If we have begun to recognize that the Church is not something distinct from or even opposed to our life in the “real world,” then we have begun to understand that it takes a village, a town, a city, a nation, to make a Church. If we can see in its liturgical services the gathering together of all of those separate elements that make up daily life, in a word, our culture, then we can see that the quality of the Church as ecclesia is dependent on the quality of that culture. We can accept the responsibility for nourishing and growing that culture with the knowledge that without the “village” to sustain us, our individual efforts will be in vain. Unless our children find in this “village” their social, educational, and occupational fulfillment, they will go elsewhere. Unless the intersections of their life find a common locus in the Church, other hubs of activity and identity will undoubtedly draw them away.
I am sure that most parents could sympathize with my recurring anxiety over the direction of my children and their apparent disregard for the guidance I wish to provide. However, I am somewhat reassured knowing that when they vent to their friends over the “controlling behavior” of their parents, they will be doing so to those with whom they also share the Divine Eucharist more than once a week, with whom they also go to school. Their parents work for the same religious institution that I do, share the same spiritual father, shop at the same stores, are found frequently in the same homes on a Friday night, and most of whom are within walking distance of each other and the church. As I take my children to piano lessons, it is guaranteed that I will pass several of these parents and children along the road. If I take my car in for a repair, I will likely be told that one of my friend’s vehicles is ready for pick up. If I stop by the grocery market, I will not be surprised to bump into several of my acquaintances. This level of interesectedness for both myself and my children is, by no means, an assurance that they will not flee NEPA as soon as they’re able to drive. However, if they do so, they will not only be leaving their religious home, but their friends, their social and cultural life, their “place,” and those are strong bonds to break.
It would be obtuse of me to opine from the unique vantage point that is St. Tikhon’s without observing the impracticality of such a community virtually anywhere else in North America. This might be so, but I cannot help but think that without the bond of the “village,” my children would desire or even be able to sustain their life in the Church. Without a common, shared community and culture, their experience in the Church would be jarring, disconnected from their daily life, a relic of the past, a fixture of an ethnic heritage to which they had no reason to hold onto as their own. This, no doubt, sounds overly pessimistic. Yet, I have only to review the statistics from the past twenty or so years to reassure myself that I am not exaggerating the current state of affairs.
That is not to say that a genuine experience of Christ, of the life in the Spirit, could not overcome this gulf. However, there is nothing to assure us that they could not find an outlet for this experience in another of the multitude of religious denominations that surround them. We can place all our hope that our children will have a personal encounter with Christ that would, at the same time, assure them of the uniqueness of our particular religious expression.
However, if most of us were honest with ourselves, we would recognize that our reason for going to church is more faceted and complex than the simple motivation that we believed we were doing the right thing. Most of us, I would wager, also find motivation in the opportunity to see our friends, to make an offering of our voices in the choir, our serving in the altar, or the “place” that we find within the social fabric of our own church community. We might find the multifaceted appeal of our church enough motivation to overcome the sweeping current of our larger culture, but are we concerned enough to provide a “place” for our children? Do we value the surrounding “village” enough to make the sacrifices necessary for its cultivation?
The community of St. Tikhon’s is, without question, at a unique advantage. Not only does it possess the longevity of the oldest monastery in North America, it encompasses a seminary, both of which have weathered many years of ups and downs to become what they are today. The monastery provides the full cycle of services simply not possible within most parish communities. The monastery’s various industries provide employment, in addition to that found at the seminary, allowing several families to be supported financially through full-time employment. Its large property provides housing for these families and its rural location insulates the community to a large extent from outside currents.
Unique as it may be, there is no reason in my mind why similar communities cannot be cultivated in other locations. In my estimation, I don’t believe we have a choice: we can either build “villages” or we will lose the Church. For this reason, I believe it is highly expedient for church leaders and laity alike to release their grip upon church buildings (I cannot bring myself to call them communities) around which the “village” has long disappeared. The preservation of these skeletons of a past age only serve to spread the clergy and laity dangerously thin. To the exhausted rejoinder that such skeletons at least provide the opportunity for inquirers to experience the Liturgy, I will only respond by suggesting that there exists such a thing as negative publicity. Would it not be more beneficial for someone to drive a little further to experience a beautiful Liturgy within the context of a vibrant community than to be repulsed by the cracked cacophony of a ghostly congregation in a nearly empty church, devoid of children for the last twenty years?If our measure of a viable church was not whether its doors could be open on Sundays, but whether or not it could support three full-time priests to serve its full liturgical cycle, whether or not it could employ two full-time choir directors and singers, whether or not its industries provided ample employment, its charitable institutions met the needs of the surrounding poor, its school educated the dozens of its family’s children, preparing them to be leaders in culture, science and technology. What if we measured the health of a community not by the length of each person’s stay at the weekly coffee hour, but by the number of times each person intersected within the week while walking, working, shopping, going to the movies, eating dinner, playing soccer, singing in the community’s choir, attending the opera? If this was a measure of a viable community and church, surely the vast majority would be woefully unqualified, there would be a drastic decrease in the number of local churches. Yes, indeed. And yet, my fear is that if we do not make such a sacrifice, if we do not value the “village,” there will be nothing for which our children to stay. Where there is no village, there is no ecclesia, there is no Church.