The Church in an Era of Isolation
“We need each one of us and the help of one another more than one hand needs the other” (St. Basil the Great).
Christian faith is as social as it is internal. The minute faith becomes private, it has stopped being Christian. We are here to love God and love our neighbor, simultaneously, and it always starts in parish life.
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is a good question. “How are we supposed to live?” Christ returns with another question, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:26-27).
He nailed it. Love God and love your neighbor. You cannot have one without the other. If you set out to love God but ignore your neighbor, you fail in both subjects. St. John certifies this: “If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (I Jn. 4:20). It is a neat little barometer. If you want to gauge the degree of your love for God, examine your love for the people around you. If you have genuine love in your heart, you cannot stop it from flowing out. A loving heart loves everything, God, man, and creation.
One day, a priest was walking along the road with St. Silouan. Absent-mindedly, the priest stooped down and tore a little grass. They walked on for a while, when the priest noticed tears in St. Silouan’s eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked. The saint confessed, he wept because of the useless cruelty of humans. His heart overflowed with such divine love, it was sensitive to the pain felt by a single blade of grass. St. Isaac of Syria wept and prayed for the whole universe, even the lizards in the desert and the demons in hell. If an authentic loving heart feels this way about lizards (and demons), how much more should we begin by loving our brothers and sisters? How can we start loving God, without first learning to love one another?
“You have given the right answer,” Christ told the Lawyer. “Do this, and you will live.” Then the Lawyer asks the next question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:28-29).
Who does God want you to love? The person directly infront of you.
“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor,” a philosopher points out. The scriptures speak, “not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor…We have to love our neighbor because he is there…He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us” (G. K. Chesterton).
The world tells us to love someone because of this reason or that. “He is one of my own.” “He is the good type.” “He is kind to me.” But Christ dissolves all of these boundaries. It does not matter if someone is easy to love. It does not matter if he deserves it. The duty to love is universal.
He lays it out in his parable.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity…” (Luke 10: 30-33).
Frans de Waal spent his life studying primates. He published a fascinating book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, where he teaches about the ethics of monkeys — the ethics of Bonobo to be precise. This endangered ape, in Central Africa, has a highly elaborate social life, with all kinds of empathetic behavior. Sure enough, monkeys do have morals. But after hundreds of pages of describing these morals, de Waal admits, there is a problem. Acts of goodness only extend within the “ingroup.”They take care of their own, but they ignore outsiders.
Human love is no higher than monkey love, when it extends only to “your kind of people.”
If you cannot love your enemy, you cannot love God. If you cannot love the person who insults you, slights you, or annoys you, then your love has no place in God’s kingdom.
This is the radical nature of Christianity. I am sure the priest and Levite were decent people. I imagine they took care of their friends and held God in high esteem. But their love came to nothing the instant they ignored a fellow human in pain. God does not ask us to love humanity. He asks us to love our neighbor.
So what does all this have to do with parish life?
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). The scriptures are brimming with teachings on Christian community. “May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). “Encourage one another day after day” (Hebrews 3:13).
There is zero room for individualistic faith. The Church in the Scriptures is no place for a person to come, get a little Jesus time, and go back to one’s private life, and this is a temptation we have to fight against in our highly individualistic society. The Church is the school where we learn to love.
We have to face up to something unnatural about modern, American life. Historically, Christianity always thrived in a little community. Not only did you go to Mass together, week after week. You shopped together. You did the laundry together. You harvested wheat and baked bread together. It was normal for Christians to always be within hearing distance of the church bells. At the various hours through the day, the bells rung, and the Christians stopped in their place, bowed, and prayed.
The possibility that you could worship together Sunday morning, and then never run into that person again for the rest of the week, would have been alien in any traditional Christian society. Orthodoxy places such an emphasis on community, that it has created its own vocabulary to describe it — Sobornost: A harmony and symphony based on mutual love, freedom, and commitment to one another in the life of the Church.
After drinking from the same chalice, we drink from the same cup of struggles. Mass begins with the collective “I confess to God almighty,” and ends with the enjoining, “Ite Missa Est” — Go forth and be the Church.
“Nothing is so in accord with our nature as to live in peace with one another, to need one another, to love our kind. And we need each one of us and the help of one another more than one hand needs the other” (St. Basil).
No words were ever more needed than they are now, in the era of social isolation. We are here with two tasks: to love God and love one another.