The Communion of Friends

lonely

You meet someone and like them. You slowly get to know them. Conversation and sharing, listening and learning, a picture or a reality begin to emerge. You think about them when they’re away. You’re aware that you matter to them as well. The thought of anything hurting them is painful. This is friendship.

We easily reduce friendship to a set of shared emotions. Why we like someone else, we can imagine, rests on a complex set of experiences, hopes, fears, and emotions. But then someone asks this question: “Is there anything between you?”

On the surface the question is innocent. It could mean nothing more than a curiosity about shared emotions? Are you going to declare a relationship on Facebook? But, taken another way, the question is much more puzzling. Is a relationship anything more than a psychological phenomenon? Are we, in fact, utterly separate in our existence, with nothing more than the experience of our own minds? What if someone said of your friendship, “It’s all in your head?”

You feel very close to this person. The friendship has now lasted several years and has been very consistent. One day, speaking to someone else, you describe the thoughts of your friend. However, your description is scrutinized: “How can you possibly know what’s going on in someone else’s mind?” You cannot think of how to answer the question, but you believe your description and your experience are true and correct.

In theory, our modern culture believes that relationships with other people are merely psychological phenomena – they are all in our head. There is occasional research to try and establish some notion of extra-psychological relationship (such as ESP), but even that is largely an extension of psychology. But there is an entire realm of human experience that such a belief ignores. And it is an experience that lies at the very heart of classical Christianity.

This experience is found in the concept of communion. It refers to a true participation and sharing in the life and actual existence of another. It is not a label for a set of feelings nor a synonym for being close with someone. It is a term that truly means what it says. The Greek is koinonia, a state of “commonality.”

The Orthodox faith teaches that we are saved by communion – in particular with Christ. When a person is being baptized they are asked three times by the priest: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” According to St. Paul, we are then baptized “into the death” of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. That is salvation. Christ’s death becomes my death and my death becomes His death. Christ’s resurrection becomes my resurrection, etc. Every sacrament of the Church is about union with Christ, or union with another human being (marriage). It is predicated on the possibility of true communion and participation.

The claim that this is true and possible distinguishes Orthodox Christianity from virtually every form of contemporary Christian believing. It is the foundation of the sacramental world of the Church. When we eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood in the Holy Eucharist, we believe that there is a true sharing, a real communion:

Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him. (Jn 6:56)

Living in such a manner that this communion is made manifest in our lives is the entire purpose of the Orthodox Christian life.

Communion, if you will, is one of the most fundamental elements of Christian grammar. It makes sense of many things, and many things discussed in Christian teaching only make sense in its context. Wherever communion is ignored as a reality, Christianity is deformed and distorted into a caricature of its true nature.

In the Apostles’ Creed, a confession of faith found in a number of Western Churches, the phrase “the communion of saints” is offered as an element of belief, on a par with the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. However, in the minds of most contemporary Christians who confess this Creed, the communion of saints is often left as a vague, ill-defined notion, mostly confined to some idea of fellowship with those in heaven.

In terms of the New Testament, true knowledge is ultimately only had by communion (koinonia). The sort of rational, observational collection of facts that passes for knowledge in our world, would be nothing of the sort in theirs. When John’s gospel says, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3), it is a reference to knowledge by participation, or communion. It is precisely because true knowledge is communion that knowledge of God is eternal life. That knowledge can only be had by true participation in His life.

In a similar manner, St. Paul cried out, “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may have communion in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead!” (Phi 3:10-11)

Interestingly, communion lies at the center of the traditional practice of venerating the saints. Communion works by love. Indeed, true communion is perhaps the main point of love. We not only want to be with the other, we want to share in their life and existence. In the example of friendship described at the outset, there is an experience of communion for which we often have no word in our modern vocabulary (having changed the meaning of communion). We experience communion but are at a loss to describe it or defend it. When we are told that it is simply a thing of the mind, we have no response. Modernity is a lonely construct.

The veneration of the saints is simply what love for them looks like. The cultural expressions of kissing icons or burning candles before them are no different than other cultural expressions of love. But a world without cultural expressions of love quickly becomes a world without love. Human beings require touch, for example, in order to live. We are not creatures of the mind.

