From Walking Humbly: The Holiness of the Poor, by Father Roberto Ubertino, Father Nicolaie Atitienei, Mary Marrocco & Paul Tadros; ©2017 by St. John the Compassionate Mission.
Each historical time has its own challenges. The Church does not exist in a vacuum, or in historical 'suspended animation.' It needs to be incarnated. In the life of the Church, monasteries and parishes have been the two places where most people experience what Salvation looks like, 'in real time.' The monasteries and parishes incarnate the truth of the Gospel for each generation.
St. John the Compassionate Mission is not trying to be innovative, but rather traditional, and returning to the original roots of what a parish life is simply meant to be. We don't try to be a monastery, even though there are aspects of parish life that are similar, like hospitality.
That most church buildings on our continent today are closed during the work week, and for the most part serve only a specific group of people, does not mean that the present manifestation of parish life has always been the norm. The present 'normal parish,' even with the best of liturgical performances, is not 'traditional.' It is an innovation to see the church as uniquely a 'worship center' for Sundays and feast days.
Nonetheless, this reflection is not about trying to correct anyone; we don't try to teach anyone anything. We are moved to reflect, and to seek to live out, the full potential of parish life, both on Broadview Avenue and Markham Road. What we are to reflect on is what parish life can look like, from the perspective of our own limited experience, and in the historical context in which we find ourselves. We must start from the understanding that the Church is not just in the heart of the world, but that the Church is the heart of the world. Therefore, a parish is not made up just of its 'membership' (however we define this), but includes everyone who lives around it, and who come to its doors for a variety of reasons. There are no outsiders for us in the parish. Therefore, the lives and concerns of all those around us belong to us, and are part of our concerns and care.
We need some reflection on this question, on who is in the Church, from dogmatic and pastoral points of view. In present-day Russia, for example, and as in most historical Orthodox nations, the Church claims a large part of the population: seventy-five percent Orthodox, yet only five percent of those regularly attend church. Even with only five percent of membership attending, the Church still acts and understands itself as being the church of the people. It seeks to minister to all in society, and to influence society. It is true that this is based on the ethnic and historical origins of this particular church. However, do not being human and attending church, for whatever everyday reason (like our Mission's 'breakfast people'), constitute being in the embrace of the Church? What about those who grew up with no religious formation? Are they not part of the Church also?
In other words, is not the Incarnation the basis for our understanding of where the boundaries of the Church are?
At compline, for example, I believe that when we pray for those who are absent, we are praying for all the people who through the day have come to the Mission, but for whatever reason are absent at that moment. For those who are absent for worthy reasons from the liturgy, could they not also include all those whom we pray for? Might this not also include those possessed by unclean spirits; those in jail; those in all kinds of tribulations, trials and trauma; those with mental and physical brokenness; and those with addiction?
As with monasteries, parishes in pagan lands are dynamic engines of renewal of people's lives (such as Ora et Labora), and even of evangelization of whole nations. The traditional model of evangelization that we see in the early Church, for example, with St. Eusebius of Vercelli (a strong supporter of the council of Nicaea), and by whom my ancestors claim to have been directly evangelized, was known for his deep compassion for the people around him. He wanted the Church to live in community, which included a strong commitment to communal poverty, with faithful men and women living together. From this 'center of parish life,' or 'mother church,' as it was called, northwestern Italy was evangelized. One of the earliest translations of the New Testament, dating from before Jerome's Vulgate, was done under Eusebius' authority in his effort to evangelize the local people. He did this because he really cared for the people to whom he brought the Gospel.
I use this example so as not to repeat the same Basilian model of the famous 'Basiliad' (and those of other Eastern fathers), giving the false impression that this was the only such attempt in the life of the Church. It was a universal practice that in every diocese the Church would also have Houses of Hospitality. These were under the direct supervision or responsibility of the Bishop, who presided at the Eucharist. There was even a canon (now forgotten) of the council of Nicaea about this very practice.
