One of the greatest tragedies of the modern world is the continuing collapse of social systems. The most prominent and important of these is the family itself – but many other social systems, including the Church, are equally in collapse. Our consumer culture seeks to maximize our individuality (individuals buy more than groups) and false ideologies of freedom stress the priority of individual over group demands (with the exception of groups chosen for political privilege). A result is increased alienation for all people. In a sea of choice, every small boat flounders.
The Christian vision is embodied in God’s first observation of “not good.” Each act of creation is declared to be “good,” until God observes the aloneness of Adam: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” we are told. The joy of communion expressed in the fashioning of woman (“this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”) is crushed in the isolation of sin. The forbidden fruit is made as a choice in isolation – isolation from God and isolation from Adam. The new community entered into by Adam taking the fruit from Eve is a mutual suicide pact – a community of death.
Throughout most of human history, community has nonetheless been the hallmark of human existence. We need one another. Human children have perhaps the longest childhood of all mammals (nursing for over two-years in most natural settings). The earliest evidence of human habitation is tribal – we have never lived in an isolated fashion.
Almost no one in the modern world thinks of themselves as opposed to community. Community is a positive word in almost all settings (apologies to Ayn Rand). Its destruction in the modern world is thus inadvertent – a result of our being unaware of the consequences of our actions – or overconfident about our ability to adapt.
Changing divorce laws are cited by some as contributors to the instability of the family. Mobile societies, in which people (in America) move once each five years on average, are also culprits. After a while, the instability itself becomes a cause of increased instability. Your children may come from a stable home, but for how many of their classmates is this true?
A result is estranged individuals. The natural communities of families are disappearing – leaving all of us as dilettantes in the social world. It is a difficulty experienced by many of the convert communities in the New World: how can you be formed in the Tradition of Orthodoxy if everyone in the parish is first-generation? But almost everyone, everywhere, in everything is first generation (except for American political families). China has the bizarre phenomenon created by the one-child-per-family mandate where the relationships of aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, are a thing of the past. It is not Huxley’s Brave New World, but it’s still a new world.
The parish thus becomes increasingly similar to a monastery. Monasteries are not composed of blood relations – they are communities of choice (and obedience). Those within the monastery have renounced family and marriage as a way of life. They may also point towards a mode of spiritual survival for those of us living in the ruins of the modern world.
Parish life was once a multi-generational, family (almost tribal) matter. Today parishes have large contingents of singles or broken families (broken from various causes), and plenty of people who, though living in families, experience life in a highly individualized manner. In such a context, love (in the fullness of its original sense) is exceedingly difficult.
The monastic life illustrates, however, that love is not impossible. But there are structures within the monastic setting that make this possible. Life within a rule, the blessedness of a holy structure, allows individuals to grow into personhood: a relational existence.
The declaration “it is not good for man to be alone,” is equally a declaration that human existence is relational at its deepest core. We are not individuals who have relationships – we are persons whose very being is only revealed in the context of relations.
Within the monastic setting, the rule has certain classic hallmarks: poverty, chastity, obedience, stability. The monastic form of these practices cannot be the same in a parish setting, but they are still proper foundations when understood properly. The Jerusalem Church in the book of Acts practiced a form of communal wealth, holding all things in common. This model did not survive into subsequent ages, but did not, and should not disappear. The common welfare is still a proper measure within parish life. It is the pressure and context of a consumer culture, where private wealth is seen as a necessity, that make the common welfare seem passe. However, I have witnessed sacrificial examples of the common welfare practiced within parishes from time to time – frequently by those who could “least afford it.” Extended family was once a traditional means of the common welfare. Its absence demands that Christians reconsider how they view their private wealth.
Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need (Eph. 4:28).
Chastity and obedience have very different meanings within a non-monastic setting. However, both point away from contemporary individualized existence. Chastity places our physical desires within the context of relationship and mutual submission. Proper sexual behavior extends beyond moral bounds and into the realm of the rightness of our being. The other is never to be the means of my private satisfaction. The chastity of the marriage bond becomes a larger foundation of the common life.
Parish life is not lived in an obedience similar to that of a monastery. Though some priests seem to want such obedience, it is not considered normative or healthy in a parish (it can frequently be a means of spiritual abuse). But there is a mutual obedience within a healthy parish – an obedience to the gospel and the one faith that excludes the market place of individual opinions and power-driven relationships from dominance within parish life. If this common hallmark of parish existence ceases to be present, the community quickly degenerates into one more contemporary social setting in which individuals exploit each other for various ego-driven purposes, creating yet another hell on earth.
Stability is extremely rare in contemporary society. We not only change jobs, move locations, dissolve families, we also go from parish to parish (not in a natural manner), but driven often by the passions of the ego and the failure of community. This is perhaps the only bearable solution on occasion, but is far more common than is generally healthy. We are a consumer culture. When we grow tired of one thing or find it less than ideal, we shop.
It is said that most Protestant denominations the average clergy person remains in a parish for no more than five years. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, thought this such a good idea that he instituted assignments lasting only four years. Some Orthodox jurisdictions have a similar track record. The stories of parishes (factions, etc) who grow tired or unhappy with their priest and insist that he be replaced are so common-place as to be almost de rigueur. Causes for this culture of instability can be quite varied, but the result has to be questioned.
A fascinating read (perhaps made even more interesting due to its non-Orthodox authorship) is the story of the transformation of an ancient Metropolis in modern Greece – Beauty for Ashes: the Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community. It is a case in point where an authentic spiritual life (monastic in this instance) is used to transform an entire metropolis, devastated by repeated scandals. Such authentic structures cannot entirely be mandated from above – community is ultimately the work of community. But it is important to recognize that there are concrete models of modern transformation.
It’s not good to be alone – but it’s hard to be together. It is the work of God.