‘My Parish is Essential to Me’ (I)
Article published in the magazine « The Orthodox Family » no. 97/February 2017
I read in one of Father Sophrony Sakharov’s books that, at a certain moment, a Russian woman living in France wrote to Saint Silouan. She asked him to pray for her so that she would not be forced to work in a city where she could not have a church. She confessed to Saint Silouan that she did not know what hell is, because she had not read much, but she imagined hell to be similar to modern life; full of comfort, only without prayers and without the Church. While reading these lines, I thought that our compatriots in the West live in the hell of faithlessness of those around them. Then I remembered the story that the same Father Sophrony told us often, that of the man who after his death arrived in hell and began to build a church. In the beginning the demons could not believe their eyes; afterwards, having understood that the man was indeed serious and wanted to carry through his plan, they held a meeting amongst themselves and threw him out of hell, sending him to Heaven.
These things came to mind when my thoughts turned to our friends in Belgium who six years ago founded a monastery, but now they have to make one more time plans to build a new church: they truly desire Heaven! Hence, I called again Father Ciprian Gradinaru once again and we began to analyze their plans together...
- Father, since we have met, it seemed to me that one of your dearest topics for discussion is the parish. Do you love talking about your parish?
Indeed. I like talking about the parish because, I could say, I love Christ’s church. I have understood that the fundamental reality of the Church is represented by the parish (or the monastic community, if we are referring to monks) of which I am part of, by the ‘local church’, how it is called – namely that community of Christians who gather in a certain place Sunday after Sunday, Liturgy after Liturgy, so that we might partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting ourselves to Him, even becoming ourselves His body.
I cannot live the Church abstractly, I need to be well integrated in my parish, assuming it, understanding the importance of this belonging. When I truly belong to a certain parish, I truly am part of the Orthodox Church. My parish represents the essential expression of the Church and it is identical with all the other local Churches, due to the fact that my parish or my community confesses my Bishop’s faith, and my bishop finds himself in communion of faith with the other bishops of the other local Churches. Therefore, it is very important that the parish to which I belong is authentic.
On the other hand, my parish is vital (if I can express myself in Nichita Stanescu’s manner) to me. I live my life, concretely, first and foremost in relation with my family, my parish and my work. Only then do my friends, neighbours, “coincidental” strangers follow.
Since I have been in Church, as I mentioned during our first discussion in 2013, I was very preocuppied with the way in which I ought to and am able to apply the Gospel to my concrete, everyday life. Hence, if a phenomenon is clear to you, if you understand its principles, you apply it easier. It is simpler to give life to it. I was glad to see that regarding theology, we can even say the theology of family life, there are a variety of books, conferences, positions and guidance of Fathers who could help me to understand, to correct my approach.
Concerning the parish, I have only found a few books, but unfortunately even those used quite a theoretical approach. The most serious and concrete recommendations about how we can live (and the commandment that we must live) life in the parish, I found in the writings of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul’. Almost two thousand years ago, their pastoral concerns for the newborn parishes (because what else were ‘the Church from Corinth’ or ‘the Church from Priscilla and Aquila’s house’?) ranged from women’s duty to pray with their heads covered to the nature of relations between spiritual brethren. In this way, they wanted to show us that in the spiritual life every detail matters, that there are no insigificant things nor events that happen by chance.
I was and I have been surprised by this situation, by the apparent lack of preoccupation throughout the ages and especially nowadays of the life of the parish, of life in communion.
From my point of view, the parish, along with the family, is that reality where I can particularly meet and live Christ. I dare to believe that the parish is, keeping the right measure, the equivalent of the monastic community for laypersons. Just as it is difficult for a monk to be without his community, the parish needs to be equally precious for the layperson; he ought to search for the one most appropiate for his spiritual “character”. Once he finds such a parish, the layperson out to strive to make his departures from the parish as rare as possible. In fact, when love and a life in Christ tie him to his parish, the Christian will always yearn to be with his brethren, waiting dearly to find himself with them once again . It may seem like I am speaking of wondrous things what I say to you, but they are merely observations made over time in my parish.
