and an orientation away from the self (hence the adjective self-emptying). This means that we ask not “how can this person serve me?” but rather “how can I serve this person, this icon of Christ?” Let go of yourself so that you can fully embrace others. We must always remember that all people are children of God; should we keep that thought ever-present, we will be able to love them accordingly.
One remaining hallmark of healthy communities of all types is intentionality. Some may hope and pray for a community they can fit in with like a puzzle piece from the beginning. While we should all pray for our communities and the finding of one if we do not currently have one, this passive approach is not the correct approach. We need to remember the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
This passage highlights the importance of going through the Christian life with a set purpose. We cannot saunter through our process of salvation on auto-pilot and we are not saved by checking checkboxes of should-do’s or have-done’s. With regard to Christian community, we must thus take an active, “violent” approach in seeking it out.
Sometimes, this means that we need to take a leading role in engaging with others and beginning to organize a cohesive body for fellowship at a parish or in a particular area where community is weak or lacking. If everyone else is merely going through the motions, it may not mean that they do not desire the same things. Since we all live in this age of intensifying isolation and atomization, there is a real possibility that others are waiting for someone else to take the leap. It could be as simple as reaching out to engage in conversation with others you have not talked to before at your parish. Even if the attempt is unsuccessful, you have still taken the step to engage with them – a commendable and necessary practice in our modern age.
It is easy to get discouraged if you find yourself in a position that seems futile. There are many reasons why people could not desire the same intimacy of community, but one of the main reasons is likely that they have not been taught to desire it. The secular world is still the most potent catechizers of modern man. However, we must avoid the cafeteria approach that could come from such discouragement. We should be patient and only abandon one group for another should the attempt at building relationships be met by hardened hearts.
Otherwise, if we set ourselves up as the arbiters of our own community, we can become like the rootless gyrovagues that St. Benedict mentions in his Rule. A search for healthy community can easily turn into a quest for the “best” or the “most perfect” parish or group for fellowship, one guided by an impossible standard or one’s own personal desires. This flies in the face of what actual community provides – roots and an opportunity for humility. If we desire to live lives firmly rooted in His Word and His Church, we must also seek to plant roots among our brothers and sisters in the faith. Pray that He will provide fellow laborers for this task and trust that He will deliver.
The title of this essay is a phrase that was common in the early church attributed to the mouth of Saint Cyprian of Carthage: Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus – One Christian is no Christian. This is more than an observation, but a charge on how to live one’s life that is equally applicable in our world of modernity. Do not think you can walk this path alone. Find a spiritual father or director, find a Christian community and, most importantly, commit yourself to building one with patient action guided by prayer and charity.
There is not a set standard for good Christian community. It depends on what people make of the situations God places them in – sometimes people find themselves surrounded by a healthy parish community, yet they turn away for whatever reason. In other instances, one can take what externally would appear to be a deficient community and can still create deep bonds with others in it, working together with them on the path to salvation. Do not be disheartened! Remember that God loves mankind and all of creation. Keep close to your heart Christ’s charge not to worry about trivial things and remember that He will provide us with co-laborers in Christ if we truly seek after it.