This is a revised version of a talk given at a clergy retreat sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver (February 11, 2015). I am thankful to His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah and to his clergy for their support and hospitality.
We live in a culture of organized distractions. We are experiencing a spiritual crisis in which our inner lives have been fragmented, in which the coherence of the self has become increasingly precarious. We perceive not the whole, but only isolated fragments, and our thoughts and experiences are increasingly isolated and disconnected, preventing us from seeing and experiencing the wholeness of life. Fragmentation has negative consequences for the organization of knowledge, for the organization of human relationships, and disables our attempts to make sense of the larger social and spiritual world. Society is fundamentally broken, and we no longer share a set of common assumptions or values. Community has given way to individuality. The Church is not immune from this crisis. The study of theology, for example, is fragmented into different disciplines, each one self-enclosed, each with its own methodology, without any need of or reference to anything outside its proper “department,” responsible not to the Church but only to its own intellectual categories or disciplinary standards. Our congregations are similarly fragmented, reproducing the sociological divisions of the larger culture, offering separate meetings and activities for children, teens, young adults, men, women, and senior citizens, having only a weak sense that all belong to one community, that all are members of one and the same body.
Aided and abetted by our culture of distractions, the disintegration of our inner life begins when we separate ourselves from God. According to St. Gregory of Sinai, the human mind, created in a state of rest, became agitated and distracted when it chose mere sensation over God, fell from grace, and subsequently found itself lost and wandering among the things of the world. Forgetting God and grasping at the world, we become subject to unhealthy desires and addictive behaviors, driven by a continuous preoccupation with and pursuit of nothing. Being fixated on the superficial appearances of things, we have no awareness of their deeper meanings or mutual relatedness, but seek only that part of an object or person that can temporarily satisfy our desire for pleasure. Habitually surrendering to our irrational drives and impulses, the mind becomes enslaved to sensations (bodily or psychological); we splinter into isolated fragments, leading double and triple lives, being self-divided into numberless, unrelated acts, so that our pursuit of pleasure contributes, not to the unity of the self and the world, but to the disintegration and disorganization of both. Divided into unrelated acts of irrational sensations, the mind receives only the fleeting impression of something finite and isolated from everything else.
The condition described above has been well diagnosed and described by the Fathers of the Church, especially the spiritual writers, who call it the “scattering” or “dispersal” of the mind. For example, St. Niketas Stethatos, the disciple of St. Symeon the New Theologian, states that: “To the extent that our inner life is in a state of discord and dispersed among many contrary things, we are unable to participate in the life of God. We desire opposing and contrary things, and we are torn apart by the relentless warfare between them, and this is called the ‘discord’ of the mind, a condition that divides and destroys the soul. As long as we are afflicted by the turmoil of our thoughts, and as long are we ruled and constrained by our passions, we are self-fragmented and cut off from the divine Unity.”
Scripture teaches us the same thing. The Prodigal Son left his spiritual home and went into a far-away place, where the Gospel says he “dispersed” (or “scattered”) his “substance” (διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ) (Lk 15:13). On one level this means that he squandered all his money, but the deeper meaning is the wealth of the soul, our spiritual inheritance, since our “substance” is the spirit that God has placed within us, and in which, through Holy Baptism, He has planted His own grace, “sending forth His own Spirit into our hearts” (Gal 4:6). But when we separate ourselves from God, we lose our spiritual unity and become fragmented.
Unity in Christ
The unity of the Church does not come about simply through human efforts, or through plans and programs drawn up by committees, or as the result of superior management skills, or through the development and implementation of administrative procedures. It is first and foremost a gift of the Holy Spirit; the very sign of the Holy Spirit’s living presence among us, not something we bring about. I can forgive my brother, and feel a sense of solidarity with him, but real unity on the level of the Spirit is something else. As much as we may try to unite or be one with each other, we cannot accomplish this by ourselves. We can be physically close to each other but spiritually far away; we may have things in common and enjoy one another’s company, but this can be very superficial. We can have good feelings for each other for years, and it can all be gone in an instant, with one wrong word or rude remark. The unity of the Church is not like this, for it is unlike anything merely human, being the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not something we create, but something that is given to us, something we receive—although there is much we can and must do to prepare for it.
We are awaiting Pentecost, which is a feast and period in the life of the Church that celebrates the fact of the Church, the event of the Church, the reality of the Church, the manifestation of the Church in the world. But why is there a Church? What does the Church offer the world? What does it give to the world, or how does it serve the world? Simply put, what does “Church” mean? What does it mean to you? Or to your parishoners? Is it something subject to our personal way of thinking, or to human logic in general? Do we approach it with psychological and sociological categories? Do we seek to impose business and corporate models on it? Are we being saved by the Church, or do we think the Church needs to be rescued and saved by us? Do we think that being a “good Christian” means our ability to refrain from acting badly and doing what is good? Do we see our spiritual life as consisting in the doing of certain activities, of exercising control over ourselves, over our bad habits, so that we are in control of things? To be sure, this is how the world sees the Church, but it is also how many of us see it too.
But what is the Church, why did Christ establish it? God is love, and God is love precisely because He is Trinity. He is community itself, sharing, relation, unity in difference without separation, “one in essence and undivided”; a perichoretic existence in which all the members live for one another, are radically open to each other, are mutually interior to each other, contained in each other—and the Church is the manifestation and reflection of this Trinitarian life, the presence on earth of God’s self-offering and self-sacrificing love made flesh in the ecclesial body of Christ. What God has, what God is—love, communion, sharing—He wishes to give to us.
