The Emergence of Local Orthodox Christian Societies in America
by His Grace Bishop THOMAS and Sdn. Symeon Dana Kees
Throughout the history of the Orthodox Church, the Church has found a home in every culture within which it has been divinely planted. As the unchanging Apostolic Tradition becomes the Way of the people, the language and the good aspects of the culture are sanctified and absorbed into the life of the Church. Within the one Church and single inalterable Tradition, the Faith handed down from generation to generation since the Apostles, we find various cultural expressions around the world. Even though the society of the United States is heavily influenced by secularism and other non-Orthodox philosophies, Orthodox Christians can still build thoroughly Orthodox communities in North America within whatever city or town we live. An Orthodox society can emerge anywhere in America, whether urban, suburban, or rural. As there are many expressions of American culture among the diverse regions, we should expect many expressions of Orthodox culture in America, too. What binds the people in an Orthodox society together is their common life in the Church. Just as American culture contains diversity (in the way urban New York City differs from rural North Carolina, for example), Orthodox culture will likely bear variation around the country among those who hold the Tradition of the Church in common.
What would a local Orthodox society look like? Here are a few characteristics that might be present:
In an Orthodox society, the parish will be the center of the community. These churches should be open as much as possible for people to pray, worship, receive the Holy Mysteries, and seek spiritual counsel. The priests and deacons should not only receive those who come into the church, but go out into the communities as spiritual fathers, evangelists, and physicians. They should visit the homes of the faithful to get to know the families, bless their homes, and teach parents how to make the home a “domestic church.” The clergy should visit the faithful who are sick, pray for their healing, and take them Holy Communion. As the people should invite the non-Orthodox to “come and see” the Orthodox Faith, the priest should lead the people to go and tell everyone possible the Good News of the Holy Gospel by word and deed. The clergy should be so active in the life of the community and approachable that the non-Orthodox know them and feel comfortable speaking with them. Orthodox Christians should make an effort to ensure that everyone, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, know that the Orthodox Way of Life is the path of healing and the Orthodox Church is the Hospital established by Christ for the therapy, restoration, and transfiguration of man, whom He loves.
In a local Orthodox society, Orthodox Christians should establish schools to educated children in all academic subjects within the context of the Church. These schools may either be housed in stately facilities or constitute a small collection of families who pool resources and team-teach their own children and perhaps other children who join them. An Orthodox school is more than just a private school distinguishable from secular or other religious schools by a few Orthodox religion courses and mandatory attendance at certain liturgical services. Classes should indeed be scheduled around daily services and major feast days, but even more, the entire educational process and approach to every subject should be according to the mind (phronema) of the Orthodox Church. According to the mind of the Church, the knowledge of God with the heart is far superior to the exercise of the rational mind. All life skills are to be applied for the glory of God and with love for others. We know that the goal of education is for students to achieve success by acquiring the spiritual riches of the kingdom by grace. Students must be taught that love is greater that career achievement, humility is more valuable than egotistical self-assurance, prayer is the hardest work that brings the most reward, and repentance takes us higher than climbing a corporate ladder. Within these Orthodox schools, children should be taught the virtues of the kingdom of God. Teachers should be chosen, not only for their ability to teach academic subjects, but according to their love for Christ, faithfulness to the Church, and care for others.
Orthodox societies can benefit from nearby monastic communities that enjoy a mutually healthful, nurturing relationship with the parishes. Monastic life is rooted in the Holy Mysteries and immersed in a life of prayerful work and prayerful Divine Services. Monks who seek out their own salvation, pray for the world, share the riches of the fruit of prayer with the poor in spirit, and show mercy on the monetarily poor, serve as a bright light within the Orthodox community and beyond. The monastic experience can reveal the beauty of the Orthodox life when asceticism is prayerfully practiced with humility, repentance, love, and joy.
4. Medical Care
Within an Orthodox society, health care providers should dedicate themselves to providing care within the context of the Orthodox Church and, therefore, according to the mind of the Church. Orthodox doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, physical therapists, and others should be dedicated to praying for the healing of their patients and be actively pursuing the healing of their own souls. (The Unmercenary Physicians of the Church provide worthy examples to follow.) Health care professionals should work alongside the clergy of the Church to ensure that the whole person receives care for the healing of both body and soul from the time of conception until physical death. Medical clinics or networks could form in certain areas so that Orthodox Christians and others who desire this kind of care could receive comprehensive medical attention according to the Orthodox Christian ethos.
5. Business & Work
Within an Orthodox society, local business owners should dedicate themselves to operating their businesses, not just to make money, but to support the ministry of the Church and to invest in the lives of others. Orthodox business owners should be dedicated to caring for their employees and for their customers. Businesses should operate in such a way that humility, mercy, generosity, peace, hospitality, and care for others are recognizable as guiding virtues even to the non-Orthodox.
An example of how businesses can contribute to the life of the Church would be the efforts of Orthodox Christian-owned restaurants to offer fasting-appropriate dishes on fast days. Professional offices could allow employees the freedom to attend the Divine Services on major feast days. As business owners are called to treat all their employees well, Orthodox employees, whether white collar or blue collar, must provide the best service possible to their employers with love and joy. Everyone is called to treat others, supervisors, subordinates, and customers with love, understanding, and forgiveness.
In reality, Orthodox Christians will likely to find themselves working alongside non-Orthodox, including those friendly toward the Faith and also those hostile to it. An Orthodox medical professional may have to insistently refuse to participate in certain activities we know are sinful, harmful, and that lead us away from life in God toward spiritual sickness and death. Orthodox employees may find themselves in an office environment where people criticize our Way of life as intolerant and out-dated as they preach secular values. We are called to prayerfully respond with truth in the context of genuine humility and selfless love. Our work and life alongside non-Orthodox people offers plenteous opportunities for evangelism through our words and deeds.
The establishment of a local Orthodox society takes place when Orthodox Christians dedicate themselves to living out the Orthodox Faith in their daily lives together. An Orthodox society is not a theoretical social experiment, an urban cultural ghetto, or a rural religious commune based on an imagined idea or model of what a perfect Orthodox society might look like. Rather, an Orthodox society is Orthodox Tradition expressed by a community of Orthodox Christians who seek their salvation and are concerned for the salvation of others. Therefore, the emergence of a local Orthodox society in any place is the natural result of a significant number of Orthodox Christians actively engaged in the spiritual Way of the Church, working to establish churches, schools, medical facilities, and businesses, and striving to embody Christian values in all they do. The development and continued health of an Orthodox society as a whole depends upon the willingness of each person involved to personally participate in the inner life of the Mystery of the Church, the Way of prayerful humility, faith, love, repentance, joy, obedience, healing, worship, and fellowship. Such a society cannot be founded merely on the implantation of rational ideas, the establishment of organizations, and the building of institutions. A truly Orthodox society must always be the fruit of loving, prayerful hearts engaged in the ascetic struggle for purification, illumination, and theosis within the context of the Holy Orthodox Church planted by Christ on earth.