Are We Connected?

bluechurchHow connected are we? Do your actions, thoughts, feelings, have an effect on me even if I am unaware (or on the other side of the world)? Is my existence bound within the existence of other human beings, or are we simply sharing the same planet for a period of time?

Connections between people, particularly of a spiritual nature, were declared to be mere superstitions in the march of modern rationalism. To believe in connections between people came to be seen as flawed – similar to a belief in an outer space filled with the “heavenly ether.” The rise of the mechanical universe displaced all ideas of true connections between people (or between people and things). Individuals became discrete, separate entities. The only possible effects that were allowed in such a universe were direct physical effects (which would include sound and the various forms of light), or psychological effects (how I react within myself to outside stimuli). Cause and effect were thus severely limited.

There have been some attempts within the modern world to suggest connections beyond this mechanical/psychological model. Depth Psychology (Jungian), has argued for a shared, collective unconscious, a common mind in which we all participate. The judgment of mainstream science is that such ideas are simply “kooky.”

But, the question remains: are we connected? Is our relationship to one another nothing more than the figments of our own neuroses and the violence of others’ actions?

The New Testament clearly contradicts the assumptions of the modern model:

But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

The word rendered “composed” (συνεκέρασεν) in St. Paul’s thoughts on the body of Christ has a more accurate meaning of “mixed together.” “Composed” is not an incorrect translation, but our own weak reading of the word fails to capture the word’s original sense. St. Paul is making the point that God’s creation of the human body is precisely an interconnected/mixed entity. It is this “mixed” entity that most fits the Apostle’s thoughts on the nature of our life as the Church. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you,” for far greater reasons than simple cooperation. The “members” (“parts”) of the body do not exist in a strictly distinct manner: they have something of a “mixed” existence. So, too, are Christians (and humanity as a whole – for the Church is not other than human, but the display of what it properly means to be human).

Today’s increased “wholistic” practice of medicine has renewed an emphasis on the interconnectedness of the systems within the human body. It is only convenience that makes medical science label something as one system or another – for the body is a single whole.

St. Paul takes this “wholistic” or “mixed” understanding and applies it to our human existence: “If one member suffers, we all suffer…” This same understanding, in varying forms, is common in the teachings of the spiritual fathers of the Church. The Elder Thaddeus offers this observation:

Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and in the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed. If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us—in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only here on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Kindle Locations 615-623). St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. Kindle Edition.

The Elder is not suggesting that our thoughts have a profound psychological effect on those around us. He is rooted in St. Paul’s understanding of συνεκέρασεν – our connectedness. We are not each a separate world, but all part of one world. Just as it has become popular to acknowledge the so-called “butterfly effect” discussed in chaos theory (a hurricane’s beginning is effected even by the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the earth), so we should recognize that the whole of our lives – physical, spiritual, mental, etc. – is equally part of a whole.

Our cultural assumptions make us insensitive to the connections of our lives. The modern model of discrete existence supports the fantasy of a highly individualized freedom that is a foundational notion of modern consumer economies. We imagine that there are “victimless” crimes or “privatized actions.” We say to ourselves that certain behaviors are without consequence and effect no one but ourselves. This same fantasy makes it very difficult for us to understand the limitations of freedom and the inherent responsibilities of human existence. The results are a culture that is increasingly dysfunctional.

For Christians this individualized concept of the self undermines many of the primary realities of the faith. The Church cannot be rightly understood as a voluntary association. We are Baptized “into the Body of Christ.” The modern concept of the individual runs deeply contrary to Scriptural teaching on the nature of the Christian life. The sacraments, whose foundations rest within a world in which true communion and participation are possible, become more and more foreign to the individualized Christian experience. The sacraments are either deeply minimized (even to the point of extinction) or re-interpreted in voluntaristic terms. It is this re-interpretation of the sacraments that undergirds the modern notion of “open communion,” or “Eucharistic hospitality.” The exclusion of persons from the Cup of Christ is seen as an insult, a denial of their self-defined Christian identification. I have been told, “Who are you to say that I should not be allowed to come to communion?” “Individual communion” is an oxymoron.

The teaching of the faith regarding Personhood requires an acceptance of the connectedness of existence. Human sin tends towards fragmentation, disintegration and a radical individualism. The ultimate individual existence is the one that refuses love. The presence of the “other,” is perceived as a burden and limitation. Rebirth in Christ is an entrance into a connected existence – into existence as communion. The “other” is not a burden – it is utterly required for true existence.

In the story of human creation, Adam, alone, is described as “not good.” We were not created for aloneness. But the creation of Eve is described in terms that go further than “other.” Had “other” been the only requirement, then any of the animals whom God brought to Adam would have been fitting for the purpose. But Adam’s exclamation at Eve’s creation is in the language of connection: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The “other” is also, somehow, my self.

The daily discovery of the “true self” that marks the path of salvation, is the fruit of love. It is the constant realization that my life is not my own, but is rather found both within and somehow outside myself. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that “outside myself” is something of a false concept. We must say “something of a false concept,” for the true self is not the loss of identity, a blending of the self with all else: it is communion.

The sacraments, then, are not discrete actions of the Church designed to enhance our spiritual experience: they are revelations of the way of life. For in every case, the sacraments are the life of communion, whether Ordination or Eucharist, Baptism, Chrismation, Matrimony, etc. It is for this reason that Patriarch Bartholomew can observe that “the whole creation is a sacrament.”

This same communion describes the means, the path and the life of salvation. Earlier discussions on the blog have ventured to suggest a communion that reaches even into the realm of hell. Communion is not a quality or an activity of life – it is the very essence of life – its sine qua non. For this reason the faithful are taught to pray for the departed, to know and share in the prayers of the saints, and to believe that we are helped by their prayers and they benefit from ours. In such things we are not being taught how to pray, we are being taught how to live.

In Genesis, when God proposes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” And he proceeds to argue for increasingly smaller numbers of the righteous for whose sake God will spare the unrighteous. It was said at one time that there were three righteous men on account of whose prayers God spared the world. It is a Biblical notion. Our connectedness is our life.