Years ago, I wrote my thesis at Duke on the Icon as Theology. During that time of study, I came to realize and understand that an icon can only truly be seen in the act of veneration. For seeing the icon, according to the Church’s teaching, is a relational matter, an act of communion. Many people look at an icon and see an object, perhaps a beautiful religious object. But without veneration, the love offered to the one who is present in the depiction, there is no communion. In the act (or many acts) of veneration we enter into the reality of communion.

This veneration has developed a liturgical expression in the life of the Church, but it is the same in our relationship with all persons. Through love, expressed in a variety of appropriate manners, we truly know the other by participation (communion). In some measure, we enter into and share in their life. In some measure, their life becomes ours and ours becomes theirs. This is especially true in marriage, in which a man and a woman become one flesh. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, “My brother is my life.”

That communion and participation in the life of the other is possible is one of the single most contradictory challenges to the modern world-view. We are not utterly individual in our existence nor in our experience. We are beings whose lives are best expressed and fulfilled through communion. When this is rightly understood, it is nothing more than the proclamation of the primacy of love.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)

If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)

17 comments:

  1. I thank God who has enabled you to express these exquisite truths to us. They are like “rain upon new mown grass” for me personally. Glory to God for all things!

  2. Dear Fr Stephen,
    This is article is also a wonderful clarification of the many icons we see of the Theotokos, where Christ is shown not sitting in her lap or held in her arms but ‘residing’ in her. Such icons depict what communion is. Christ is shown incircled within her body. This communion is both a physical and spiritual reality. She, the Theotokos, is also our exemplar.

  3. “How can you possibly know what’s going on in someone else’s mind?”

    While at a mainline seminary a professor exposed me to a philosopher–better left unnamed–who said just that: we cannot ever truly know “the other”, and the attempt to know them is tantamount to murdering them, seeking to reduce their utter incomprehensibility to something that makes sense to us. Ever since then, by God’s grace in the Orthodox Church and your writings, I’ve slowly started to see that this knowledge in communion is the gift that God so longs to give the world in Christ.

    All else is hopeless mental gymnastics.

  4. Thank you Fr Stephen!

    I have a question, or better put, a longing to know how to truly commune with Gods friends, the Saints, the Theotokos, and our whole family in heaven for that matter. I have been reading your posts on Icons and have received my first one yesterday of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev, the first thing i did without thinking was kiss it. Another icon of the Theotokos, Christ the teacher and St Nicholas is still on their way.

    This statement of yours, “The veneration of the saints is simply what love for them looks like” is what i want, and “Many people look at an icon and see an object, perhaps a beautiful religious object. But without veneration, the love offered to the one who is present in the depiction, there is no communion” is what i fear.

    Because i have never been in an Orthodox Church, and cant attend one due to the closest church being about 500km away from me, im mostly reliant on following Orthodox people like yourself. I know this is temporary and that God will make a way for me to become Orthodox, i am also in the process of making contact with the priest of that church.

    Here is my real question i guess, i once read something you wrote about where your treasure is there your heart will also be. You said something in the lines of that its not the other way around, and gave an analogy of helping the poor. You said that even if our hearts are not truly for the poor we should help and continue to help, and our hearts will follow. I used this as my foundation to start with Icons and veneration.

    Am i on the right track? or can you advise me a better way please considering my circumstances?

    Bless
    JP

  5. JP,
    I think you are very much on the right track. It was a common understanding in the Desert Fathers that our souls follow our bodies – it was the basis, in many ways, of ascetical practices. Humble the body and it will humble the soul. Children learn to do things by doing them – we call it “play.” In the same manner, venerating icons, etc., is an action, partly undertaken in a physical manner, that, over time, forms and shapes the heart.

    I’ve used the image of learning to ride a bicycle when I speak to my catechumens about becoming Orthodox. You learn to ride by falling off and getting back on, etc., until you can ride. Then, when you can actually ride a bicycle, and someone asks you how you do it – you find there are no words to describe it. We have learned it at a much deeper level.