Since I became a priest, I have tried to take into account and to apply the practical guidance that I found in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles, to which I added different advice and principles that I found in the Fathers of monasticism, which I then adapted to the parish life of laymen.
- You keep talking about an “authentic parish”. How do you define it? Are there “non-authentic” parishes?
– This is a delicate question, but a very important one. Through my readings of contemporary theologians (Fr. Sophrony, Fr. Zacharia of Essex Monastery, Archbishop Ierótheos Vlahos, Fr. Gheorghios Metallinós), and from what I have seen around me since I came into the Church, I have learnt that a true parish – a spiritual family – has several features, several functioning principles. The parish has to bear certain fruits.
First of all, a parish must be alive, and Christocentric. Gathering people in the same place (even for the Liturgy!) is not enough, if they do not understand what they are doing, why they come to church. In the diaspora, for example, some people who are Orthodox by baptism, and not by practice, may happen to go to church on Sundays for the simple wish to meet their compatriots. Such a group of people can be called an assembly, but not a Eucharistic assembly, which is one of the definitions of the parish.
Moreover, we know that, for administrative reasons, in Orthodox countries parishes usually overlap with villiges or city districts, but the distance between the administrative reality and the reality of the Church is sometimes immense – in the sense that the parish should be the Body of Christ! And those who, though baptised, do not believe and do not come to church at all or carelessly live in obvious sins, how could they be considered part of this Body?
„A natural, healthy consequence of frequent confession”
– Regarding the Eucharistic assembly: I have seen that in the past twenty years, this question has come up and is being studied from all angles, but not necessarily in good faith: how often should we partake of Holy Communion? Frequently or rarely? I found that the way in which this issue has been addressed has done nothing else but created a new polarization, a new divide within the Church. Some have repeated in an obsessive and exhausting manner that we should take it often, others have jumped from their seats crying, “this is dangerous”! And they became upset with one another. We keep forgetting that this spirit of division, of separation is specific to the devil (as the ethimology of his name shows: “he who divides”). Think about other polarizations that divide those that are in the Church: those for and against the Crete Synaxis, those for and against Fr. Arsenie Boca and so on and so forth.
In our parish, I have not obsessively raised the issue of frequent communion (although I believe this would be very beneficial if one lives a careful spiritual life), but I have continuously called for repentance and frequent confession. After several years, the natural and healthy consequence has been that many parish members long to partake of Holy Communion more often and are saddened when they attend Liturgy and cannot. Of course, in this way, we start living every aspect of our life with attention, with strictness and with a conscience cleansed through repentence and confession. Holy Communion is not an end in itself; it is rather an extremely important element – but not the only one – in this complex healing process within the Church, within the parish.
Thus, we ourselves have understood why the parish is called an Eucharistic community: Holy Communion - the Body and Blood of our Lord is the centerpiece of everything and everything converges towards the longing and the need of the parish members to receive Communion and for the new life which follows from there. When we partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord (after we have prepared ourselves according to our strength), we are somehow bound together in one single element – the Body of Christ. This is how you can receive grace, learn to pray, to live attentively, to constantly strive for the peace which stems from a clean conscience, to bear your neighbour – and if you do not bear him, to repent for this fact, to forgive him and love him. This is the only way to understand what is always said during the Liturgy: “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided”. Otherwise, this call remains a simple string of words.
For he that belongs to a parish, the period from one Liturgy to another is the time to wage his own battle, to strive to live ascetically, to pray as much as possible, to pay more and more attention to his thoughts, to fight his passions. It is the time to make an effort to put into practice what we have learnt during confessions, homilies and synaxes. And when meet again during Liturgy, every one of us offers all his struggles as a sacrifice to Christ, and they are all shared with his brothers and become, in a way, communion, the Holy Eucharist. In this way, community life (life in communion), truly enriches all of us who bring to church our small effort, since we receive Christ in return, He who mystically offers Himself to all of us.
This is how the need for more and more Liturgies develops, the need to see the others more often, to grow closer to one another, to do everything together; all of this, in a natural way.
