The Benedict Option and the Byzantine Hothouse vs. Real Community (Part 2)

I addressed this topic by merely posting “The Restoration of the Orthodox Way of Life” by Fr. Adrian Rymarenko.  There is not much else that needs to be said, but I had previously written an extensive facebook note about this topic, so I will add that here.

The Technologies of Community

This is a re-purposing of a post I made on a Facebook Orthodox Community Group.  I am placing it here as a note, with the intention of adding it to the essay “The Virtual Private Island and the Digital Catacomb”. This also includes two other of my notes: “The Technologies of Freedom” and “The Technologies of Charity”

This is Facebook Version 0.2

ORTHODOX COMMUNITY

I want to put forward some thoughts about Orthodox community. I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this, and more importantly, I lived in an Orthodox Community for about 10 years. One thing about community, is that nothing makes you think realistically about community like living in one. That is to say, people living in community always live in tension between the ideal that called them into it, and the reality of living in it, with the tension of needs between people, families, ideas, teenagers who have had enough of it, etc. My reception into the church was bound up with living in community, which was wonderful. I wouldn’t trade my time in community for anything, yet it is also apparent to me that every community has a beginning, middle and end. No community lasts forever except the body of Christ. So for an Orthodox community, Church is also the bedrock. The community may end, but the relationship of community members to the church should never end.

TRADITIONAL MODELS

There are only a few models for community that are universally recognized in the Church: The Monastery, Families, Villages, and Brotherhoods/Sisterhoods.

THE MONASTERY

The Monastery is THE example of an ideal community in the Orthodox Church. I would go so far as to say that without contact with monastics, it is hardly possible and perhaps not even desirable to attempt to build an Orthodox community. “Angels are the light of Monastics, and Monastics are the light of men/women”, according to patristic advice. Two Orthodox communities which I would consider as having been successful had frequent contact with a monastery (pilgrimages, monastic visitors, etc.). Contact with monastic teaching, life and examples constantly breathe fresh life into a community struggling in the world. It is no accident that a lot of village communities in “Holy Russia” were formed by a couple of ascetics living in the wilderness (Skete life), which became a monastery, and then pilgrims who stayed close to their monastic teachers and elders settled around the monastery, which in turn became a model village of Orthodox life. I believe that any healthy Orthodox community is made up of concentric circles, for which the center is always a monastic heart. I have seen Orthodox “villages” in America spring up around a monastery in much the same way that it probably happened in Russia. One community had physical proximity to a monastery, and there was a definite effect on the children, who were exposed to examples of living, heroic, struggling, loving, otherworldly people. But physical proximity is not always possible or necessary. It was enough for our little community to have frequent monastic visitors (we became the place to stay enroute to the airport for the monks), and many of us made frequent pilgrimages. One of our former community members bought land adjacent to the monastery, after our community ended, in order to have a place for people in the world to go to increase exposure to that fresh monastic breeze. Another village is slowly growing in that area. I have heard that Russian and Greek Villages near monasteries still experience that fresh wind even today. I am now a member of a parish that also treasures contact with monastics, with observable benefits.

THE FAMILY

I won’t say anything about families here, since there has been a lot of writing and teaching about this. Fr. Adrian Rymarenko (later Archbishop Andrei) has written “The Restoration of the Orthodox Way Of Life” which should be required reading for anyone thinking about Orthodox community life. He was basically an Optina elder, although a married priest, who gathered a community around him everywhere he went. He mentions that a family is an icon of the Holy Trinity. A family is the only other community in Orthodox life that is blessed into existence and growth through sacraments.  One of the ways that a non-traditional community can get into trouble quickly, is to overstep the boundaries of families in any way – a path that turns a community into a cult.

THE VILLAGE

I have already remarked that the key feature of an Orthodox Village is to have a monastery at the center of its formation. In addition to the monastery, there are one or more village churches. The concept of the “parish church” is actually a foreign idea that became necessary with the diaspora, with urbanization, etc. Orthodox villages had village councils rather than parish councils. Of course the other observable features of an Orthodox village are small size, an integrated (usually agrarian) economy, shared resources and culture, and in the best of circumstances, a shared focus on the struggle to attain paradise and a degree of shutting out the world (in the patristic sense). No village was ever a Utopia. Better than the big city, it was still the “world”, with some of the world’s worst features: serfdom, human mistreatment, poverty, gossip, drunkards, etc. But their was a definite slant to village life, that made a life centered around the Church possible. Just read the biography of the Optina elders, how their village lives prepared them for the freedom from the passions that they eventually experienced.