The parish is the place where the Eucharist is served, offering the Eucharist Τὰ σὰ ἐκ τῶν σῶν σοὶ προσφέρομεν κατὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ πάντα ("for all and for the sake of all"). Therefore, and equally, those who through union with Christ in communion receive the Eucharist live out their lives "for all and for the sake of all": "Καὶ πάντων καὶ πασῶν" ("for each and every one").
It is not about keeping our doors open, to "those yet to be Orthodox." It is about being the Ark of Salvation for all, receiving each person — and especially the poor and marginalized — as another, as vicars of Christ. It was the unique and exclusive practice of the historical Church to care for all, and not just its members, that separated it from other contemporary charities. This was a revolutionary practice that would subvert the natural order of society, which was itself believed to have been established by the very gods.
Where was this new order most visible? It was visible in the Eucharist, where now even a slave could be the presider. In fact, it is this practice of universal love that was most in conflict with Roman society, values and civil religion. That is why Christians were called the first atheists.
Today, and it seems in paradox, the same so-called historical Church lives the opposite. In the minds of the average member of the clergy or the average person, it is secular society that is seen as being concerned for all, with the Church concerned only for itself. Nonetheless, the Eucharist calls us to receive and reach out to each person. But this welcome does not treat people as "ministry cases," but as true Brothers and Sisters on the journey, and on the walk toward the Kingdom. We are called to understand the heart of the human being, as made for God, regardless of where she or he is in their journey toward the Kingdom.
We can do this because the parish is primarily the place where the Eucharist is offered, and where those who offer it live their lives as living sacrifice, seeking also to become broken bread, for the life and salvation of all. Therefore, it is important that the celebration of the liturgy not be simply one of the many devotions of our life, another of the "five" ascetical practices of self-improvement, but rather the center, the beginning and end of all we do, are and want to become.
It is also necessary that we spend time in the chapel praying alone or in community, and in silence, prolonging the communion we have received, and offering our time, body and mind to Jesus, in a direct and simple way. This is also where we learn to listen and welcome each other and others, in the liturgy and after the liturgy. Without this silence, the liturgy after the liturgy can become just social work.
This sense that "the work" of the Church is to be the incarnation of the body of Christ cannot happen through us, unless we are inebriated by the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire that we receive in Communion. Equally in us, there must be a burning desire to let this fire burn in our whole being and through us, with all we welcome in the parish. This fire in us must burn: this cannot be stressed enough.
There is also a particular ascetical life that is proper to the parish life, and that is different from the life lived by those who are in monasteries. The difference is in the expression, but not in the essence or in its intensity. Communion is received not based on merit, but based on whether one is willing to try to live with God's help, with what one has received, and to become what we receive in communion. "Broken and shared, like this bread offered for all in all and for the sake of all": "Καὶ πάντων καὶ πασῶν" ("for each and every one").
The ascetism of the liturgy is to be vigilant, and we are not to make worship a 'form,' an end in itself. For the esthetical, music and beauty are important, but when they are separated from a desire to truly enlarge our hearts, and exclude no one from them, they become another form of idolatry. The aim of the ascetical life for those in the parish, as for those who live in monasteries, is exactly the same. This end, 'telion,' is universal love: a love that is boundless, and that excludes no one. Aphatia is not lack of sensitivity, but rather is a love that is not conditioned either by suffering or by pleasure. The end, the telion, is to exist as Christ, who exists in agony in the poor man, and will until the consummation of time.
This universal love (to repeat until we get it) is based on the fact that the Liturgy is offered for ALL: "Τὰ σὰ ἐκ τῶν σῶν σοὶ προσφέρομεν κατὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ πάντα."
The exclusion of some from Communion is part of the discipline of the Church, but its intention is to reconcile, and not to push away forever the sinners. Even here, some who do not receive communion may be closer to Christ than those of us who do. We need canons to regulate the life of the visible Church, but we are in illusion (fantasia) if we think that they limit the work of the Spirit or completely define the Church. Father Nicolas Afanassieff has written well on the limits of Canon Law in Church life. The present obsession with quoting the Pedalion seems to replace the fire of the Gospels and limit the understanding of the reality of the Church. It seems as if we all woke up one morning, specialists in Church canons!