„ The conscience of family lies at the foundation of life in the parish”
God, in the Council before all ages, said: “Let Us make man in Our image and likeness” Genesis 1:26. He did not say: “Let Us make men”, He said: “Let Us make man”. In other words, we are all one. This theology should be lived at least as an aspiration, and has no value if left in the abstract. If I do not have the conscience that I am potentially one with my brother, it is clear that I will never become one with him and will never grasp the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Assembly, community, communion – notions often used when we talk about Church – are words containing the radical “one”. This is the target of our race: to become one with my brother and through him, with God. This is the prayer which Christ has raised for us, what He desires for us: for us all to become one, as He and the Father are One According to John 17:11.
- Do you mean that in the parish, we should feel as in our own family?
– Indeed, one could say that the conscience of family lies at the foundation of life in the parish. It is in the parish where we can live another understanding of the meaning of true kinship, which Christ clearly reveales when someone comes to Him and tells Him: “Your mother and brothers are looking for you”. Christ answers: “Who are my Mother and My brothers? Those who do the will of My Father” Matthew 12:47-49. In this way, He showed us that the time had come for a new definition of family, in the spirit of the Gospels, and that kinship by blood is no longer so relevant. If we are to follow God’s thought, we realize that it is incumbent upon us to strive to do the will of the Father in order to enter into His family. His family means having the Church as one’s mother and a spiritual priest as a father, a father through which we are reborn in Christ. And we would also need spiritual brothers, in order to become part of a family where we can learn to love, and which can uphold us in order not to be afraid when fighting our enemies at the gates Psalm 126 – the enemies being the devil, the passions.
Father Sophrony writes that nobody can save himself, and that – what a frightening thing! — nobody can be saved by force.
God cannot force our freedom. This means that it is our duty, according to our perseverance and determination, to look for this family, to look for these brothers, for this spiritual father who can bring us to life through rebirth, and to allow ourselves to be born again. And from here we have to start another great ascetic work: that of not believing that it is simply chance or the sócio-historical context that brought us together but that Christ brought us together, and we have to fight to hold on to this relationship.
A lot of faith and steadfastness is needed in order to believe that my parish is the place where God brought me to carry out my fight, where I need to live my repentance, my life and where I need to win my salvation. But only this type of asceticism lived by each parishioner will transform a physical, administrative parish (as I referred above, in the sense of a gathering of people in the same church), into a eucharistic gathering, into a spiritual parish, where the Holy Spirit dwells, where the person learns that he is a member of the Body of Christ, that is his parish. And when a member is cut off from the Body, that member is destined for death.
The family is a gift of God, with which we enter history. This is because it is through a family, from a seed of a man and one of a woman, that God found it fit to bring us into history. And, if born in a favorable context, we can be baptized, we can enter the Church. However, it happens sometimes, as we know several unfortunate cases in history, that the family related by blood impedes its members from reaching Heaven, while the spiritual family is conceived in such a way, cosanctified by Christ in the Gospel, in the theology of the Church, that it can be a trampoline towards Heaven. It can be the place, the environment in which we are born into eternity with Christ
“If you do not want to give of yourself, you will never know what joy is”
What is the biggest challenge lived by a man that wants to integrate himself, to live, to assume such an existence in a parish life?
--Just like in family life, the difficulty lies in the fight to humble yourself and to serve the other. It all starts from identifying myself as the other’s neighbour and from no longer having any expectations that the others to be close to me and help me (Luke 10:25-37), from seeing the other as my brother of which I am unworthy. ‘My brother is my life’, says Saint Silouan. If I want to become like Christ then my continous effort, the thought that I need to cultivate, is that I have to fight to serve my neighbour. When I say ‘serve my neighbour’ I am not thinking of great things, but of the effort of daily “small” deeds.