Read “The Restoration of the Orthodox Way Of Life” by Fr. Adrian. A huge percentage of 19th and 20th century hagiography will begin with the saints life as a child in such a village. Such an Orthodox Village, even with all of its fallenness and problems, has proved to be a soil in which the healthiest of souls can grow. Read “The Spiritual Life” by St. Theophan the Recluse – the young woman who received his letters found it necessary to move away from Moscow, back to her small village to imbibe the type of spiritual life she was seeking. See also “Blessed Athanasia and the Desert Ideal”. Villages are often also diverse, loose and unorganized in a way that drives utopian community seekers nuts, but when there is a common focus on church life, there is a natural and organic unity that no amount of organization can ever achieve.

I am now aware of a handful of such “Orthodox Villages” in America. One in particular, is a piece of land with two apartment buildings, a few small houses, a church and a church hall. This had been a sort of new age hippie commune originally, but became Orthodox. The kids, who are marvelously talented, have been schooled in a co-op, shared homeschool. They were originally very close to a monastery, but the monastery had to move away as the combination of molds and heavy metals from a nearby quarry in the water were making the Nuns sick). If you go to their harvest festival (1st Saturday in October), you will see a truly beautiful community. I am aware of a few other small “villages” that have sprung up around monasteries.

BROTHERHOODS, SISTERSHOODS, AND OTHER MOVEMENTS

There are a few examples of communities that have existed outside of the other mentioned examples. There have been brotherhoods that existed for various purposes, Student movements, such as the “Burning Bush” movement in Romania before the communists took power, and others. Some brotherhoods, such as the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, became residential and then monastic. Certain Brother/Sisterhoods have existed for those who dedicate themselves to charitable work, and live semi-monastic lives, but may leave to have families, etc. It was a sisterhood that the recipient of St. Theophan’s letters was heading to in “The Spiritual Life”. I would like to find some more examples of these later, because when we are talking about modern Orthodox intentional communities, I think this is at least half of what we are focusing on.

ORTHODOX COMMUNITIES IN THE POST-MODERN WORLD

I am encouraged that there ARE still some Orthodox Villages that look like the traditional variety, and I think that it is important that these continue to exist. But most of us will not be able to uproot and move to a village.

I treasure my contacts with monks and my monastic spiritual father. If not for health concerns, I would have jumped at the chance to join them. I still think every Orthodox young person should seriously consider monasticism as an option (hopefully this happens naturally as a result of contact with monasteries throughout one’s life). While I believe that contact with monasteries is important, the majority of us will not be able to enter monasteries.

There has always been encouragement for those unable to enter a monastery to get married and enter family life. Family life has become increasingly difficult to enter and maintain. Orthodox parishes are increasingly filled with the perpetually single and divorced. This also means that the priest may be overwhelmed in dealing with broken people with complicated issues. Sometimes the lonliest place for a single person is the parish church.

St. Pavel Florensky talked about the monasticism of the future, which had yet to be revealed. The Russian revolution destroyed monasteries, villages, brotherhoods and all other forms of Orthodox Community. Fr. Adrian and others spontaneously formed communities, sometimes while “on the move” and in the diaspora, other times, in an underground form under the nose of persecutors. We should pay attention this this, as many prophets of that time have told us “Today in Russia, Tommorow in America”. Some of these spontaneous communities in “emergency form” eventually resumed a more traditional form (monasteries, brotherhoods etc.).

Our life is governed by an unnatural degree of urbanization, “commuter parishes”, Corporate feudalism, artificial “burbclaves” (gated or not) and constant movement. We routinely belong to several “communities”, with no one group being central in our life. If we get to the point where church life is somehow central and integral to our life (and not merely one more service to be consumed), Our church life still must compete for our time and attention. We may have some degree of community in our “commuter parish”, but how much? We may aspire to one of the more traditional forms of Orthodox community, but the pressures of earning a living, supporting a family (or child support, etc.) may preclude such a luxury.

An emergency form of community may be needed in our time. The basic rule of emergency community forms seems to be “do what you can with what you have, and connect to the tradtional forms of community as you can”.

The community that I was involved with was, like the aforementioned, a new-age type hippie commune group that became Orthodox. Everyone had largely moved away, started families, etc. But one new family wanted to restart a discipleship house. We ended up with a house full of a mixture of families and singles, all working different jobs, but working together to support the attached parish, starting a bookstore, having classes in various topics, and most importantly, having daily prayer together as much as possible. There was also a fair amount of mentoring, sharing problems and burdens, eating together, housing pilgrims and guests, confronting one another about our issues, helping each other through difficult times, etc. It was wonderful, difficult, frustrating, fun and precious.