Ascetical life, when in reference to the Eucharist, is understood as the way by which we can participate in God's kenotic love, and in the measure we can, given our sinfulness. Sinfulness is not about breaking rules, but about limiting our capacity to become the Eucharist. As a poor person in Scarborough reminded me, "Sin is what gets in the way of the way of Love." We touch the body of Christ in Communion, and we touch the Body of Christ in welcoming the poor person. How Christ is present in each person is not up to speculation, but rather we are to receive the body of Christ in faith and the fear of God with love: "Μετὰ φόβου Θεοῦ, πίστεως καὶ ἀγάπης προσέλθετε."
The poor will concretely help the parish be missionaries by their very presence, and they will keep the parish from being closed upon itself. If the poor are truly part of the parish, we won't need to find ways to reach out. They will challenge us in our understanding of the faith, and in the importance of the liturgy and all its dimensions. They will teach us that if Christ is not risen, than we know despair only.
The squabbles over jurisdictions, minute canons and rules take on a very different flavor in the context of real lives, with real problems and real suffering. The parish gives flavor and color to the lives of all those around her, and to those who come to her. You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The parish of the poor is about giving flavor to daily life, and not about making the whole world a pile of salt. It is about being a leaven, and making bread so people can eat, but without making everything into leaven.
Births, marriages, deaths, divorces, recent releases from jail, losses, homelessness, not having a family, being single: all sorts of human situations that today are so widely spread, find in the parish a place of welcome. In the parish, there is the offer and possibility of healing, or, at least, a physical place of no despair, and a place of hope.
The parish is a place of non-demanding welcome, as it was for Joe the other day, when he was starting to have the 'shakes' because he had not had a drink since the morning. He returned shortly after speaking to us, and with tears in his eyes he asked if I could give him a hug. He wept in my arms. I had not met Joe before. His hands, black from never washing, were trembling, and his face was deeply carved out by the years. Who had told him that this was a safe place where he, the unrepentant alcoholic, could finally break down and cry in the arms not of a man but of the Merciful Father? Was it not Christ who drew this man into the church that afternoon? All we had to do was open our arms to him. This was without saying a word, and without videos or instructional theological courses. We need to be there, so Christ can welcome them. That is all that it is asked of us.
This is why I have this real sense and certainty that when we bring the Eucharist in a place that is abandoned, Christ radiates through us, even in our defective ways and with all our limitations. When we celebrate the Liturgy, the Church comes to be in the midst of the people. The adventure is then in discovering the many ways this is true. Like the gospel says, "Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather" (Matthew 24:28). People know where there is food, where to find bread, and where there is the water for their thirst. In the Eucharist present among us, the parish has the bread and the water people seek. Everything in the parish becomes Eucharistic. The table where we serve the meals, the door we open to welcome, the cup of friendship (the coffee mug), the listening, the resources we share, all come from the blessing of the Eucharist. We believe that the celebration of the Eucharist changes how people experience their lives. We can do this simply and humbly by letting Joe, for example, cry on our shoulders. We can also do this by sharing the cup of friendship with some lost newcomers just out of jail.
A lot of our work is not in what we say, but how we look at people. Words but also looks have a powerful effect on people and the so-called "outcomes." Today we can't say much any more to people. Too much is being said, and too many words are uttered, so that the Word has lost its power to convince.
What we can still do is change how we look at a person. We can look at a person with hope, in love and with faith, or we can be cynical and fatalistic. Harm reduction, for example, is a form of fatalism, masked under pseudo-compassion. Assisted suicide is another collective way to affirm that some people's lives are really not worth living. The list is long. The asceticism of parish life includes never looking at anyone with lust. In other words, it is to look at a person without only our personal interest or agenda at heart.
Cynicism, dismissal, fatalism and despair of the other are ways of looking at another with lust and not purity of heart. This warfare is at times very intense, because the temptations are real. You can only talk to the same drug addict high on coke for so many times. You can only bury people who overdosed so many times, and you can only bear the self-righteousness of the religious professionals for so long.
