Living in community is in many ways unfamiliar to those in places of the world where ideals of progress, self-actualization, and the individual influence how they goes about everyday tasks and imagines the progression of their life. Of course, many people experience being members of communities based on ethnic and religious identities or even recreational interests. However, fully entering into the life of the Church calls for a commitment to community that extends beyond a shared identity or a common interest. This commitment to community demands that the individual exists to serve the other with a sacrificial type of love, which is always directed outwardly towards God and the other.
This truth is present in the practices of the liturgical life of the Church and manifests itself in both corporate and individual prayer services. Even when praying individually before God, the language of the prayers evokes the presence of the community. Mother Maria Skobtsova highlights this unique communal relation present in Orthodox prayers by underscoring how it is that humanity references itself before God; God is addressed by us not me (2003:47)
In the most compelling form of the liturgical life, many diverse individuals come together as a single entity for the celebration of the Eucharist. In all the congregational responses throughout the liturgy, the “I” does not exist, only the “we.” The community—the Church—jointly offers a bloodless sacrifice, an offering of praise on behalf of oneself and those whom are gathered.
On behalf of all the Church, the priest prays,
You, O Lord, have taught us this great mystery of salvation…O You, our Lord, make us meet, in the power of Your Holy Spirit, to finish this service; so that…we may offer up unto You a sacrifice of praise, glory, and great beauty, in Your sanctuary (emphasis added, The Prayer of Reparation, Liturgy of Saint Basil).
Even during more ostensibly private and personal prayers, such as the morning and evening prayers, first person plural pronouns are used. For example, in the Coptic Prayer Book of the Hours, the Thanksgiving prayer begins with, “Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God…” and the Conclusion of Every Hour with, “Have mercy on us, O God, and have mercy on us, who, at all times and in every hour…” (emphasis added).
Whether praying alone or with others, the corporate entity of the Church is always present. When an individual prays for oneself, one also prays for the other. All action is corporate in the life of the Church.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul concurrently acknowledges the unity of the Body of Christ and its diversity. He writes, “But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body.” (1 Cor. 12:18-20). The whole of a community does not subsume the individual nor does the individual take precedence over the needs of the community; both give meaning and provide an identity to the other.
Within the context of the life of the Church, the identity of the individual and the community—which cannot be separated from one another—finds its value in its love for God and for the other. The salvation of every individual is contingent upon love directed outside oneself for the sake of Christ and one’s neighbor.
Christ Himself exemplifies this sacrificial love for the other by hanging on the Cross:
His love, given to us in inheritance is true sacrificial love, the giving of the soul not in order to receive it back with interest, so to speak, not as an act in its own name, but as an act in the name of a neighbor, and only in his name….(Skobtsova 2003: 49).
The recognition of the always corporate nature of an individual’s relationship necessitates a shift in how one relates to God and to the other. Christ Himself acknowledged the novelty of what He was asking of those who chose to follow Him. It requires a moving away—but not undoing—of the self and centering of everyone else.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34).
To love the other, within community, is difficult and often painful, but it is also life-giving and unto salvation.
When Christ spoke with His disciples about what will come to pass on the Day of Judgement, He shares with them the following:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me (Matthew 25:34-36).
He makes explicit, just as Saint John the Baptist did when preaching the baptism of repentance (see Luke 3: 10-14), the terms of salvation that depend on one’s ability to love one’s neighbor, with a sacrificial type of love. Through His words and example, He demonstrates that the salvation of one’s soul is not a solitary pursuit, but a communal endeavor of love and care. In the Orthodox Church’s wisdom, she constantly orients and reorients the faithful in their salvific pursuits through the liturgical practices and the language of the prayers, reminding each person that sacrificial love always begins by remembering the other before God through prayer.
Jean Vanier, a Catholic theologian and humanitarian who dedicated much of his life to the care of those with mental disabilities, is a beautiful testament to living faithfully in community and loving sacrificially, with joy.
Yet, it is my belief that in our mad world where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality, and oppression, it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals as well as for our world. And it is my hope that each one of you may experience the incredible gift of the friendship of people who are poor and weak, that you too, may receive life from them. For they call us to love, to communion, to compassion and to community (1992:9-10).
Christ’s perfected His commandment to all of humanity “to love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) through His death, and it is through laying down of one’s life for the other that all will rise together in the glory of the Resurrection, that “[our] joy may be full” (John 15:11).
Writer – Monica Mikhail
This is part of Agora’s Trinitarian Love theme for the Symposium in 2020. Please join us in continuing this conversation on February 14 & 15.
Skobtsova, Maria. Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters). Orbis Books.
Vanier, Jean. 1992. From Brokenness to Community. Paulist Press.