Of One Substance

holyapostles.jpg

We are used to confessing that the Son of God is of “one substance” with the Father – meaning that the persons of the Holy Trinity are of one “essence” or “being.” It is also true, however, the all human beings are of “one substance” with all other human beings. That is to say there is only one human nature, essence or being, and that each of us as persons share in that one being.

It is part of the theological understanding that makes it possible to understand how it is that when “one of us suffers, we all suffer.” We are created in the image of God – but in Genesis it makes it quite clear that we (Adam and Eve, male and female) are in the image of God. To exist in God’s image is to exist as a personal being – that is to exist in relation to others.

We are not alone, nor were we created to be alone. Much of what constitutes the “fall” of man is manifested in our existence as individuals. We do not perceive ourselves as existing in communion with others – rather we tend to understand our existence as something that stands or falls on its own.

This is a very deep cultural perception – and thus not something that is easily addressed or corrected. I frequently think that it is less learning not to do something, and more learning to do something (thus being positive rather than negative). Learning to live with love as the center of our being – not money, not time, not hobby, not something else – but love for the other (whichever “others” we live with or work with or share the planet with at any given time).

I think it quite significant that the prayer Christ taught us to pray begins with the plural “Our Father”. It presumes that when I am praying I am not praying as a mere individual. It also means that you are not my problem in the sense that the problem has nothing to do with me. To bear one anothers’ burdens, as the Apostle enjoins upon us, includes bearing one anothers’ sins to some degree. I am taught “not to judge my brother” which includes praying for one another and being solutions for one another when we can or a balm or an encouragement.

Dostoevsky spoke of this as each man being responsible for the sins of all men. To live this means, at the very least, not viewing one another and our sins as legal or forensic problems, but as existential and communal. From the earliest times we have run from this reality, saying to God such things as, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Apparently God thinks we are.

Indeed, being of one substance with the human race, we are far more than keepers.

11 comments:

  1. The picture is of the congregation of Holy Apostles’ Orthodox Church in Columbia, SC – the parish where my family and myself were Chrismated.

  2. Good morning Fr. Stephen,

    “This is a very deep cultural perception – and thus not something that is easily addressed or corrected.”

    I appreciate this statement. I’m in a small reading group for Touchstone Magazine and we often spend much time, thanks to the authors, discussing the problems of our day. This issue of being isolated comes up regularly as an over-arching theme during subjects like Christian burial, university education, our transient inclinations and the like. But rarely do the authors give practical solutions. Their solutions usually have something to do with raising our kids better, which is not so helpful to a room of mostly 30-something singles and a few parents with kids in college.

    In a culture that no longer even holds the bar up high for two people in marriage to take up each other’s burdens, how much more difficult for those without spouses. I don’t know if it is “the Orthodox way” or not, but perhaps it would be good for some of us in our smaller communities to think more deeply about solutions so then we can move on to the “learning to do” part.

  3. It is difficult, indeed. I have seen some parishes with a history somewhat different than most, where the community began almost as an alternative community. I’m not sure that what I see in some of those cases is the answer either.

    Making a way forward in which we live more fully the reality that our life is a common life and not strictly dictated by the individualized culture of consumerism is difficult.

    I have no first hand experience of the community in Eagle River Alaska, but I gather that they sought as a Church community to so something different, and in essence created their own village. But I can’t speak with any knowledge of whether this has been good or bad or just presenting new problems.

    I know that America has this Utopian element in our history and a tendency to repeat itself. I lived in a commune myself for a couple of years (between high school and college). From that experience I can tell you a lot about what doesn’t work. 🙂

    The Orthodox transformation of life is nothing other than the Spirit of God at work in us. So it would be correct to assume that God (who is utterly free) can work in any culture, including our American individual culture.

    But it will have some of its own challenges.

    Prayer, forgiveness (of others and of ourselves in confession), humility, all of these are the sine qua non of spiritual growth whether we live in modern America or medieval Russia. But we do well to think about the unique challenges that our culture presents to us.