  6. I would like to bring into this wonderful conversation words from Matthew the Poor’s book, Words for Our Time, volume one. This book has talks to his monastery in Egypt and each of them is illuminating, profound, and full of light. The particular talk that is relevant to this conversation is the chapter entitled “I AM in the Eucharist”. I won’t detail the whole chapter, but he emphasizes how the Eucharist is the great uniter of all Christians. He says that as you go up for the Eucharist you go up as an individual and after partaking of the mystical Precious Blood and Body of Christ, you come back as a member of the Body of Christ. He goes into great detail of all of the wonderful things that this means and all of the I AM sayings – you partake of all of this. His insights have changed the way I think and meditate when I take the Eucharist. I think about all the people down through the ages and across the globe that I am now united with – I am partaking of the same Body of Christ as St. Nicholas, St. Chrysostom, St. Xenia of Petersburg, St. Isaac the Syrian, the monks on Mt. Athos (past and present). As I look at the saints in the icons in my room, it really makes me realize that we are all of the same body of Christ and they all become closer friends to me. I feel this spiritual connection across the ages and across the globe in present time. Matthew the Poor says so much more about the Eucharist that has deepened my awareness of this incredible gift. His chapters on the Nativity and Romans are also very enlightening – every chapter is full on insights. I highly recommend this book. We Christians are all united together in our struggles and in our faith – just realizing that I am a tiny, insignificant part of the incredible Body of Christ is quite amazing to my little mind. Glory be to God for All Things!!

  7. I also have received much from Fr. Matthew the Poor’s books. Yes, we are truly all one body in Christ, in the Eucharist. Glory to God.

    One of the most important pieces of advice I have ever gleaned from this blog (years ago) is “to simply sit in silence before an icon of the Theotokos”. As the Theotokos is almost always depicted with Christ in her icons, this really helped me get to “know” my Mother, the Mother of us all, in Christ, His dear Mother. As time passed, I gradually learned to light candles before my icons, as I began creating an icon corner. I found lighting candles in front of the icons very natural and very helpful, beautifully illuminating the Holy images with the light of Christ, from whom all light originates. I gradually learned to stand in prayer before my icon corner, with my candle lit icons, praying beautiful prayers given to us through the centuries that I found in my Orthodox Prayer Book. This was a gradual process for me, that happened naturally, in time. I also learned to “greet the Saints with a Holy kiss” in Church. I gradually then learned how closely the heart will follow the body, in prostrating to Christ for example, in His icon, as I watched others so reverently, humbly, do this before Christ and His Saints, in Church. In time, this also became natural. I gradually learned, observed, and participated….to draw closer to God and His one body, the Church.

  8. How to commune with the saints? A frequent question especially in a world governed by naturalism. For some it denotes something akin to psychosis if it is anything other than an emotional sentiment. That is if it is “real”.

    As Father says, in the context of Church life, you just do. Interestingly enough, occasionally one will introduce themselves usually when in the presence of their icon.

    Then their are those time when seemingly out of nowhere knowledge, references, icons, and devotions just seem to blossom. When I have witnessed that sort of communing it has always been around a certain need that a loved one needs help with. Seems like the saint is saying, “I can help, just ask”.

    The humbling ourselves to genuinely ask for help (intercessions) seems to be crucial somehow.

    A case like that has occurred in my own life. My wife and I have several friends and loved ones struggling with various mental health issues. My wife being especially sensitive was made aware of a 7th century Irish saint, St. Dymphna, venerated in both the East and the west who has a heart for those who struggle with mental health and are victims of incest.
    From not knowing her at all to regularly calling on her for help and introducing our new friend for those suffering occured quite suddenly.

    That is one example of the reality of the communion of the saints.
    St. Dymphna, intercede for our salvation and the healing of our souls.

  9. I think of all things, don’t we all most long for communion? A place with those who know us & love us, & will never leave us? This was a beautiful post Father.

    And Michael – thanks for writing of St. Dymphna, I too struggle with mental health issues & am at the moment, so I will ask her to intercede for me & see what comes. I keep seeing Julian of Norwich’s words ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’, in various places, which I’m hoping is a word for me right now.

  10. Thank you Fr Stephen,

    I feel so relieved now, and thankful that God and the Saints are guiding me in some mystical and compassionate way.

    You once said in a post, “Communion is not a refined art to be mastered”. Those words have stuck with me, since i come out of protestant evangelical fundamentalism where the thought of perfecting everything is quite common, i am often tempted to define my spiritual life by progress and success.

    May God keep me from this.
    Please pray for me.

    Is there a Saint that converted from Protestantism? Or a Saint that can help me with ridding my heart from this secular religion? I have 18 years of terrible theology and doctrine to filter through and clean my heart of.

    “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me”

    Bless
    JP

  11. JP,
    You seem to be so on the right track! A heartfelt seeker. This will not go unnoticed in the heavens!

    You ask if there are any particular saints that may help you personally. I can only relate to you my experience. These things are hard to describe, but I will try.