PRINCIPLES OF ORTHODOX COMMUNITY I THINK I MAY HAVE LEARNED

  1. You really do need contact with a monastery at the center
  2. Some critical quotes from the introduction to the above mentioned writing by Fr. Adrian – the intro is by Fr. Seraphim Rose:

“Such communities, rare today among Orthodox Christians, do not arise spontaneously, but only in especially favorable circumstances, if there is present a conscious Orthodox philosophy of life. This conscious Patristic philosophy is what, most of all, we can learn from Archbishop Andrew. Let us try to set down here the main points of this philosophy – which, of course, is not a “systematic” philosophy based on abstractions, but a living philosophy derived from Orthodox spiritual experience.”

First, Orthodoxy is not merely a ritual, or belief, or pattern ofbbehavior, or anything else that a man may possess, thinking that hebis thereby a Christian, and still be spiritually dead; it is rather an elemental reality or power which transforms a man and gives him the strength to live in the most difficult and tormenting conditions, and prepares him to depart with peace into eternal life.

Second, the essence of the true Orthodox life is godliness or piety which is, in the definition of Elder Nectarius, based on the etymology of the word, “holding what is God’s in honor.” This is deeper than mere right doctrine; it is the entrance of God into every aspect of life, a life lived in trembling and fear of God.

Third, such an attitude produces the Orthodox Way of Life which is not merely the outward customs or behavior that characterize Orthodox Christians, but the whole of the conscious struggle of the man for whom the Church and its laws are the center of everything he does and thinks. The shared, conscious experience of this way of life, centered on the daily Divine services, produces the genuine Orthodox community, with its feeling of lightness, joy, and inward quietness. Non-Orthodox people, and even many not fully conscious Orthodox Christians, are scarcely able to imagine what this experience of community might be, and would be inclined to dismiss it as something “subjective”; but no one who has wholeheartedly participated in the life of a true Orthodox community, monastic or lay, will ever doubt the reality of this Orthodox feeling. When Archbishop Andrew tells of his lifelong “and successful” search to find and even create the lost “quietness” of his Orthodox childhood, he expresses the desire of everyone who has drunk deeply of Holy Orthodoxy to find the place, create the conditions, and acquire the state of soul wherein to live the full and authentic Orthodox life, one in mind and soul with other similar strugglers. Even if this ideal is seldom attained in practice, it still remains the Orthodox ideal.

Fourth, without a constant and conscious spiritual struggle even the best Orthodox life or community can become a “hothouse,” an artificial Orthodox atmosphere in which the outward manifestations of Orthodox life are merely “enjoyed” or taken for granted, while the soul remains unchanged, being relaxed and comfortable instead of tense in the struggle for salvation. How often a community, when it becomes prosperous and renowned, loses the precious fervor and oneness of soul of its early days of hard struggles! There is no “formula” for the truly God-pleasing Orthodox life; anything outward can become a counterfeit; everything depends on the state of the soul, which must be trembling before God, having the law of God before it in every area of life, every moment keeping what is God’s in honor, in the first place in life.

Fifth, the greatest danger to the Orthodox way of life in modern times is what Archbishop Andrew calls “humanism””a general term encompassing the whole vast intellectual (and now also political) movement which has as its ultimate aim to destroy Christianity and replace it with a this-worldly, rationalistic philosophy in which man, in effect, becomes a god unto himself. The manifestations of humanism are many, from the Renaissance in the West and the heresy of the Judaizers in Russia in the 15th century and before, through the brazen atheism and Revolution of the 18th century, to Communism and every other philosophy in our own day which places the ultimate value in this world and leads men away from God. Humanism takes possession of men in various ways, not usually by a conscious intellectual conversion to it, but more often by laxness and unawareness in spiritual life. The Orthodox answer to this danger”whose ultimate end is the reign of Antichrist”is a conscious Orthodox philosophy of life.

(Fr. Seraphim also emphasized that Orthodox Christians are producers rather than consumers)

  1. It will be seen in point #5 above, that any agenda other than simply having a community with an Orthodox way of life, must be considered a nice but non-essential addition to the directives of the community. In other words any eco-practices, political agendas etc, are best addressed as agreed upon principles with room for diversity, and not hopefully not community-policed laws. I have seen community eco-principles devolve into arguments on what must be recycled and WHICH cleaning product is really appropriate etc. You can agree on principles, but like the village, you’ve got to allow for some diversity of practice and opinion, in some things, or you can quickly become a sort of eco-fascist cult. The wisest of shepherds keep their sheep in the pen by building a wide pen to start with. There is no place for “one size fits all” in an Orthodox community.
  2. All members of an Orthodox community will experience the attempt of the demons to sow seeds of discord through logismoi (thoughts). The prerequisite for peaceful community life is for all of its members (ESPECIALLY leadership) to learn the basic principles of unseen warfare, most importanly, learning to deal with ones thoughts in a patristic manner (e.g. cutting off thoughts, not believing thoughts, not trusting oneself, etc.)
  3. Sharing should include common prayers, inspired projects (a bookstore, caring for the homeless, etc), common meals (not all of the time if families are involved), and “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”.
  4. It won’t last forever, so do all the good you can, plant all of the seeds of growth you can, learn all you can, pray all you can, read all you can, labor all you can. Then, even when the community is gone, the seeds will continue to sprout and grow. Start small, start before you are ready, don’t worry about perfection.
  5. Some principles that were put forth by the Valaam Society of America: A brotherhood dedicated to Orthodox bookstores:

A life in Christ, as prescribed by Orthodox Christian principles of life expressing the Gospel Commandments & under the direction of a spiritual rule, and holding the vision of Lay Ascetic Communities by dedicating oneself to A LIFE IN CHRIST, namely:

  • A Life of [prayer and watchfulness], consisting of the Jesus Prayer, Morning and Evening Prayers, according to Orthodox tradition.
  • A Life of worship and repentance, by attending [Divine Services] and receiving the Sacraments as often as possible.
  • A Life of study, including [daily reading of the Holy Scriptures] and other spiritually nourishing books.
  • A Life of individual ascetic struggle, by [keeping all the fasts and feasts] as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.
  • A Life rooted in the Church, by learning and preserving the [ancient traditions], without inventing something foreign or novel.
  • A Life of Apostolic labor, by courageously proclaiming our Faith, whether in desert mountains or busy streets, having literature on hand and ready to [spread the Truth of Christ] by any creativelybold methods of missionary work that will help awaken people in these last days -“to be all things to all men that some might be saved” (I Cor. 9:22).
  • A Life of genuine [Christian community], by forming small groups for the purpose of study, service and the life in common, based on mutual counsel, as far as this is possible.
  • A Life of reverence towards holy things and sanctified places, by [going on pilgrimage] to venerate icons and relics and visiting monasteries and other Christian communities.
  • A Life of [simplicity], seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and trusting God’s Providence.
  • A Life of [sacrifice], offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord and holding back no part of ourselves.

THE VIRTUAL VILLAGE INITIATIVE

We may not need to reinvent the wheel of Orthodox Community, but we may need to adapt the wheel to our circumstances. To focus on number 7 above:

“A Life of genuine [Christian community], by forming small groups for the purpose of study, service and the life in common, based on mutual counsel, as far as this is possible.”

Some of this is done by brotherhoods (parish sized, larger or smaller). Some of this is done in new “Orthodox Villages”. Some of this is done in hippie communes that were repurposed as Orthodox communities. Some of this can be done in small support groups attached to a parish, such as a house for Orthodox college students, or even a non-residential parish support group. Modern life is already forcing businesses to move from centralized physical locations to networks of “virtual offices”, as technology continues to reduce distances, providing “rich telepresence and communication” Here in California, one rarely knows one’s neighbor, but one’s neighbor is probably moving next month anyway. Our Silicon Valley parish regularly swells and recedes with the tide of jobs and the economy. It can be hard to build community, when everyone is moving away, or just arrived. We have a larger community through virtual means. Communities are increasingly built, not on physical location, but on common interests or activities. This facebook group can be considered one example. How does one adapt Orthodox communities to this world of telcommuting, burbclave cocooning, social media relationships without physical presence?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Dropping out, moving to the monastery, Orthodox village or repurposed hippie commune is still an option. (type 1)
  2. Small groups as “virtual village” communities (type 2) within the life of the commuter parish. These could be residential houses in certain cases, or small cell groups that meet for classes, service projects, daily or frequent prayers. Some of this already happens, but it is usually in the context of a group which is about something. I would like to see a group(s) which is just about the whole of life: relationships, accountability, prayer, service, pilgrimage, support, etc. The focus would be on a. Life in Christ b. Life in relationship with each other  The principles above reflect the reality that community does not happen just because people all live together. A community that is built on being the conscious Orthodox way of life is just that – conscious. Such a community need not always be residential.
  3. Taking the above a step further, an intentional Orthodox community that is not only non-residential, but also not non-local. A virtual village (type 3) that is truly virtual, taking advantage of the technology of telepresencing to form small groups for the purpose of study, service, relationships, accountability, support, etc. Admittedly, this would be best as an additional support to a local community, rather than a community in itself, but in some cases, this will be better than nothing, when options for community life are scarce. Small cells of people in a rich telepresence medium CAN share some aspects of community life. Some of this also already happens, but what is possible is extendable by commitment and intention. Someone who is forced by circumstances to move away from their parish and live in an isolated situation would find this connection as precious as a residential community. If the church must go underground in a time of persecution, it may be one of the few ways for community to happen.

 

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