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, communion 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)

29 comments:

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

    Father, when we speak of holiness and the acquisition of virtues, am I correct that this is representative of drawing into communion/participation with both God and mankind? The grace of Holiness feeds that of virtuous behavior to others and visa-versa?

  2. I am often puzzled at our (human) inveterate desire to claim uniqueness. It seems to me to be rooted in pride.

    No need to publish/approve this. I’m just offering food for thought.. I see this desire manifest a lot, particularly in Orthodox writers. Like they have something to prove that they are “better than” the rest of Christianity, especially better than Catholicism. I don’t think it’s a good impulse to follow. I have seen it as well in other confessions, to be fair, including my own, but for some reason it appears to be a “thing” with the Orthodox more than others. Whatever the source and reason, it is off putting for those not in your tradition, and so perhaps minimizing it for that reason alone–so that others can more easily see the good you have to offer–would be worthwhile.

    You might like Bl. Marmion’s _Christ the Life of the Soul_. He talks in some depth about adoption being a central Christian theme, that it is Christ’s holiness and perfection that becomes our own. Seems similar to your thoughts on ‘communion with Christ’.

  3. Am I wrong in understanding that repentance, real repentance, is a deep act of humility that also leads to a life that demonstrates communion with God and others?

    It sometimes gets confusing to me when we talk of being merciful, forgiving, being in communion as if they are distinct and different. Does not each one including repenting lead to the others?

  4. Ambrose,
    There is also a modern drive to blur all distinctions, to smoothe out differences, and make everything accessible to everybody (the democratic instinct). I write as an Orthodox priest from within the Orthodox tradition. I do not presume that other Christians will agree with me or even find what I write to be useful. In some cases, I suspect that what I write would contradict what they know and think.

    It would, of course, be easier for people if I somehow sought to de-emphasize those realities. And I know that some Orthodox writers are really in-your-face in a manner that makes Orthodoxy to be a bit tribal.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that Orthodoxy comes out of many centuries of persecution (from Islam and Communism) and that for much of its existence, Western Christians have sought to erase them, or overtake them, or minimize them, etc. Historically (particularly since the second half of the 20th century,and for some time before) been working to overcome what was called a “Western Captivity” when its own roots and sources had been suppressed, and almost forgotten. So, there’s a history to be acknowledged, and, perhaps, tolerated. Coming to understand Orthodox distinctives and even, “uniqueness,” is part of that shaking off of its captivity. But, Orthodoxy is not a subset of Christianity. It is the fullness of the Church, historically, sacramentally, and theologically. It needs to be stated and described within its boundaries to be rightly understood. That does not serve the ecumenical project particularly well – but Orthodoxy is not interested in that project. Such a project would, in the name of some vague unity, simply erase Orthodoxy in the manner that has been attempted so many times before.

    Most English-speaking Orthodox writers are converts – like myself. And that has its own role to play.

    If you find something useful here, I’m glad. I’ve got readers from all over the Christian map. But, the blog is what it is (and has been for some 15 years).

    It is also important, in “hearing” someone, to listen to what they’re actually saying (which might be unique or new) rather than assuming that it’s been said already in someone else’s tradition. Orthodoxy is unique. Understanding what is unique about it is part of actually listening to it.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. Father, I came to the Orthodox Church from a syncretistic community. It included a sacramental sense and the wonder of the actual presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints plus a lot of New Age nonsense. Once the founder died many continued looking for The Truth in older more established Christian Traditions.
    The work and life of Fr Seraphim Rose of blessed memory which included the life and example of St. John Maximovitch appealed to many. In my case, Fr. Seraphim’s willingness and ability to directly address the nihilism of our age–a spirit I also find in you and the larger Orthodox Tradition for the most part. The foundation of both the willingness and the ability to do so seems to lie in the recognition that Jesus Christ is The Truth just as He said. Also, the Way and the Life.
    Much of modern religiosity seems to contradict that reality. When I started to explore possible local communities here in Wichita, the community I and my late wife found that, though far from perfect, best exemplified and embodied the real presence and Sacramental mystery was an Orthodox Church. That is a reality I found almost entirely absent in the communities of other Christian traditions I visited. My late wife agreed and we were received into The Church.

    My experience since, 35 years now, has not dimmed my appreciation of the distinct difference between what I find the largely psychological/emotional sense elsewhere that leads to capitulation to modernity and The Church. That is a distinctness worth celebration even when it offends some. No one I know intentionally sets out to offend but sometimes just being who we are offends some and brings the demons to fury.
    For myself I can only repent for my own sins and, by the grace of God, enter more deeply into Communion with Him who is the Truth and gave Himself on The Cross for me.
    That does not make me “better” it just allows me to become actually human.
    Forgive me, a sinner.

  6. Father,
    Thank you for these clarifying words regarding a mystery that I ponder frequently, particularly since I have left both the Catholic and Anglican churches and am not fully Orthodox, so haven’t been able to receive Communion for some time. Thank you too for your response to Ambrose. I have friends who are horrified at my interest in Orthodoxy, citing the same objections he mentions, and all I can say to them is, read the history. Christ invited all to his table; he never beat anyone over the head forcing them to come. My hesitation about taking the full dive is entirely cultural. I wish I felt a sense of homecoming at the Liturgy, but I don’t, I feel like a foreigner. I’m working on it though. I find your writings very helpful and inspirational.

