From the OPF’s New Podcast:
There is nothing so Orthodox as communion. Holy Communion “is the most profound expression of the essence of the Church.” “What is the mark of a Christian?” asks St. Basil, “… that he be holy and blameless and so eat the Body of Christ and drink His Blood.” I once remember reading a pamphlet handed out at a Greek Church. The pamphlet asked “Why should I come to Church? What is the purpose of gathering together? Why can’t I be a Christian in my own home?” The answer was simple: communion. One can believe at home, can pray at home, and can even eat bread and wine at home, but one cannot live in communion without other Christians. The Church gathers as the Body of Christ to partake of the Body of Christ. Communion is that which joins us to others, and to God. As Fr. Meletios Webber says, when you partake of the Eucharist, there is a brief moment where you feel the sacrament on the tongue. As it is received, this brief moment comes where the Body of Christ becomes joined to your own body and you can no longer tell where God ends and you begin. In this way we are joined to God through theosis, through divine-human communion.
This Mystery does not end there. We often separate the spiritual and inner from the practical and outer. We separate our communion with God from our communion with others, focusing on our own spiritual improvement while neglecting the love of our neighbor. For example, I remember my friend Nancy Forest telling me that she once read an introduction to Orthodoxy which detailed the ins and outs of hesychasm and asceticism. Strangely though, in this introduction to Christianity, the word ‘love’ never appears. Similarly, St. Maria tells us that “we may note that in the first volume of the Philokalia, material about the attitude toward one’s neighbor takes up only two pages out of six hundred, and in the second volume, only three out of seven hundred and fifty. The proportion is quite different from that in the Gospels or the Epistles.”
St. Maria is here pointing out how easy it is to separate our spiritual life from the life we live with others. Such a separation goes against the core of Christian teaching. Abba Dorotheos used the image of a wheel to describe the mystery of divine-human communion. God is at the center, the hub of the wheel, and humans are on the spokes. As we move along the spokes towards the center, we simultaneously draw nearer both to God and to one another. Drawing near to others in love is inevitable with this understanding of the spiritual life, and if we are not doing so, it is a sure sign that we are neither drawing nearer to God nor one another.
I say this to convey that communion should not be understood only as a private sacrament that exists between God and the soul. Communion is also the communal union that is established between all humans. Here is what Alexey Khomiakov says when explaining sobornost’, the unified spiritual community,
‘We know that when any one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He who is saved is saved in the Church, as a member of her, and in unity with all her other members. If anyone believes, he is in the communion of faith; if he loves, he is in the communion of love; if he prays, he is in the communion of prayer.’
Communion is a sacrament that is found in the chalice, yes. However, if it exists only in the chalice, then it does not even exist there. If we do not love our brothers and sisters, and if we are not at peace with our brothers and sisters, then there is no communion and the chalice means nothing. Christ tells us that if we are approaching the altar and someone has something against us, we should immediately go and seek reconciliation. Because of this teaching, it is the practice in the Orthodox Church that one must do everything possible to be at peace with all before communion can be taken. As the Holy Apostle John tells us, “If anyone says, ““I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”(1 John 4:20) What does it mean to love those we have seen? St. Paul tells us,
‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Romans 12:9-21)
Loving our neighbors does not mean just loving those who are our friends or who live near us. It means loving all, the lowly, the stranger, and even our enemies. We are called to show hospitality to strangers as well as to enemies. We are to bless even those who persecute us, or who seek to do harm to us and to our community. We are to strive to be at peace with all. Christ himself often spoke about this sort of love, telling us to love our enemies and to care for the poor. Christ tells us in the parable of the sheep and the goats:
‘[T]he 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.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
This is Christ’s description of the mystery of human communion. Christ identifies himself with the ‘least of these,’ those who are sick, in prison, hungry, thirsty, or homeless. The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are all members of the Body. Yet Christ tells us that we should see his Body not just in the Church or in the chalice, but in the sick, the stranger, the hungry, and the thirsty. This mean that true communion with Christ means actively loving ‘the least of these.’’ St. John Chrysostom once made the same point, saying, “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.” Communion is inseparable from such tangible and active love.
