The following article was posted on a site called Pemptousia.com. It was a letter written by Elder Ephraim of Arizona (St. Anthony’s Monastery) to his monastic community (synodia). I took the liberty to replace the word synodia with parish or church community, and the word brethren with parishioner to make this letter “fit” better, as being addressed to a church community. I also added some content toward the end of the letter, once again, for the purposes of making it fit the church community. This letter, as it was addressed to a monastic community, is also applicable to a parish, and for this reason I modified it and offer it to you. I pray that it will shine a light in your hearts and minds and offer you a perspective of how we are to live with one another in the parish community.
“My children, fight the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12); let brotherly love continue (Heb. 13:1); may love be the center of all actions within the parish — may egotism be far from your thoughts and words. “Whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all” (Mk. 10:44), says the Lord. And if we do not become like little children in terms of innocence and simplicity, we shall by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 18:3). When love governs the parish, Christ invisibly blesses everything. Joy, peace, and self-sacrifice for others in the parish allow the hearts of each parishioner to be afire for one another. Not only this, but prayer also intensifies. The more love abounds, the more love in Christ and self-sacrifice enriches their souls, and then Christ is glorified and worshiped, and we become humble instruments for the glorification of the holy name of God. Likewise, genuine love does not envy the good gifts of one’s fellow parishioner; it does not rejoice when it hears humiliating words or criticism of another parishioner; it does not restrain itself from constantly commending a fellow parishioner’s progress. Love does not envy; love does not parade itself, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, but rather the interest of others; it is not provoked; it thinks no evil; it bears all things, endures all things (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Whoever has genuine love never falls by sinning against his fellow parishioner. So my children, pray that Love itself — our God — will grant you the gift of love in Christ. When this love comes to reign in your hearts, words, and deeds, then we will begin to see our church community forming with a Christian spirit, with spiritual radiance and an unshakable foundation — a parish closely united with one mind and one soul in many bodies.
My beloved children, I pray that the God of love will strengthen you in mutual love and give you the love that does not act wickedly, that does not create scandals, but rather averts them with the wisdom it engenders. I pray that the Lord will give you pure love—love which guards the mouth of him who possesses it and does not let him fall into the pit of criticism, malicious gossip, lying, hypocrisy, and countless other evils which the lack of this true, godly love begets through the tongue. “He who has love abides in God, and God in him” (cf. 1 Jn. 4:16). The evidence that we are of God and that we love Him is when we have true and unadulterated love for one another. “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 Jn. 3:15) and is in spiritual darkness and does not know where he is going (cf. Jn. 12:35). We have received a very important commandment from our Lord Jesus: to love one another. Likewise, the devil has given a commandment to those who obey him, that they hate one another. Therefore, we are disciples and subjects of him whose commandment we keep. My children let us fear coldness and enmity towards one another, as well as the various thoughts that accompany these attitudes, which little by little lead the soul to demonic hatred. For in this manner we subject ourselves to the devil— the enemy of our salvation—as to a master, and then innumerable evils will accumulate in our poor souls!
Love is the base, the foundation, and the roof of the soul that possesses it. When such a soul has the God of love dwelling within it, it rejoices splendidly at every moment. In a parish, mutual love among its members is extremely necessary for its establishment and preservation, because love is the golden link that unites the parishioners in every way in a closely knit body, which will withstand the temptations that the lord of enmity and hatred—the devil—will always create.
Love is that invincible power that holds the members together in one body, with the priest as the head of the parish community. And every time it is necessary, this power will fight against the other completely opposite power of evil, which will endeavor to break off members from their unity. When we are lax and slack in love, the opposing power of the devil will have victories for its side corresponding to the laxity that our previously fervent and powerful love has suffered. What are the victories of the opposing power? Troubles within the parish, such as talkativeness, quarrels, pride, bragging, envy, hatred, and finally, deserting the Church!
My child, see to it that you drive away the evil thoughts which the devil urges you to consent to—especially judgmental thoughts towards others because the devil aims to steal from us the greatest virtue: love. And if he achieves this, he has completely won our souls. Once we have lost love—God, that is, for God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him (1 Jn. 4:16)—then what is there left to save us? Do not listen at all to judgmental thoughts, thoughts of comparing one to the other, thoughts of envy, jealousy, vainglory, pride and vanity, but drive them away immediately, and start saying the Jesus Prayer, or tell Satan, “The more you bring me evil thoughts, the more I will love my fellow parishioner. For I have an order from my Christ not only to love them, but even to sacrifice myself for them, just as Christ sacrificed Himself for me, the wretch”. And at once embrace the things about them that annoy you, and say, “Just look how much I love them, O envious Satan! I will die for them!” By doing this, God sees your good intentions and the method you are using to conquer the devil, and He will come at once to your aid to deliver you.”
As you can see, the words of Elder Ephraim are words not just for his own monastic community but for any community, monastic or parish. The Church is seen as a Hospital, not just because of the Holy Mysteries, which are healing and life-bearing, not only because of the Scripture that are read and expanded on through homilies, but also because of the faithful who are all striving to live out the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The Holy Mysteries and the Scriptures are food for the soul, provisions for eternal life. However, as the faithful, we are to be the living witnesses of Christ’s love, and we do this in the way we speak to one another, the way we treat one another, the way we pray for one another, the way we serve one another. The message of Jesus Christ is also brought to life through the faithful in the community when they refrain from judging one another, gossiping about one another, envying one another. In other words, it’s not simply what we are called to do, but what we are asked to abstain from, that will determine the health and the life of a church community.
The Elder said, “In a parish, mutual love among its members is extremely necessary for its establishment and preservation, because love is the golden link that unites the parishioners in every way in a closely knit body, which will withstand the temptations that the lord of enmity and hatred—the devil—will always create.” Love unites, and is the golden link, and it’s necessary to cultivate this love precisely because the devil will unleash many temptations in order to disrupt that which is good and godly. This is helpful lest we think that by following the gospel a parish will be free of temptations and struggle. On the contrary, a parish community that strives to incarnate the gospel will be tried and tested, which of course is fine because that which is tried and tested only becomes stronger in Christ.
The key to walking in the way of Jesus Christ is humility, for He said, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29). Let us all make the acquisition and the cultivation of humility our primary goal and only look inwardly to what we can do to deepen our repentance and correct our ways, and not look at the downfalls of others. Pray for one another and love one another. In this way, we will work with our Lord in building a parish that will be a place where many souls will be saved.