In moments of transition, there is a need to acknowledge, to affirm, what is going on in the community. Especially when that transition is associated with powerful feelings, be they positive or (as is more likely) negative, these need to be acknowledge and given a place within the life of the community. Practically this means helping people listen to and identify their feelings. More important still, people often need help in situated their feelings within the larger process of the community’s transition, even as the community’s transition needs itself to be situated within the larger story of the Gospel (i.e., oriented).
As I think about things, it seems to me that helping and compassion are fundamentally about orientation and acknowledgment. This doesn’t mean I ought not to offer practical solutions where that is possible. But these solutions to actually be practical, to really be helpful and compassionate, must grow out of orientation and acknowledgement. At a minimum, if I don’t know where the community is going (orientation), or if I don’t know what people are struggle with (acknowledgment), then my help and compassion is likely to be ineffective. Worse, I may be serving my own needs rather than the community’s.
Playfulness is not a value we usually associate with the Orthodox Church. And yet, in every traditional Orthodox culture there is a tradition of feasting, of music and dance. Pastorally I have found that one the best ways to unite an ethnically mixed community is to encourage people to eat each other’s foods, sample each other’s alcohols, and to encourage and welcome everyone’s music, language and customs.
None of this can be done if the leadership—clerical or lay—or overly serious. There is a place, a valuable and important place, in our spiritual lives for frivolity, for fun.
If I were to make any critical comment about the way in which the Orthodox Church response pastorally to transitions, it is that we are often not very playful. Sometimes we are so deadly serious. But playfulness admits a bit of space, it allows us some room to move without being self-conscious or anxious. This all to say, that we must cultivate in our communities, a real sense of joy.
This is hard to cultivate of we are unwilling to look at ourselves honestly. It is hard to cultivate joy if we either take our eyes off the Kingdom of God, or the practical steps along the way. And apart from our willing to bear each other’s burdens there can be no joy.
But while all this is true, without joy these other things are likewise impossible.
In a 1983 homily for Forgiveness Sunday, Fr Alexander Schmemann says:
As once more we are
about to enter the Great Lent, I would like to remind us – myself first of all, and all of you my fathers, brothers, and sisters – of the verse that we just sang, one of the stichera, and that verse says: “Let us begin Lent, the Fast, with joy.”
Only yesterday we were commemorating Adam crying, lamenting at the gates of Paradise, and now every second line of the Triodion and the liturgical books of Great Lent will speak of repentance, acknowledging what dark and helpless lives we live, in which we sometimes are immersed. And yet, no one will prove to me that the general tonality of Great Lent is not that of a tremendous joy! Not what we call “joy” in this world – not just something entertaining, interesting, or amusing – but the deepest definition of joy, that joy of which Christ says: “no one will take away from you” (Jn. 16:22). Why joy? What is that joy?
Fr Alexander answers his own question by saying that Lent is a gift. And while this gift has many facets, is the gift that makes possible our
return to each other: this is where we begin tonight. This is what we are doing right now. For if we would think of the real sins we have committed, we would say that one of the most important is exactly the style and tonality which we maintain with each other: our complaining and criticizing. I don’t think that there are cases of great and destructive hatred or assassination, or something similar. It is just that we exist as if we are completely out of each other’s life, out of each other’s interests, out of each other’s love. Without having repaired this relationship, there is no possibility of entering into Lent. Sin – whether we call it “original” sin or “primordial” sin – has broken the unity of life in this world, it has broken time, and time has become that fragmented current which takes us into old age and death. It has broken our social relations, it has broken families. Everything is diabolos – divided and destroyed. But Christ has come into the world and said: “… and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn. 12:32).
In the final analysis, all communities are, in one form or another, in transition because all human beings are in transition. What we learn from those communities that are suffering because of a trauma is that our love for one another is maybe not as deeply rooted and firmly held as we might like to think. I am not as loving as I imagine I am—the sign of that is my lack of joy.
In helping communities and individuals negotiate transitions, I must first and foremost love them. This love is not by any means sentimental. It is rather the willingness on my part to bring to place all that God has given me personally, professionally and as a priest of the Orthodox, at the service of the person in front of me. Reflecting both as a social scientist, and more importantly as a Christian, I have come to realize that it is only in my willingness to serve the good of this unique person that I am able as well to serve the common good of the institution, of the parish or diocese that is also my concern.