The Meaning of Community

by Christopher Flesoras


Many years ago there was a monastery of rabbis that had fallen on hard times. Once a great order, the monastery had dwindled in numbers to only five monks: the abbot and four others, all over seventy years of age. As the abbot of the monastery agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him that he ought to pay a visit to the old rabbi who often retreated to a little hut in the woods and ask him if by chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.


One day he ventured to the hut and explained the purpose of his visit to the rabbi. The rabbi agonized with him as he had witnessed a similar occurance in his town. The abbot, frustrated that he had not succeeded in his purpose, pleaded with the rabbi to give him some bit of advice that might save his dying order. "I am sorry," exclaimed the rabbi, "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."


Upon returning to the monastery his fellow monks asked if the rabbi had given him any advice that could save the dying order. "Unfortunately," the abbot informed them, "he couldn't help. The only thing he did say was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."


In the days, weeks, and months to follow the old monks pondered and wondered what was the significance, if any, of the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one of us? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. Additionally, each monk treated himself with extraordinary respect on the off chance that in fact he was the Messiah. Little by little this extraordinary respect grew and radiated far beyond the walls of their monastery. More frequently people began to visit the monastery. Then it happened. Some of the younger men who visited the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After some time one man asked if he could join their order. Then another. And then another. So, within a few years the monastery again became a thriving order of spirituality, thanks to the rabbi's gift.


The rabbi's gift, a profound gift that afforded this group of monks the opportunity to live in a setting characterized by the virtue that is so frequently overlooked . The rabbi's gift, a gift that instilled respect, understanding, a conscience, commitment, inclusively, realism, contemplation, safety, wisdom, and love. The rabbi's gift, a gift that established a community.


Community, hard to define as a term and even more difficult to maintain as an ideal, yet we apply it to nearly every collection of individuals- a town like Brookline, an academic institution like Hellenic College and Holy Cross, a residence hall like Polemanakos, an apartment complex like Halki or Dendrinos, and/or a church like our Holy Cross Chapel. Scott Peck in his book "the Different Drum: Community Making and Peace" suggests that "if we are going to use the word meaningfully we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly and openly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to 'rejoice together, mourn together,' and to 'delight in each other...'" (p.59). If we truly reflect on the products of Brookline, Hellenic College and Holy Cross, Polemanakos Hall, Halki and Dendrinos villages, and/or the Holy Cross Chapel, can we say that any of these congregations of individuals have truly materialized a community?


This being the case, that is, that individuals often experience great difficulty materializing the ideals of community, I present the question that has received a great deal of my attention while studying at our school: "In a Christian institution such as ours, that has included as part of its mission the bold statement that Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is a unique community of faith and learning, characterized by an integration of the wealth of human knowledge and civilizations with the religious and Hellenic cultural traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, why is it so difficult to materialize a real community?" Granted, one could say that we are a diverse group of individuals being that: we have students and faculty members of vastly different ages from two different schools, we have members of the clergy and of the laity, we have both men and women, and we have students and family members of different races from all over the world who also speak many different languages. Yet, Metropolitan John Zizioulas explains when speaking of the Eucharistic community of which we are all members, that there exists no distinction whatsoever with regard to ages, professions, sexes, races, and languages when we gather together (p.247). For the one common denominator that we have that allows us to transcend all of these differences is the common Orthodox faith that we proclaim.


In the Gospel reading today we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee which sheds some light onto one of the greatest problems that we have had and continue to have in materializing community. In this parable of Christ we were told of the Pharisee who believed that he himself was a member of an exclusive community; a community that some individuals were not truly worthy of membership, for example the tax-collector. Dorotheos of Gaza emphasized this point when he explained that the Pharisee was condemned not because he was giving thanks to God for his own good works or because he said, "I am not like other men" but because he said, "I am not like this tax-collector.' For it was at that point, concluded Dorotheos, that the Pharisee made a judgment (p.132).


Judgment, the act of pronouncing a decision. Judgment, the justification by which we either include or exclude someone. Judgment, the greatest enemy of and threat to community. Throughout the New Testament we are clearly instructed not to judge others being that as St. John writes "all judgment has been left to the Son" (5:22). We have been advised in this fashion being that as St. Maximos the Confessor explains "He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead..." (Philokalia Vol.2, p.92.). Passing judgment was unfortunately the vice of the Pharisee. You see, by passing judgment upon the tax-collector and the publican's worthiness before God, he not only condemned himself, but made himself an enemy to the worshipping community. Similarly, anytime an individual or group excludes others because they are poor or doubters or younger or uneducated or sinners or of some different race or nationality they too, with the Pharisee, deny community.


If this in fact the case, that is, that individuals who are exclusive are not allies but enemies of a community, then it is logical to conclude that the true meaning of community is inclusiveness. Whether in the story of the monastery and its monks, the sociological theory of Scott Peck, the mission statement of the Hellenic College and Holy Cross, the ecclesiology of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, or the temple setting of the Publican and the Pharisee, inclusiveness is a fundamental principle that sustains community.


As Orthodox Christians we are called to imitate Christ throughout our lives. As Orthodox Christians we are called to go forth and "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit." As Orthodox Christians we are called to be good stewards of God's all inclusive community, His Creation.


Our efforts of sustaining these communities can only be achieved synergisticly, that is, committing ourselves to putting on Christ. For when we wrap ourselves in the bright robes of our Savior we radiate with love. And through love, we remain committed to inclusivity. We love our neighbor and hate the sin. We do not judge the "publicans" of our communities but pray with them, for them, and attempt to pastorally care for them.


This is the means by which the monks in the monastery were able to transcend their divisions and establish a community. They, in a sense, as Dorotheos of Gaza proposed; were the straight lines drawn from the circumference of a circle that was centered in God. As these men grew in desire to draw nearer to God they slowly moved closer towards each other. And likewise, with every step they took towards each other, they became closer to God. "Now" as Dorotheus explains, "consider in the same context the question of separation [in our terms a lack of community]; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God the more they become distant from one another."


In a similar fashion, the more we separate ourselves from our fellow citizens in Gods Creation, the more we have removed ourselves from communion with God as attested in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee. If, on the other hand, we sustain an extraordinary respect for our brethren, whether in Brookline, Hellenic College and Holy Cross, Polemanakos Hall, Halki and Dendrinos villages or our Holy Cross Chapel, not only will we draw closer to them by transcending our divisions, draw nearer to God. And, when we have advanced towards God to the point that we have centered our lives in His virtue, we have truly established community.