How 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 t