  7. Fr. Stephen,
    truth is truth and denying such is detrimental to who we are and our relationship with the source of truth.

    I too have had accusations of – ‘you think you’re better than me/us, when I have spoken about Orthodoxy. Although as I have already mentioned in previous posts, that I am not Orthodox and am waiting on God. But it has come up in conversation and I found that I could only speak as I have found.

    The truth is undeniable, not matter how disturbing and uncomfortable this may be at the outset; ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’

    I came to the conclusion, not from intellectual speculation. I can only say that for some reason other than what I deserve, the truth has revealed itself to me. Where is Christ present, where is the Holy Spirit, where can I be in communion with the Father; the Holy Trinity in it’s fullness. The Orthodox Church; no fudging, no illusion, but truth and reality.

    I will add that I am a bit out there, as perceived by most people I encounter!!

  8. Essie,
    My heart goes out to you. I did not have the feeling of “coming home” when I entered Orthodoxy. It felt culturally strange, and outside my comfort zone. It was, however, permeated throughout with sound doctrine, and the communion with the saints of the ages – in short – it was and is what it said it was.

    A brief story:

    For many years I longed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. However, I quietly said in my heart (prayerfully), that I did not want to go as an Anglican, but that would wait until I could go as an Orthodox Christian. That opportunity arose some 10 years after I was received into the Church. On my first day in Jerusalem, our delegation had a meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who welcomed us warmly, and gave specific permission for us to serve in any manner in the Churches of his Patriarchate. Everywhere we went, we were “welcomed home.” Receiving communion, as a priest, in the Tomb of Christ, was, for me, the moment of “coming home,” for sure.

    On the other hand, it’s a very “foreign” place, outside my ethnic and cultural boundaries. But it is our true homeland.

    It’s now been 23 years within Orthodoxy, and I feel at home in a way I have never been anywhere else. Indeed, the “Father” long ago killed the fatted calf, put his robe on me, and a ring on my finger. It took time for all that to happen.

    God give you grace in your journey!

  9. Andrew,
    It is interesting to me, that Orthodoxy’s “boundaries” are as offensive to others as they are. Most modern Christianity has become distinctly ecumenical, in which boundaries have largely been erased (especially the boundary at the Cup). This removes discomfort (which is actually the experience of shame we feel whenever we encounter a boundary). Orthodoxy’s boundaries (and their vocal expression) cause shame in others because it brings into questions some very problematic things that politeness would require prefer to remain silent about.

    I try to be polite on the blog, and not hammer at people. I confess that I do better with this nowadays than in earlier times. Strangely, my politeness and gentleness gets me into trouble with certain corners of Orthodoxy!

    None of us created the mess that is the contemporary ecclesiastical landscape of Christianity. We should be patient with one another. But, patience should be just that – and not the denial of the uncomfortable truth that is Orthodox Christianity. I tell people, do your best where you are, as you are, and seek to be faithful to what you know. If a door opens (or can be opened) to enter into the fulness of the Orthodox faith – then may God give you grace to do so. My own route was extremely long, difficult, and often filled with embarassing hesitancy on my part.

  10. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    things are indeed messy and a lot of misunderstandings ensues from this.
    In my last confession as a Roman Catholic, just over two years ago, I expressed my misgivings and unbelief of papal supremacy and infallibility (which the priest had no problem with?), but once I expressed my disbelief in the Immaculate Conception, he stated what I already knew, which was I was no longer a Roman Catholic and could not have absolution. Hence as I have already stated, this puts me out of communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It took me two years of struggle and anguish to get to that point.

    The nearest Orthodox Church to me is 243 miles away and is not that easily accessible. I also have in mind that the Patriarch of Alexandria is in support of the Patriarch of Constantinople’s interference in the Ukraine. Although I don’t fully understand the situation and it’s possible outcome, I don’t want to escape one form of papacy for another.

    I don’t know what the future holds; I can only wait and hope.

  11. Father, if you are “out there” I must be in the cosmic void somewhere. You seem quite staid in most ways. In person, your unaffected joy is what I remember first then your care gor the Holy. I certainly did not come to the Church by intellectual speculation either but because of the overwhelming presence of our Lord snd His Mother that snd the kindness of one lifetime parishioner who brought me a piece of the Holy Bread simply because I was new and she wanted to share.
    But it is still strange for me too and sometimes uncomfortable because Jesus and the Saints really are present. As you was said here recently, the icons make present those they depict and each one is quite different. It is a job for me to be humble enough to listen and be present with them.

  12. Andrew, anytime there is a hierarchy there will be those that succumb to lust of power. The important thing to know (hard when you are so physically removed) that Jesus is really present. My favorite icon of Jesus Him rescuing St. Peter in the middle of the storm. You have stepped out on the water in response to Him. He will not let you drown.

