Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Prayer for the Parish

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"But we beg you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (I THESS. 5:12-18)

A couple of months or so ago, I wrote of a new and very full Orthodox Prayer Book that was recently published by the Saint Arseny of Konevets Press. The full title is: Prayer Book - In Accordance With the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has some wonderful "set prayers" that I have never seen or read before. We are not told where these particular prayers come from - are they old, more recent, or perhaps even newly composed? Be that as it may, there is a prayer at the end of the Morning Rule of Prayer under the title of "Prayer for City and Parish." I would like to give everyone the opportunity of having this prayer for possible inclusion into your own personal Rule of Prayer. The text is as follows:


O Heavenly Father, we humbly beseech You to send Your Holy Spirit
to touch the hearts of the people of _____.
We ask You to encourage them to seek the living truth,
Your Son, the LORD Jesus Christ, and his holy church.
We pray that their hearts may be turned away from the temptations of this world
and from the words of heretical teachers.
We also pray for ourselves, that our hearts would not be hardened to the gospel,
but that we would be living lights and representatives of our Savior.
We pray for _____ Church, that it may be a true haven of rest,
encouragement and hope for all who call it home.
And we pray that all who call upon the name of the LORD Jesus Christ
in _____ may be one, even as You and Your Son and the Holy Spirit are one.

The parish is the local Body of Christ, fully "catholic" in that the whole Christ is fully present in all of His divine-human reality. Catholicity means "according to the whole." Of course, each parish is an integral part of a wider diocese, but that does not mean that the grace of God is somehow "divided" among the various parishes. There is nothing lacking, for the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) are celebrated in their wholeness in each parish, and "the grace divine" which "heals everything that is infirm" is ever-present there. This is the deifying grace of the Holy Spirit, "objectively" imparted in each of the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and to each participating member of the Church within the context of the local parish. This is the basis of what is called our "eucharistic ecclesiology," for the Eucharist above all constitutes the parish as the local Body of Christ. And the fulness of Christ - Head and Body - is made present in the Eucharist.

We believe that that is the truth concerning our local parishes; but "objective" as that truth is - to again use that term - it is still a truth that we must struggle to embody within those very parishes. In other words, every conceivable temptation constantly threatens to reduce that vision to something less than what it actually is. That temptation can be hard and crude - wilfull sinfulness on the part of clergy or laity that distorts and corrupts the very fabric of a parish's life so that it is reduced to a feeble caricature of what it is meant to be. For those who choose to remain in such an environment, that caricature can take on the illusion of normalcy, and thus everyone is blinded to the distorting effects of sin. The parish then resembles hell more than paradise. A seemingly more innocuous form of temptation is to reduce the parish to a convenient place where "nice people" voluntarily associate with each other; but yet are oblivious to the challenges of the Gospel, the need for constant spiritual vigilance/warfare, and the commitment to uphold each other in the "bond of love" when life proves to be overwhelming in its demands. Everyone minds his/her own business, but to "bear one another's burdens" or to "go an extra mile" with one's neighbor in the parish would appear as an unreasonable expectation. The parish then resembles a club more than a spiritual family united in Christ.

Perhaps actual parish life falls somewhere in between the two poles outlined above. Certainly, there is no "perfect parish." Whatever the case may be, even a good, healthy parish must remain vigilant "against the wiles of the devil." This takes time, a great deal of patience, genuine perseverance, and a desire to "love one another." This is the "new commandment" given to us by Christ. To "come to church" on Sunday, to participate in the Eucharist, and to "make a pledge" to the parish cannot be understood in an indivualistic manner - as if one is attending to his/her own "spiritual needs." It is rather to commit to being a member of a parish community - the local Body of Christ - and thus to embody the manifold virtues implied in the new commandment of Christ. How else can we understand the text cited above from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians? The "effort" belongs to us, and the "results" belong to God.

Fr. Steven

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