by Metropolitan Jonah
In what is necessary, unity; in what is dubious, diversity; in all things, charity.
— St. Augustine of Hippo
Creativity is inherent within the Tradition, as synergy vivified by the energy of the Holy Spirit. It is the power that fuels the continual growth of the life of the Church, and its adaptation to each new cultural environment. This is active within individual members of the Church, as each one personally embraces the new life communicated by grace. This divine creativity is active within communities and churches, as each particular congregation incarnates the universal Church. The saint, one who has attained “a measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4 : 13), is one who has been transformed in synergy with divine grace. A church is fulfilled by its liturgical synergy, each with the others in Christ by the Holy Spirit, in communion. Both are the transformation of life — human life, the life of the creation, the life of the community — into the mystery of the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. The inner dimension of this is the personal ascent into communion with God by purification and illumination, individually and corporately. The external dimension and expression of this movement draws all men into that same mystery of communion. This double action of the Spirit, inwards and outwards, is the core of the living Tradition, as we are drawn by God into this cosmic and Divine Liturgy.
The personal and corporate dimensions of our life in the Spirit, and the inward and outward directions of that movement, are a profoundly creative process.
On the personal level, creativity is needed to adapt one’s life to the forms and traditions of the Church. But on a far deeper level, creativity rooted in synergy with grace, the process of purification, illumination and deification, motivates us as we confront our lives in the light of the living Presence of Christ.
On the corporate level, those forms which developed as means of conveying the experience of faith in Christ, both liturgical and institutional, evolved in particular cultures and times. While some forms remain stable, such as the canon of Scripture or the text of the Liturgy, the ways they are expressed and interpreted — ritual forms, institutional forms — evolve and develop as people strive in communion with Christ and one another to communicate the Gospel creatively. Without this, the forms and traditions are empty, and are simply hypocrisy with no saving value. Yet to the degree that we are involved in the great process of creative spiritual transformation, both personally and corporately, the forms and traditions are fulfilled as guides to that new life. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter that counts; yet we must fulfill the one without neglecting the other.
The personal and the corporate dimensions are in no way separate, though they are distinct. Each person must undergo the process of spiritual transformation individually through repentance and conversion. Yet, the context for this, the only context, is the community of the Church, and its liturgy of life, its procession into the Kingdom. The more thorough and intense the process is for each member, the deeper and richer the life of the whole community will be. Much has been written on the personal process of transformation in Christ. Here, we need to explore the corporate dimension of that creative process, and its implications for the institutional forms of the Church in our own cultural context.
The Liturgy is the locus where the particular community is fulfilled as Church by itself becoming the Body of Christ. The many are united in one by the Holy Spirit, in the great movement of love and self-offering to the Father of the one Christ, head and body. The Liturgy is the focal point of the revelation of the Church as the Kingdom of God; just as communion is the focal point for each of the faithful for their personal transcendence of themselves, and their realization of their true identity as members of the Body of Christ. At this instant the personal ascetic striving and the corporate ascent coincide, intersect, and are fulfilled. It is not the case, however, that the mystery of the Church is only manifested in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The sanctification of the life of the community itself, daily life, is also a fundamental element of the Church as the revelation of the Kingdom of God on earth.
The life of each community of the Church is built around the mutual support of the members for one another in their common spiritual process of transformation. This, of course, is most obvious in a monastic community. But it must also be the content of all communities of the Church. This process requires tremendous creativity: learning to deal with one another, each with a different level of spiritual, emotional, and personal maturity and experience, not to mention different characters, bearing one another’s burdens, and sharing a common vision and goal. Each aspect of this has a transcendent, as well as personal, dimension. Every interaction, no matter how mundane, has an impact on the life of the community as a body, manifesting either mutual love in Christ, or the selfishness of the world. If the members are fighting among themselves, what kind of Liturgy are they going to celebrate?
The communities of the Church are made up of people from a particular place and time, with a particular culture. It is pure pretense — delusion — for them to try to be anything else. The task of the Church is to sanctify that particular culture, and those particular people, making their community transparent to the Kingdom of God, and to reveal the reality of God’s transforming Presence to the other people in that particular place and time and culture. A Christian community reveals the mystery of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world, transfiguring and deifying the particular persons by grace, baptizing the particular culture, language, and forms as means of communicating that grace and the Gospel of the Kingdom. “In the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19).
To bring this down to concrete terms, we must ask ourselves what our institutions, our parish communities and organizations, our liturgy and our lives, communicate to the people around us. Are we communicating the Gospel and salvation, or simply the external forms of “religion”? Are our institutions, activities, and organizations effective in communicating to and supporting us in our common process of repentance and conversion, purification and illumination? Do we authentically love one another — the only mark of the disciples of the Lord Jesus? Are our communities icons of the Kingdom of God, communicating life in Christ? And further, how can we creatively engage the Tradition and our own culture, in view of our personal and corporate spiritual process, to develop the life of our communities to further that goal and vision of both personal deification and corporate salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ? This task requires tremendous creativity on the part of all members of our communities, informed by grace, and infused with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
This article was first published in Divine Ascent, the journal of the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, No. 7, Presentation of the Theotokos 2001.