Orthodox America

On the Spirit of Parish Life

In parish life, everything has deep meaning, if only one understands this meaning. And for this reason a proper attitude should be established towards all this.

Everything in church life should foster a genuinely Christian, angelic and truly Orthodox attitude towards it. We must take great care that everything lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven, that everything contribute to the growth of this Kingdom within us, and not draw it away from our souls. Church life should open to us the laws of this Kingdom. This is its very purpose. The Church of Christ is not only a ladder to the Kingdom of God; it is also a school, instructing the thoughts, feelings, and will of a person in the ways of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Today church life appears unsettled. The evil laws of this world have penetrated church life, and have even begun at times to direct it. The results are evident.

Everything living on earth must submit in some degree to life's natural laws, and by virtue of its existence on earth, even Christ's Church - that which is most holy on earth - is not exempt from the weight of material considerations. Even though the Lord could turn water into wine and make bread to multiply, His Apostles carried with them a money box where they collected donations which people freely gave for their daily needs and the needs of their divine Teacher. This was not a sin; it was simply following the law governing the material life of fallen man. At the same time, it evoked noble feelings of love, of charity and of sacrifice in those people who were instructed about these feelings by the Apostles' preaching. But that man who carried the money box became inflamed by a spirit of materialism, avarice, and self-interest. He regretted the fragrant myrrh used for the Saviour of the world, and he died as a traitor. Found unfaithful in this small matter, he turned out to be unfaithful in that which was great. For us this serves as an important lesson: anyone who is attached to money will betray Jesus Christ. A Christian's attitude towards money must be sober, free, unrestrained, without any emotional attachment. If one ought not be foolishly tied to earthly life, then all the more must one remain free of attachment to its wealth, material wealth in particular. Only a soul free from materialism can be truly believing and enter the other world, when its time comes, without distress.

In the church foyer, i.e., as though in a courtyard (the church foyer connotes the court of the Old Testament "skinia") the sale of various church-related goods is permissible as a service to the faithful, since for them to buy bread or candles elsewhere to bring to church would be more troublesome.

But one must clearly understand that all material effects in the church, just as what is experienced spiritually, possesses a free and voluntary character. Unity in the parish, just as unity in the Kingdom of God, has a wholly voluntary character, foreign to any compulsion. Each believer determines how much he donates to the church and does so without compulsion. Articles which cost money - candles, prosphora, etc. - are purchased voluntarily. The collection plate is passed around the church for voluntary contributions. And everything which has to do with prayer must likewise rest upon the same clear and strictly voluntary terms. It is customary to pay for a service of "need" (moleben, panikhida, house blessing, etc.) But not everyone realizes that this is a donation on the occasion of this service, and not a fee paid for the service. To "pay for" the service is not right, since every service is effective only by virtue of the Holy Spirit, which is present in it, and it is not possible to receive or to give the Spirit of God for any price; only through selfless prayer, through faith and love does it descend upon men. A genuine "service of need" is worth infinitely more than any material payment, more than all worldly treasure. Conversely, an insincere, hypocritical service of need not only is worth nothing, but it is a sin before God - both for the layman and, even more so, for the priest.

How can one put a price on a priest's blessing, a blessing which gives grace to the world, health, and repels evil spirits? Quite clearly, it is a gift of God, and it can only be regarded as a gift, just as all prayer is a gift, for the Spirit Itself maketh intercession for us with utterances..., testifies the Apostle.

All attempts to buy the Spirit, or to pay for it, are doomed not only to failure, but are rejected outright by God. It is enough to remember Simon Magus, who wanted to pay the Apostles for grace - and what did he hear from the Apostle?

For this reason, in every case one must clearly distinguish between 1) prayer, mystery, blessing, i.e., "need" (need of the spirit), and 2) monetary donation, connected to this need.

May no one fall into despondency and end this earthly life on account of poverty, of material failure; may no one attach profit motives of any kind to voluntary contributions and acts of love for one's neighbor. Let people give whatever they are able to the Church, but let them keep in mind that the Church gives everything free of charge, for it gives what cannot be bought - eternal life in a new, imperishable world. If we understand this, our struggle will indeed be a struggle against militant materialism. And we shall strike the ancient serpent squarely on the head. Otherwise, if we should merely sprinkle this serpent with verbal husks, without Christian deeds and feelings, he will swallow even that remnant of the faithful that still remain on earth.

In the Church and near the Church - this is the field of spiritual battle, a battle of God against the worldly antagonist, who reigns over valuables and over people of this dying age.

At the foundation of our Orthodox parish life, may there lie not only a common spirit of sacrifice, but also our common service to God: in our actions and in our hearts.

A clergyman

From the journal Vechnoye, reprinted in Blagovestnik, a parish bulletin of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, San Francisco, October 1990, from which it was translated.