Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! ~ Psalm 133:1
A few days ago, I drove to St. John the Forerunner Monastery for a one-night stay. It is such a blessing that we have our beloved monastery nearby, so that we can have a spiritual respite from our busy modern life. While I was checking in at the bakery, one of the sisters came to me with “an unusual request.” The sisters had two baby goats—10 days old!—that needed a home, and they had found someone near Salem to take them. But they needed to transport the goats half-way.
“Would you be able to take the goats to Portland with you, to give them to their new owner?” I gladly agreed. We discussed all of the details, then as we finished up the sister said, “They should sleep during the drive. It’s a good thing it’s a pair, because if it was one goat by itself it would cry the whole way there!”
She was right. After a few bleats when they first got in the car, they quickly settled into the straw in their cardboard box and nuzzled up to each other, sleeping nearly all of the drive.
Companionship is an amazing thing—the myriad psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physiological benefits which come from having companions. From the very beginning, God saw that we needed companionship: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” (Genesis 2:18).
The absence of companionship likewise has many ill effects: depression, anxiety, fear, neurosis, despair, delusion, and more. Psalm 133 (quoted above) extols the benefit of “dwelling together.” You can imagine the inverse: “Behold how bad and how unpleasant it is to be alone.” We weren’t meant to be alone. We were meant to love and to be loved. Just as this is in God’s nature, so it is in ours.
Now, there are many books that could be written about companionship, whether expressed through the relationships of marriage, kinship, friendship, camaraderie, or union in the Body of Christ. However I want to focus on one particular manifestation: the companionship between various “bodies” of Christ. Just as the two goat kids found solace, comfort, and greater courage to face the unknown by being together, so do Orthodox institutions receive the same benefit when they encourage and build upon their companionship, their interconnectedness.
It’s a big and dangerous world out there, and we Orthodox are but a small minority. Yes, we should cast out fear in the perfect love of God (paraphrasing St. Paul). However we must also admit that it is daunting to be such a small voice in the vast cacophony of American culture. Thus it is all the more essential that we support and build up the Orthodox institutions we have.
This past Lent we had the joy of participating in a number of pan-Orthodox services here in the Portland area, and even hosting one. We should make these gatherings of the Portland Orthodox churches a priority in our lives. Also when another parish has its feast day it is a blessed opportunity for us to celebrate their joy with them.
One of the strongest companions that our community of St. John has along the road of life is the very monastery which bears our name. We are among a handful of Orthodox church communities in the United States that are within driving distance of an Orthodox monastery. And even fewer parishes have a monastery with such a deep spiritual lineage. (For more on that, read about Gerondissa Makrina in the book, Words of the Heart.) St. John the Forerunner Monastery is our monastery. I don’t say that in a possessive or exclusive way. What I mean is that she is there for us, just as we are there for her. We receive consolation, spiritual renewal, and powerful intercessory prayers; the monastery in turn receives our prayers, our support, and the love that the members of one spiritual family have for each other.
There are many ways to express and appreciate this companionship between our parish and the monastery: Pray for the sisters and Gerondissa Efpraxia; visit the monastery and worship with them; teach your children about the spiritual warfare that the sisters engage in on our behalf; offer your financial support toward the completion of the monastery’s construction project; give your talents to them through work days or by volunteering; encourage your fellow parishioners to foster this relationship.
Our unity (with the monastery) in Christ is expressed and fulfilled through our actions.
Lastly I must mention the most direct and obvious companionship which our parish has: our relationship with Agia Sophia Academy. Only a tiny fraction of Orthodox churches in America have an Orthodox parochial school. Many churches dream of it, and we have that dream right here.
However let me be honest for a moment: Having ASA under our roof means that conflicts can arise. We have to share space; we don’t always communicate well; there are misunderstandings and misconceptions and numerous ways in which the devil can cause division.
Yet in the midst of this, we must not forget that it is a rare gift to have this Orthodox institution under our roof. ASA is a ministry to children, a service to our greater community, and a beacon of Orthodoxy. The faithful teachers and staff who work at the school are there because they have a passionate desire to instill the Faith—and they give up opportunities for better-paying jobs to do this. We must foster a more peaceful companionship with this Orthodox institution.
My brothers and sister, we need each other. It is not good to dwell alone! Our Lord has blessed us with a thriving monastery, a vibrant pan-Orthodox community, and a dedicated Orthodox school. We need the companionship of every Orthodox person and every Orthodox institution. Though the Church is small in America, through our devotion to each other in the bond of Christ’s love, we can become a profound witness to this nation.
Please Note: I am neither advocating for ASA to stay under St. John’s roof nor to go elsewhere. Regardless of where ASA is, we should continue to be supportive of this worthy Orthodox ministry.