St. Maria expresses a similar thought, commenting on the words of Christ saying,
‘At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many bows I have made before the divine altar. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and the prisoner in his jail. That is all I will be asked.’
This is not to say that we should just quit the sacraments and take up social work instead. True Christian love and communion are not social work, they are lived theology. They are love. And if we provide material assistance, without truly loving others and communing with Christ in them, then we still would fall short. St. Paul tells us,
‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.It is love alone that is the point of all our labors.’
I often bring people to liturgy who have never been to an Orthodox service before. They often have many questions about all the strange customs and practices of the Church. And if they have a protestant background, as most do, they particularly ask about sacraments, icons, and communion. I say the same thing every time. I tell them that the whole point is love. We approach icons, which are wood and paint, images of people, and we approach them with reverence. Every day, we Orthodox practice looking at the face of a human painted on a piece of wood, and we attempt to cultivate true love, true devotion, true reverence for this face, believing that we can see Christ in it. It is not hard to see how such a practice prepares us to be more loving to one another. Icons are painted of saints, those who are easy to love. They are painted in an idealized way that is meant to represent the heavenly body of the individual, making it even easier to practice devotion and love. It is difficult to muster up as much devotion and love when looking at the face of someone who is in prison, or who is disfigured with sickness, or who is a stranger, or who is your enemy, or someone who persecutes and harms you. Yet, we are told that we must love them as well.
Loving them, of course, doesn’t mean that we are to feel affection or some other feeling. Love is more active than that. It is not always easy and does not always feel good. That is why we start with the best case scenarios: icons of saints and of Christ. Through regular, habitual, liturgical practice we can work our way up to strangers and enemies. The same goes for everything else we do in Church. Every ritual points towards love. We practice love in our parishes and in our families, we learn how to deal with conflict peacefully, and we learn to devote ourselves to one another. We do that in our communities where it is easy, where it is safe and where everyone has the same beliefs and commitments. This is what should happen when we gather regularly for services. And those in the services are treated as icons. The priest censes the people along with the icons, because all are the Body of Christ. The incense, the vestments, the chanting, this all draws us together.
During the Divine Liturgy, there is a special focus: communion. We gather together to receive it. Communion is the center of spiritual practice, and it too points us towards love. We spend the whole week between Sunday liturgies praying and fasting in preparation for receiving communion.Then we gather in the evening and in the morning to pray and to prepare ourselves to receive it. We then spend well over an hour praying during the liturgy, all just to prepare us to receive. St. Symeon tells us that we should always receive communion with tears. This tells us that we are truly to cultivate devotion, and the whole of the liturgical life of the Church prepares us for this. Why so much effort to cultivate devotion surrounding an act that takes only a few seconds? Why do we prepare so much to receive just the smallest piece of bread and wine? It is because we see the bread and the wine as the Body of Christ, and the whole point of Christianity is to commune with that Body. The practice of communion is just that, practicing communion. The end goal is mystical communion with the Trinity, with all mankind, and with the whole universe. It is easier to cultivate the right mindset and orientation towards that communion if we practice with just the smallest piece of the Body of Christ on a spoon. It is much harder to practice frequent communion with the Body of Christ writ large. We spend all this time preparing for communion, because if we can succeed in truly communing, in loving God and man through the Body of Christ, the Godman, then we have made the first step towards carrying around that same devotion and love for all. It is easier to love Christ in the chalice than in the leper. But Christ calls us to love Him in the leper, so we start with the chalice, and practice as regularly as we can.
If we succeed in cultivating a heart that so loves the chalice, then it will be that much easier to see our fellow Christians as living chalices. For each of those who worship with us receive from the same cup that we do, and they literally carry the Body of Christ within them. Then after we expand our devotion to include our co-religionists, we can then go out into the streets, and see that all are made in the image of God and that Christ is truly in the ‘least of these.’ This process is what the hesychast fathers called the ‘enlightening of the nous.’’ The fall is the darkening of the ‘nous,’ where nous means something like the eye of the mind or the heart.
It is through the nous that we mystically see the bread and wine as communion, and it is through the nous that we see that all are truly icons of Christ. Thus every practice in the Church which aims at enlightening the nous at the same time is teaching us to love, whether it be confession, iconography, or partaking of the sacrament. All these practices point us towards God, who is love. As St John the Evangelist says,
‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love… If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us…God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.’