  13. Just writing – as a current Anglican from an evangelical background and exploring Orthodoxy – that I love what you said about the importance of expressions of love like kissing which encourages love to grow, especially in relation to the saints and the kissing of icons. I remember (I think it was Von Balthasar) saying that he did not kiss his son just because he loved him, but in order to love him. That reinforces, for me, the importance of kissing icons as a way to love and venerate the saints. Thank you.

  14. Andrew,
    You are not alone. Christ is with you. Take courage and listen to His voice. When you are ready, He will help bring you into His Church. While the Orthodox Church is indeed ‘the’ Church, it’s still full of sinners. I don’t want to alarm you, but remember how the ancient Church was. She hasn’t changed that much, even in modernity.

    Essie, you seem to be taking it slowly and being careful as is Andrew. This is a good way of being, although it seems to cause some stress, as Father Stephen indicates. I see this approach as ‘being authentic’, true to what is in your heart, and I can’t see any other better way to enter into the Church.

    I think of the Church, as an Ark, more than a ‘home’. We are all heading Home on the Ark. Christ is the Navigator, we are the sojourners. Like the Ark, there are peoples of all walks of life and cultures as there were an array of different creatures on the Ark. I think it is healthy to anticipate a different feeling, and a time of ‘getting one’s sea legs’.

    Of course I don’t know either of you. But I wanted to end my comment to say both your presence and comments bring much joy, dear ones in Christ!

  15. Ah, Dee your comments always lift me up. Thank you. Even though we are roughly 1500 miles apart, I often feel you are close. Many years.

  16. Dee,
    thank you for your kind words and encouragement. Fr. Stephen’s articles and comments from you and others are a great help. I thank God for this blog and all who contribute. It is truly blessed.

  17. Thank you Father. I love your story and it makes perfect sense to me. Also this blog of yours helps a lot.

  18. And thank you Dee! I like the Ark metaphor. “Home” is such a potent word, and such an elusive place. I’m somewhere around second base, heading to third, but home plate is still in the distance.

  19. Dee’s / Scripture’s image of the Orthodox Church as the Ark may help explain why some folks feel a sense of homecoming to Orthodoxy while others find it jarring. The difference lies in which of the two situations outside the Ark one entered from. The first is the man in a very comfortable boat who recognizes an irreparable leak. The second is the man whose boat has already disintegrated, leaving him adrift, hopelessly clinging to a tiny piece of driftwood. Both situations have the same end. The second man enters the true Ark snatched from the torturous misery of a life-and-death struggle. This yields an irrepressibly joyous sense of homecoming and quite easy adjustment to, and sense of deep joy in, whatever differences exist in the Ark. The first man, however, enters the Ark out of pre-emptive necessity from a place of comfort, and therefore naturally finds himself experiencing a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the Ark’s varying nature, quite often battling the temptation to convert the Ark back into his leaky boat.

  20. Justin,
    In my experience, even those who arrive with an initial relief and joy discover, with time, that new temptations abound. Fr. Thomas Hopko said, “Have no expectation but to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.” There are no exemptions, I think.

  21. Father, I entered with great joy AND unrealistic expectation. When I found out that the Ark was full of a bunch of sinners, including the priests that was jarring. Still, I knew if I left, I would drown so I stayed. Then quite awhile later I realized that I was worse or at least my sins were the only ones I could do anything about. That is when I began to find repentance and the joy returned — even greater joy. “Higher up and further in.” I also began to find my fellow passengers not quite so jarring. Maybe, by the grace of God, I will come to actually love them someday. I am still too selfish for that. God forgive me.

  22. Michael,
    It would be a mistake, I think, to ever describe the Ark of the Church as though there were no leaks, and as though it made for a pleasant journey all around. It is, as you say, full of sinners among whom are those of us who are priests. Nevertheless, it is the Ark of salvation. The “unpleasantness” that we encounter within the Ark is allowed by God for our salvation (I believe). Many’s the day that my prayer is for Christ to “drag me into paradise.” His mercy endures forever.

  23. Indeed Father there are leaks and creaks everywhere. Yet there is Jesus Christ in the midst of us. An acquaintance if mine once described the Church as a bit like a lapidary polisher. A bunch of rough, but chosen stones are placed in the drum of the polisher. Some polishing grit and water is added and the stones get polished smooth and beautiful. A big part of the polishing process is the rough stones knocking the rough edges and places off each other by their contact with each other. A few of the stones will break but even they help polish the rest.
    Each of us is chosen to be here. As strange, leaky and painful as it is, Christ is in our midst. That is the reason I stay. Slowly but deftly He binds up my wounds, and polishes my soul, and I am the least of the stones.
    I am slowly beginning to appreciate what the roughness does as I seek to be in the continual presence of my Lord and His mercy.

  24. An amazing example of communion and friendship: a man whom I had not seen in about 20 years came to Divine Liturgy at my parish today. I knew him when we were in an archery club with our kids. We recognized each other and had a wonderful conversation. He has been reading Orthodox theology, mostly Fr. Schmemman, for several years. He is also looking for a spiritual brother to be with him. Our parish has quite a few catechumens right now too. God is good.

  25. I started making a list of those closest to my wife and me. Many, many more than I would have thought. What a blessing

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