October 22, 2018 - Douglas Cramer
As Rebecca and I deepen our connections to the Salish Sea region, our beloved adopted home, we frequently reflect on the meaning of community. As someone who has often embraced a lightly-rooted life, learned in part from my globetrotting grandparents who nurtured me as a youth, I’ve struggled at times to form bonds of fellowship and place.
Community for me had often seemed best understood by its darker manifestations – enforced obedience to arbitrary standards; gossip and judgement; repression of creativity and personal discovery. Yet as I’ve matured and put the hours in to the hard work of building relationships – with family and children; with friends and neighbors; with professional colleagues – I’ve come to recognize that communities are simply webs of people involved in each other’s lives, and that communities that rest on love, kindness and respect are grand gardens from which we enrich our lives and explore the rewards of service.
I find ongoing inspiration, and a childlike hope, in the daily beats and thrums of vibrant creative communities in particular. These come in all sizes, and while some focus on crafts and creative arts, others focus on a shared creation of a way of life or even the creativity of the well-lived spiritual path. In Washington, two communities have strongly impacted my life this year: the Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (the BARN), and the Mountaineers.
The BARN, on Bainbridge Island, WA , is an intergenerational community of artisans and makers learning, teaching and inspiring each other with creativity, craftsmanship and community service. The joy present in this budding maker space is palpable. Then there’s the Mountaineers, a nonprofit outdoor community of over 12,000 active members in the Pacific Northwest founded in 1906. The Mountaineers have encouraged me to challenge myself ever since I first learned emergency response skills using a tattered copy of their alpine medicine book as a student at the National Outdoor Leadership School. Now, I have the opportunity to help them here, in the land of their founding, and serve the wildlands of the Salish and those who wander in them.
These reflections on finding community in a new homeland bring to mind an article I wrote almost 15 years ago, on the Eastern Orthodox understanding of community, or of koinonia, as the word is in Greek. I’m going to close with an extended excerpt from it below, but this is what I’d consider the key takeaway for myself today:
“The human person is created for relationship.”
The Way of Koinonia
Koinonia is a Greek word that means community, in its most profound and mysterious sense, and it is in community that we find the truth of who we are and how we should live. It is in God’s community, in koinonia, that we find our life as persons.
Orthodox Christianity offers us an alternative to the isolation of individualism – it offers us true personhood. What does this mean? What is the difference between individualism and personhood? The great Orthodox teacher Bishop Kallistos Ware gives us an eloquent answer: “The human person is created for relationship.” True personhood is not found in individuals – it is found in community.
At the heart of this teaching is our affirmation that we are created in the image of God. And as Christians, we proclaim that when we say “God,” we mean the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We understand that God Himself is not in isolation. “God is love,” we read in 1 John 4:8. God is love because God Himself is community. Bishop Kallistos goes on to say, “God is not a unit, but a union. God is love in the sense of shared love, the mutual love of three Persons in one. ... God is shared love, not self-love. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving.”
Brothers and sisters, we can only truly understand ourselves, we can only lay claim to the image of God within us, when we recognize that like God the truth of who we are is centered in community. The truth of our very nature demands that we fully embrace our relationships with others. This is the key to personhood according to the Trinitarian image. Not isolated self-awareness, but relationship in mutual love.
Remember the words of Christ in His prayer to the Father at the Last Supper: “That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” The mutual love of the Holy Trinity is the model for our human personhood. We are here on earth to reproduce within time the love that passes in eternity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. …
There is a wonderful book called “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More”, by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology. Schwartz’s book is an attempt to answer the question, “Why are people increasingly unhappy even as they experience greater material abundance and freedom of choice?”
He writes: “If enhanced freedom of choice and increased affluence don't enhance well-being, what does? The most important factor seems to be close social relations. People who are married, who have good friends, and who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who do not. Being connected to others seems to be more important to well-being than being rich or 'keeping your options open.'
“In the context of this discussion of choice, it is important to note that, in many ways, social ties actually decrease freedom of choice. Marriage, for example, is a commitment to a particular other person that curtails freedom of choice of sexual or emotional partners. Serious friendship also entails weighty responsibilities and obligations that at times may limit one's own freedom. The same is true, obviously, of family. And most religious institutions call on their members to live their lives in a certain way, and to take responsibility for the well-being of their fellow congregants. So, counterintuitive as it may appear, what seems to contribute most to happiness binds us rather than liberates us.”
Think of that conclusion: “What seems to contribute most to happiness binds us rather than liberates us.” Here is the essence of the insight in to the human condition which our Orthodox Christian faith gives us. We may believe that we will find our joy by breaking all bonds, by embracing our individualism and our freedom. But true joy, true freedom, our true selves are found instead in the embrace of true community – of the only true community which is possible, the kononia of God.
Of course, there is one great challenge in living as part of a community. Can you guess what it is? That’s right – other people! Why is it so tempting for us to isolate ourselves, to avoid church, to want to flee from any relationship that might make demands on us? Because when we become involved with others, we will be hurt. There’s no getting away from it. Relationship means pain. It means people will hurt us, and we will hurt them.
C.S. Lewis put it well: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.”
If you believe you can protect yourself from pain by holding back, by not engaging with others, you are lying to yourself. We must engage, we must commit, we must come together. We must love. And we will all suffer for it, and cause suffering to others. If you want to live, there is no other way.
(Published March 2006 by Orthodox Christian Network.)