I say the effort of the small deed because many think that we need to do great and glorious deeds in order to call ourselves true Christians. Instead, I think of those acts that usually fill my heart with joy, looking around me: I am glad when brothers and sisters are helping each other, making each other glad, listening to my request to ‘break’ castes (we all know the temptation of talking to or visiting only those on the same cultural or social level with us), humbling themselves by letting the other be right or giving him priority. I am glad to see that they grieve when they find out of a brother who is in suffering and that they come to me with different solutions to help him - in prayer as well as in deed; I am glad when I see my brothers holding the children of others; taking care of other’s kids for a while, in order to give the family with many children the chance to enjoy the Liturgy, to rest, or simply to solve different housework tasks. All of these ‘small’ and frequent deeds, lived concretely, bring an an attitude of opening towards the other, the enlargening of the heart towards which the Gospel calls us to. I strongly believe that this is the way in which we can hope to end up feeling that we become brothers with those we meet in church. Otherwise, living isolated, selectively cultivating relathionships with some more ‘special’ parishioners, we will remain in a ‘virtual’ Christianity, meaning a non-existant one.
The one who serves others learns how to sacrifice himself. What does sacrificing oneself mean? To give of yourself and to give in general, to understand that absolutely everything that we have is a gift from God. And God’s gift is like the manna given to the Jewish people when they were in the desert. Remember that those who tried to keep reserves found the manna rotten. The same thing happens with us and with all our gifts, be they time, money, strength to work or anything else: they becomes spoiled if we do not activate them by sharing them with the brothers that God gave to us. This is the mystery of love; to know that all that you have is from God, to give from everything you receive and to believe that God will give you back ten or a hundred times more. But if you do not want to give and to give of yourself, you will never find out what joy is.
‘A friend is the one who doesn’t judge you”
--And still, I think it difficult to reach such a spiritual measure, under the circumstances in which, by becoming so close to the others in parish life, as you describe it, it is hard to not begin to judge, being confronted with the raw, often discouraginig realities of life, and with the weaknesses of those around us…
-- Of course that frequent meetings with the others, outside the church, have the risk of seeing them more humanly and therefore judging, blaming: ‘Look how he talks’, Look how he eats’, Look how he furnished his house’, Look how he behaves with the wife, children, ’ etc.
With the birth of the Church, on the day of Pentecost, there appeared a new type of human relationship: that of brothers in the Church. Brother in Greek is adelfós, meaning ‘from the same womb’- that of the Church. I dare to say that, in a parish, we must add a new category, that of the spiritual friend, in the beautiful sense in which Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote: ‘A friend is the one who doesn’t judge you’. I often think that what causes the most harm in a parish, what prevents the birth of a real parish-family is that we judge each other, we do not spare each other, we envy each other, we blame each other. That is why we need to learn and to make an effort to become friends, meaning not to judge each other so. It is in this way that I speak to my brothers about this important thing: that we must become spiritual friends. It’s a great thing to have a brother, but even greater when that brother is your friend!
Many times, it happens that I find a church, a parish that I like and where I would like to stay. After a while, just like in marriage, without my awareness, before I have the chance to understand the mystery of the things I am living, grace is taken away from me (a grace that kept me in a ‘blind’ type of love) in order for me to start the fight to show my faithfulness towards God’s gift. And what do I do? Instead of fighting the old man that is in me, the slave of passions, I start fighting with others. Sick with pride and full of self-justifications, I start to see the imperfection of others. I start to judge them (even to the depths of depravity, which is gossip) and in this way my heart grows cold and I distance myself from them. But this is the moment I should remember that the time of this life is not the time of judgement. The day in which we meet Christ is the Judgement day. The time of this life is for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for growing close to the other. Every time I see a mistake, or something that rings false, or something ugly in my Spiritual Father, in my neighbour, it is my duty – if I want to become a spiritual son or brother – to cover his imperfection with my own prayer, with my own repentance, with my own fight to forgive him, to accept him, to bear his burden, as Saint Paul urges us.
It is unimaginably important to not judge each other, to bear one another’s weeknesses. I proposed to my brothers a plastic image, a ‘modern parable’, if I may say so, a children game: when one of us makes a small hole in a wax board, another must come quickly and fill it with a small piece of plasticine. The wax board represents our common life, the hole is my sin, my weakness, and the plasticine is your prayer for me when you see that I am weak, when you see that I am wrong.
(to be continued)