In the modern world we have seen our experience of community diminish even during our own life-times. We no longer live in places where we have a connection of family, culture, religion and history with most other people. Even our membership of social organisations, even our local Churches and congregations, now draw together people from much larger areas, so that outside of particular activities we are less and less able to share in each others’ lives. But to a great extent this is what we have chosen. We would rather have a nice house than live close to members of our family, or friends, or our Church. And so we see each other only on special occasions, or on Sunday mornings. We would rather move house for a better job opportunity, even if it is far from our family, or friends, or any Church. We have lost that stability and simplicity on which community was based in the past, and this has not happened without our own choices for temporary and unsettled relationships and a tenuous loyalty to places and people.
Of course this is a general condition of the Western world. We are all of us having to face a society in which there is little community and no sense of belonging. This has a significant effect on all of our relationships, on our marriages and families, and even on our participation in the Church. We are often traveling long distances for work, for school, and to Church, and this means that we cannot easily experience community, since we are unable to share our lives deeply without having a physical closeness. The lack of community is one of the causes of anxiety, depression, loneliness and despair. It places great pressure on families and marriages, either through seeking validation and worth outside of the home, or because of the stress of trying to manage all the tensions and responsibilities of family life on our own, without a close support network.
In our congregations we can easily adopt the culture of the society around us, and so we often find that we worship with people with whom we do not have a significant experience of community, just as we work with people with whom we do not have a significant experience of community. Such occasional connections cannot be the basis of community. But the Church exists as a community, as koinonia. Koinonia is sometimes translated as fellowship in the English language translations of the New Testament, and this is certainly one element of what it stands for. We talk about having a time of fellowship among Christians, perhaps after the Liturgy. This makes it sound like an activity we do, and then when it ends we go our separate ways.
In fact koinonia is better expressed by the word participation. Participation mean much more than having a time together with other Christians once a week. It stands for a deep sharing of our lives, and an intimacy that effects and affects everything. It is not for nothing that the monastic community in the Desert was called the Koinonia. Attending a fellowship meeting is relatively easy, even if we don’t get on with everyone we are expected to have fellowship with. But participation demands something more. Not more meetings and longer meetings. Not more food. But a giving of self to others, and a receiving of others’ gift of themselves, so that the life we live as Christians, and as a Church, is a common life, the common participation in the divine life.
Indeed, it seems impossible to imagine how the Church, how particular congregations, can experience life as the Body of Christ in a meaningful way, without the members of those congregations seeking to experience koinonia, participation, in each others’ lives in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit. If there is no koinonia, then what is the Church, what is a congregation? It can really be no more than a religious club, a cultural centre, a place where various spiritual services are consumed. This is not what the Lord Jesus Christ has in mind for the Church, for his own Body, when he prays that we might be one, as the Holy Trinity is one. Sometimes we understand this as meaning that we might experience some sense of unity, but this is not the unity which the Trinity experiences. On the contrary, the Lord Jesus invites us to a unity which is based on a shared participation in the divine life which is given us in the sacraments and especially the Eucharist, and which we are to work out together in our daily lives.
The unity of the Body is not a temporary and external one. The hand does not meet with the feet once a week to express some notional connection. Rather the hand and feet, and all the other parts of the Body, share in a lasting participation in the life of the Body. This is koinonia, this is community. The Church does not properly exist without this experience of community. Of course this does not mean that this community exists everywhere in a perfection. Like every other aspect of the life of the Church we are called to become through great effort and in the grace of God more perfectly that which we are only in potential.
Why should we seek community? It seems to me it is because this is what being truly Christian means in the horizontal relationships we have with others, just as we are called to a deeper and richer vertical relationship with God himself. Those who are growing closer to God should be those who are growing closer to others in the Church. But this is not as easy or as direct a relationship as it might seem. Not everyone in a congregation is seeking koinonia or community. Sometimes the nature of a congregation, its history and the reality of existing tensions, does not allow an easy connection between people. Nevertheless, I am convinced that every serious Christian should be seeking community, as the expression of the life of Christ in the Church.
There is a cost, especially for those who are pioneers in community. The immediate goal is not usually a happy and fruitful environment in which everyone participates in a common life by the divine life of the Holy Spirit. This may never be entirely present. The immediate goal must be a personal openness to others, and a giving of self in humble sacrifice and service. This begins to be present in our hearts through a deepening spiritual experience of God himself within the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit. It requires participation in the Eucharist and the reception of the divine Mysteries in holiness and faith. It requires the working out of the grace of the Mysteries in a commitment to unceasing prayer. It requires that within the heart, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to view all others, especially members with us in the Body of Christ, in a different way. We have to discover a peace within our heart, by the Holy Spirit, so that we are not easily disturbed by others, but have a lasting sympathy for them, a compassion that embraces even those who treat us badly.
When our heart begins to be softened towards others then we are able to open ourselves to them, even if the gift is not received. This does not require lots of activity, or organisation. It does not require putting ourselves in the way of people, as if demanding community from them. But as we are able to be present to other people through union with God, and in the divine grace, then we will discover opportunities to make a connection without preconceptions and preconditions. We becomes less irritated and frustrated by others, less needing of their approval, and instead we find that we are understanding of their own weaknesses and ignorance. We begin to pray for others, rather than praying about the impact of their behaviour on us.
There is a cost in living like this. It requires us to be outside of cliques and special groups. Indeed one of the aspects of community is that it is not compatible with cliques and little groups. We have to be open to all, praying for all, waiting patiently for others to be ready to open themselves up to koinonia, looking for the opportunities to experience community in a small way with those who desire this themselves and find the divine life inspiring them. If community is koinonia, participation, then we begin to discover it by nourishing the opportunities for this sharing in the life of Christ together, wherever we find them, and however humble they may appear. There is a cost in this. The community we discover at the beginning, or even after many years, may not be what we hoped for. It may be a fragile plant. But the heart that is open, with all the ascetic effort this requires of us, gives thanks for the smallest authentic connection with others, however brief, because the connection brings about the possibility of a deeper and more lasting connection.
Community is not something we organise, as if it were a meeting or a ministry. Nor is it easy to programme its development. It is not something that others must take care of. We have to bear the cost ourselves, both of opening our hearts to others, and waiting with compassion for another heart to respond. We cannot describe where the experience of community, of koinonia, or participation together in the divine life will lead us. And so there are no definite activities which can be organised to make community happen. But definitely, it seems to me, if we fill our heart with love for God in union with God, and if we open our hearts to the other members of the Body of Christ in that same love and divine life, then grace will guide us, the Holy Spirit will lead us, to understand what we must do, to nourish and sustain the fragile seed of koinonia.