The mystical communion with God that we seek in the Eucharist means just this: that we abide in God and that God abides in us. Remarkably, what St. John tells us is that this communion is achieved through love. If we can approach just the smallest portion of the Body of Christ on a spoon, with full reverence, devotion, and love, and if we do that as often as we can, then soon the nous will enlighten and it will get easier and easier to see the larger Body of Christ with such devotion, reverence, and love. We will see each member of that Body with love until our love encapsulates the whole universe. Many modern spiritual masters, like St. Silouan speak of expanding the heart to contain the whole world. What they mean is simply that we should love everyone, just as we love God. Christ tells us that the whole of the law is to love God with all our heart… and to love our neighbor as ourself. These commandments are not separate, but are one and the same.
In an interview we once did with Fr. Thomas Hopko of Blessed Memory, he commented on that commandment and said that sometimes it is translated as ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ He says this is a poor translation, and a better translation is that “we should love our neighbor as ourselves.” This means we should love our neighbor “as being our own self.” “Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.” The Fathers say the same thing, “Your brother is your life.”” Or as Fr. Tom summarizes, “I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other.” This mutuality is what Fr. Tom calls communion. He says, ““The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of existence.” Communion then, is not just limited to the sacrament, but instead implies a whole sacramental way of living. Many things can break that communion: violence, poverty, ideology, killing, anger, greed, envy, and egoism. This is why forgiveness, prayer, peace, and Christian charity are so vital. They are how we live in communion. A life lived in communion brings the Eucharistic to bear on all aspects of life. It means engaging the world in practical ways that bring about the Kingdom of God. Division and strife sever communion. That is why we must make peace with all, in our own hearts. From there we can make peace with those in our lives, in our families and communities. Reconciling, loving, forgiving, these all establish communion with those around us. From there we can make peace not just with those close to us, but with enemies and strangers as well. We can then seek to make peace within our society, which St. Clement calls justice. And by God’s grace, we can seek to expand such communion to the whole world and cosmos.
As St. Basil said, “I cannot convince myself that without mutual love and without peace with all people, in as far as it is within my possibilities, I can call myself a worthy servant of God.” St. Basil also said, “Nothing is so characteristic of a Christian as to be a peacemaker.” This saying is profound given the quotation from Basil with which we started. St. Basil says that the mark of a Christian is communion, but he also says that nothing is so characteristic as being a peacemaker. Given what Fr. Thomas Hopko said, we should read these two quotations together. Being a peacemaker, working for peace and justice and reconciliation, is the same thing as seeking communion. Peace is the same thing as the mystery of divine-human communion. Peace and justice between people is involved in this as well, for we are all icons of God incarnate, and peace with God means peace with man. Communion is not just a spiritual exercise, and it is not just something done for the life of our souls. It is a lived reality for the life of the world. Thus, we should identify Christ’’s twofold command to love God and to love neighbor with the twofold announcement of the angel, that Christ comes bringing glory to God in the highest with peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. We love God, glorifying Him in the highest. And we love man, seeking to bring about peace on earth and goodwill towards all.
This podcast is the first of many sponsored by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The podcasts are titled In Communion; this name comes from the interview we did with Fr. Thomas Hopko. In Communion is also the name of the journal we publish, as well as the name of our website. Fr. Tom was on the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and was a very active promoter of our work. He was also a good friend to many in OPF. This podcast is a mission statement of sorts for our journal and our work. We seek to promote a life lived in communion, which is really nothing more than the Christian life. You can expect many stories, reflections, interviews, and essays from this podcast. All will focus on this simple theme of living a life in communion. We will discuss saints lives, stories of people bringing about communion through the ‘liturgy outside the church,’’ the orthopraxy of living in the world, and the Christian vocation of peace, justice, and love. How should we live in and engage the contemporary world as the Body of Christ, as people seeking to live in communion with all and with everything? This is the question that motivates us. We hope to discern these things with you.
To hear more of the OPF’s Podcasts, be sure to visit us at:
Episodes are co-produced by Pieter Dykhorst and Jim Forest,
and typically recorded by Nicholas Sooy.