  4. Father Bless,
    Our family recently converted to Orthodoxy. Our children were 17 and 18. Coming from protestantism I understood that Christians were all united because of our belief in Christ and because of this we shared a great communal love for one another. I was unaware at the time that we really were all isolated because of our individualism. I could pray for and have sympathy for another’s sins but, I knew nothing about the humility that it takes to truly bear another person’s sins and take them on as my own. The “kiss of peace”, along with everything else during Divine Liturgy, has so much significance for me now.

    My husband and I have always home schooled our children. We realized early on in our marriage that the responsibility to educate our children was ours. Our family’s conversion was a natural progression in our search for the One, Holy, Apostolic Church. I’m not saying that home schooling will cure all of the cultures ills but, our family was able to convert rather painlessly because we were able to discuss issues and learn as we went through the process together. Our relationships with our extended family is another story!

    CHRIST IS RISEN!
    Handmaid Anna

  5. It seems to me that so often people approach this issue of community and bearing one another’s burdens from a macro perspective, wanting programs and groups to show them how to do this. But truly bearing one another’s burdens is a highly personal thing. I think it means knowing someone well enough, listening to them carefully enough, praying for them often enough, loving them deeply enough so that heart begins to speak to heart. Their heart becomes a part of your heart, inseparable from who you are. Only then do you begin to really feel their burden as your burden too and bear it with them. And I think in truly opening ourselves to the burdens of a few, we can cultivate a heart that sees that it is of one substance with the many. Community is one heart reaching out to another heart to another heart to another heart and so on.

  6. Dear Fr. Stephen:

    As one who is in the midst of a catechumenate and struggling with whether to wait for spouse and family (spouse is not a believer) or to move on towards reception (this is going to be my 3rd year as catechumen) I appreciate deeply the last several posts. It is hard to know what best accords with the will of the Lord.

    This is a tangent, but your post here jived in my heart with wisdom that my forebears handed down in a decision in the 1600s:

    The pastor was accused of preaching heretical doctrines from the pulpit. An extraordinary court was formed of leading members (deacons and such) to address the matter. They returned the following terse decision: “Church disagreements should be consumed in the fire of love.”

    Truly, this is an example of addressing problems communally in the spirit of love.

  7. St Susannah the Marytyr — thank you for your post. I think what you say is in the spirit of Jesus. With all the power of the universe at His command, He did not set up universal programs or communities but just made friends (and enemies!) of the people around Him. I think also of the people whom Father Stephen mentioned earlier, who were praying and fasting for him to quit smoking — they didn’t raise funds for a city-wide campaign, just bore the burdens of their neighbor.

  8. It’s hard to have a “personal” relationship that isn’t personal. Good points.

  9. Speaking of “personal” relationships (as I sit at my desk interacting in cyberspace… At least Fr. Stephen knows me!) it’s also hard to have them when even our confessions are done anonymously on the internet–and not only that, but are encouraged to do so by churches! I was just reading tmatt’s GetReligion site and Mollie has a post on this subject… http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2385

    I’m not intending to start a conversation about this subject specifically, but really, everywhere we turn we are being bombarded by a message not just of individualism, but also of anonymity and secrecy. Ours is an uphill battle in an age of technology.

  10. Yes. I think Terry’s piece points to the fact that the need for confession is universal. Interesting that a Church that would deny the need for sacramental confession would create a confessional website. But life is just strange sometimes. There has long been a practice, under certain circumstances for spiritual direction by letter (and this occasionally crosses the line in confessional material) and modern communication devices will doubtless be used under similar circumstances as well. But the act of absolution remains personal. There is a penitent, there is a priest, there is God.

  11. Fr. Stephen,

    Christos voskrese! Found your blog via Pontifications, and I love it.

    You’re right… I think modern Americans are very used to thinking of themselves as “individuals.” You hear it all the time… “I’m an individual!”

    But the root word of “individual” is “divide.” As Christians, we are not in this by ourselves. Salvation is something that we strive for not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

    God bless.

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