    First, there are phrases I latch onto that speak to my heart. In this instance it was something Father Stephen said…that is, to ask the Lord to send you a saint. Another was that he began a “devotional” to St Seraphim of Sarov. I had no idea what ‘began a devotional’ looked like. The only thing I pictured was to begin to read about the saint, with the heart turned toward him/her, asking for help. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way. Dealings with the heart are very different from parsing out intellectually. God knows the heart. So even when we stumble in our words, or are awkward in our actions, it is the heart He observes. That means our intent, our motive.
    So I asked. And in due time (God’s timing is always perfect. Too soon would do us no good) my prayer was answered.
    Since coming to Orthodoxy, every morning I read about the saints of the day. I was drawn to a whole host of saints, as well we should, as we become familiar with their lives and their example that we may imitate. Over time, and during a particularly difficult time of struggle, I reached out to someone I trusted (God raises us up by granting us participation His life…and so He “arranges” meetings!). I reached out to Kouria Frederica Matthews-Green) and was introduced to St Paula of Rome. A very kind nun, Mother Paula (Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration) sent me a great deal of info on St Paula. As that info was en-route, I purchased an icon of her (actually had it made, since I couldn’t find one online anywhere). So that’s where I began. To me, I started a devotional. And it grew. I call her “mother” in endearment. She’s brought me, and brings me, through some difficult times.
    Another saint, Great Martyr Irene, came a bit afterwards. But it was a “draw”. Pay attention to those things. At first you may be drawn to many. But you’ll know the ones who are particularly sent. As I mentioned before, I know the Theotokos has much to do with this!

    My point is to follow your heart, prayerfully. God hears your prayers. Seek His will and confess your ignorance (by which I mean the things we simply do not, and can not, comprehend).
    My story is just one example, It is personal. Make yours personal too!
    Blessings JP!

  12. Father,
    The subject of communion reminded me of a recent episode of my family life:
    My (Evangelical) wife explained to our children that “blessing” was the things that God gives us in life. I mildly observed that this explanation does not fit the exhortation “bless the Lord”, or the story of Isaac giving his blessing to Jacob thinking he was Esau, and then not being able to give it also the the real Esau. She then said “You’re right!” and asked for my explanation of what a blessing was. I was not sure what to answer. I do not have a “ready” Orthodox answer – though I have a “feel” for it, I have no good words. And I have often thought that modern, nominalist thought had no place for “blessing” that is not simply a generalisation of concrete gifts, or perhaps a way of feeling.
    My thoughts at the time, rather, wondered towards “blessed are the poor, etc.” but this seemed not useful, as the Greek for this is not the same word. I then thought of communion, and that a blessing was perhaps a particular giving of something of our selves within communion. I did not speak this aloud at the time as I was not sure I would be understood, but rather suggested that the question be contemplated in the light of the two things I had mentioned (the “bless the Lord” and the story). The conversation then moved on.
    How should have I explained blessing? Is it related to communion?
    -Y.

  13. Yannis,
    It’s a very good question – and is, indeed, related to communion. In the OT, the Hebrew world “Baruch” (and variations) is the word for blessing. It’s root implies something “coming down.” It is, in essence, calling on God to “come down” to us, to things around us, etc. By extension, it is a calling on God for communion with Him.

    When we “bless” someone else – we are calling on God to come down on them in His communion.

    Those in the “Beatitudes” (here the Greek word is “makarios” – which can mean “happy” – but should be seen as an equivalent of “baruch”) are “blessed,” in that their state of being – poor in spirit, persecuted, peacemakers, etc. – are states to which God has united Himself in a special way. If we do good to the poor, we do good to God. They are “blessed.”

  14. Wonderful guidance Paula AZ, Thank you!

    “ask the Lord to send you a saint.”….”He “arranges” meetings!”, I would have never thought of this, its so simple, so profound. Thank you.

    Now the struggle of being patient, not my strong point, but your words have hit home: (God’s timing is always perfect. Too soon would do us no good).

    Thank you for sharing your personal testimony.

    Bless
    JP

  15. Dino, Massillon, Oh is 980 miles away. If I go there I might as well make a pilgrimage on to St. Raphael of Brooklyn who’s grave is at the Antiochian Village. I could stop and visit my brother and niece along the way. Hmmmmm.

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