Only in the ascetical struggle to have a pure heart can we persevere to seek, to see correctly, and to see that in doing this it is promised that we will see God. The gospel assures that those with purity of heart will see God. They will see God, where others see only despair, ugliness, death, and lack of any value. We must struggle in prayer and fasting, for this purity of vision of the heart. Orthodoxy is not just about having the truth, but being able to see God, truly.
Fasting and prayer are of course very powerful means, but the test of the authenticity of our prayer and fasting is in how well we see the poor and the things around us. Do we see God, or just our own frustrations, judgments and self-interests. Is our heart so enlarged that it can hold hope for all? Without this purity of heart and vision of God, we will grow tired and become a simple institution that serves itself. We will not be the parish that incarnates the Eucharist through its daily life. The parish is then the body of God in a particular place, among "these people." This is the Eucharist that is the fulfillment of the world.
The parish priest is at the heart of this community. He speaks the words of Christ and does the acts of Christ. He offers the sacrifice and gives it to us, so we may become it. Everyone in the parish, who with the priest offer the Eucharist, is called to live out this movement of offering. We must encourage the many charisms that are present in the parish, that manifest the richness of this life, and that are offered to the world. All who in some way are part of the parish, even if not as communicants, by virtue of their humanity share a desire to even just take refuge in the parish, as part of the Church.
They do carry the "mystery" (mysterium tremendum) within them, especially the poor and the vulnerable. We must not see them as "not yet Orthodox," for really only God knows who is Orthodox and who is not, as Blessed Augustine reminded people in his city many centuries ago.
Maybe it is me and not Joe who is "not yet Orthodox."
People today no longer believe in or have ever known unconditional love. Even our desire to want to change another, as a starter in our conversation, will do damage to their heart, and will smell like everything else in the world. Only God is so rich in Mercy that he can love us, and welcome each of us with no demands. We are to witness to this Apathia, this love, not because of gain, or an agenda, or even a holy agenda, but simply because first of all there is Love.
Christ loves Joe, so I can just love him as he is. This often means suffering with, loving, and letting the suffering in! I need to hold in my heart this truth, especially if Joe has forgotten it or never known it. What an immense privilege this is! "Καὶ πάντων καὶ πασῶν" ("for each and every one").
Our parish will renew itself each day through the Eucharist, lived out concretely in the service of all, but especially the poor, by a witness of a love that is utterly freeing, a love that has seized us and that burns ever more concretely, deeply in our hearts.
"Τὰ σὰ ἐκ τῶν σῶν σοὶ προσφέρομεν κατὰ πάντα καὶ διὰ πάντα."
1 / Codex Vercellensis and Vita Antica. | back to text
2 / St. Maximus the Confessor and the Church Mystagogy: "In this Mystagogy, Saint Maximus presents us above all with the total mystery of the Church, which embraces all reality in its totality and its parts, and gives it an eternal significance. He is able to do this by employing the Greek Patristic ontological category of the eikon. Thus, the Church is presented as a reality, which does not stand over or against the world but alongside, with and for the world, viz. as a reality, which reveals its proper function. Indeed the Church is the proper eikon of the world. She is the world seen in another perspective which is more human, and which is imbued with a divine quality of being and manner of existence. Saint Maximus leads us to see the great mystery of the Church in the specific and r ealistic eikons which constitute our total everyday experience, and which, far from opposing one another, help distribute the light of God's glory and truth from the outer galaxies of heaven to the innermost sanctum of the soul, the human mind. In this perspective t he Church is a manner of existence, which transforms all creaturely existence in its totality and in its parts without leaving anything outside." [Father George Dion Dragas, "Church in St. Maximus's Mystagogy: The Problem and the Orthodox Perspective," Theologia (Athens), vol. 56:2 (1985): 385–403.] | back to text
3 / L'Église du Saint Esprit, P. Nicolas Afanassieff. | back to text