The Church is not a cultural, social, or political organization. It is the living reality of Christ’s body, a single body differentiated but not divided in terms of its members. We can know whether or not we are members of this body depending on whether or not our heart is open. Is our heart open to others, or is it closed? Do we have big, spacious hearts or small closed ones? Is there room in your heart for anyone else, or just for yourself, or your wife, or your children? Is our life, even our spiritual life, our monasticism, our priesthood, just another opportunity to indulge our narcissism and pride? Do we see the other as the image of God, as Christ Himself, or as an object for us to use to gratify our longings, or to manipulate for our selfish interests? To be the “Church” means precisely not to be this way, for the Church is the very possibility of a shared life, the condition for the possibility of unity. “All the believers were of one heart and mind; no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Yet all our thoughts, words and deeds demonstrate that we don’t like the others, we don’t trust them, and they don’t trust us; we fear them, we resent their very presence, we see them as threats, we are afraid they’ll take our place, our privileges, our status, that they will outshine us, and so we malign and slander them, exclude them, cut them off, keep our distance, spend all our energy building walls to protect ourselves, so that we become, as St. Basil says, ἀκοινώνοιτοι, which means “unsocial.” It also means “inhuman,” since human beings are inherently social. Even in the church, even in the sanctuary, indeed even at the holy table, in the presence of the Eucharist, we are hard-hearted, unrepentant, indifferent, distracted, disdainful, cynical and sarcastic, so that, as St. John of Damascus says: “Even now, standing before the gates of Your temple, I do not put away my vile thoughts.”
The Church is unity and exists to create unity. We regularly pray for “the unity of all” (ὑπὲρ τῆς τῶν πάντων ἑνώσεως), and on the day of Pentecost we say that God “has called all to unity” (εἰς ἑνότητα πάντας ἐκάλεσεν). But if we do not respond to the call, if we are not “responsible” to Christ, if we refuse to obey Christ, we will end up obeying our passions, which isolate and divide us, which incarcerate us within the narrow limits of our ego, so that only “I” exist, only my desires, my needs, my self-satisfaction, my pleasure, my position, which, as we said, results in the total fragmentation and dispersal of the self.
Without unity there is no Church. But what sort of unity is this? How do we arrive at it? How do we attain it? As stated above, it is not the result of an intellectual decision we make, or the work of an organizing committee, or the outcome of a bureaucratic process, or the result of psychological pressure we put on ourselves, saying that “I” can do this or that. Instead, a transformation is needed, a radical revolution in the self, because the unity of humanity in the body of Christ is the fruit of the Holy Spirit; it is not our energy or activity, but the uncreated energy, activity and grace of the Holy Spirit. If I don’t have the Holy Spirit, who is communion, unity and union; if I am like those men in the book of Acts who said: “We have never even heard of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2), then all my efforts will be in vain, because I am trying to build God’s kingdom—in reality, my kingdom, or my version of God’s kingdom—on the basis of my resources, my ideas, and my power. And this may work for a while but ultimately it will come crashing down, it will fail, “and the last state will be worse than the first” (Mt 12:45), “for unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain” (Ps 127:1).
I can work with you, I can cooperate with you, I can get along with you, and we can be friends, but if the Holy Spirit is not there, we can never be united in Christ. Such unity is not our doing, it is not from us—it would be like trying to make someone love you, or understand the depth of your heart—you can’t do it, and to think you can is a mistake, because without God it is not possible. Indeed it is the promise of the serpent: to be god without God (cf. Gen 3:5).
For real union to come about, the Holy Spirit must be active within us, operating within us personally and collectively. And this cannot happen if we turn away from the Spirit, since He is love, communion, and union. This is why at Pentecost, the first gift given was that of speaking in foreign languages, the language of the other (Acts 2:4-11), since this was the power to communicate, the power for each to speak to and understand the other. But apart from the Spirit we don’t “speak the same language”; apart from the Spirit we are deaf to (or perhaps seek to suppress) the voice of the other, failing to hear the Word in their words, blind to the person as he or she exists in God, as God sees and hears them. Even married couples, who have lived together for years, may not “speak the same language,” and can fail to know each other in a meaningful way. The heart of one does not rejoice in the other, and they do not feel united, but instead they are miserable and argue all the time. Without the Holy Spirit, you cannot understand the other’s language, you will not be able to speak to him—you won’t even want to—and what is this if not the mark of our fallenness, of our isolation and fragmentation, the sign that the Spirit is absent from our hearts?
For most of us, the unity of the faithful in the body of Christ has been replaced by the cultural myth of the individual: the belief that we are isolated monads having little or no possibility of bridging the seemingly infinite space between ourselves and others. Thus we continue in our self-made exile, remain in our narrow prison cell, which is locked on the inside; banished from the presence of God, from nature, from our inner depth, and from all those around us. But Christ came to free us, to take our souls out of Hades, to bring us home, to bring healing and unity to our fragmented hearts and minds, to unite the divisions of our world, to recapitulate all things in Himself, and to establish a new mode of existence, known as the Church, to call us out of ourselves and into the unity of His body through the unifying power of the Holy Spirit. Let us entrust our life to the power of the Holy Spirit, let us nourish our faith in Him with humility of heart, allowing Him to transform us into the living cells of the body of Christ, to raise us up from the tomb of our inner darkness; and for as long as we live, let us stand at the mystical altar of our heart and say without ceasing: “Come, Holy Spirit; come and dwell in us.”
Fr. Maximos is Senior Research Scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. His most recent book is The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography (Alhambra, 2014).
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