To Be The Church

by Julie Williams

My vision of the Church has been derived from many sources and people, not least the experience of living for three years in a Greek mountain village, Ambeli, which had inherited a tradition of Orthodoxy passed down for nearly two thousand years. It was before the advent of much of the modern world — paved roads, electricity, piped water, the combustion engine. The people lived with their animals, their land, with each other, and with God in a way which modern living has made very hard for us.

My time there was not without problems, yet much of it was lived in a quiet passion of delight as I witnessed a unified life in which work and faith, man and the natural world, the living and the dead, the gaining of food and shelter, the giving of hospitality, the nurturing of families, were all integrated into a single complex liturgical action. I want to provide at least a glimpse of this picture, for our Orthodoxy has been preserved for us not only by the Fathers and the great figures of the Church, but by generations of peasant people who day by day incarnated their faith in their fields and houses. Their experience is not irrelevant to us now simply because times have changed. When you are in danger of losing something, it is important to know what it is that you are losing. Such knowledge challenges us to distill the essence of the earlier experience and to reintegrate it with our faith even in our changed circumstances.

The Community as Church

The central focus of the Church is the Divine Liturgy where we pray that the bread and the wine, produced by us from the earth and worked on by our hands, should become the body and blood of Christ. Long before I became Orthodox, I asked someone how this could be so, and was told that steadily, through the action of the Liturgy, veil after veil of the fallen world is torn away, so that once this process is complete, at the consecration, we are returned to the unfallen world, the world restored to its original integrity, where nothing is divided against itself and everything is as it was made to be — the incarnation of the divine Word. When we get to that point, the bread and the wine regain their true nature which is to be, like everything else in creation, manifestations of God himself.

Two things follow from this: One is that God is present in the world he created, he is its true nature as he is our true nature, and is only divorced from it, and from us, by our misuse of our human will. The other is that the Fall is not in the past, nor the return to paradise in the future, but both are simultaneous states of being which we can move into or out of at any moment, so that our Liturgy should be one in which we move out of our normal experience of time into one in which the fulness of “the world to come” becomes present to us now.

For some people this has become their normal experience. There is a story of Father Iakovos, a staretz on the Greek island of Evvia who died in 1991. Asked why he moved around so little when celebrating the Liturgy, he replied, “How can I disturb all the angels standing around?”

This then is the Liturgy we could participate in, but if we are to aim towards this, what are we to do about it? One of the first things a community does is to find somewhere to meet — a place, of necessity, in the material world — and we need to use the material world in such a way as to reveal its essential holiness. We need to see our places of worship as creating a sacred language through which God can speak through creation, and this involves careful thought about use of space, music, materials and adornment, the way we light it. This has nothing to do with taste or aesthetics, but has everything to do with symbolic representation and the degree to which we can allow the essential holiness in the material world to reveal itself.

What of the community which meets within its walls? The Church has been described as a free association of people brought together in love of God and love of neighbor. Yet in this free association, there are problems brought by the self-interest of our fallen nature. It is this dangerous element of freedom, which God allowed us when he made us and which his Church should allow to its believers, which is what can make churches such painful places of silent hurts, anger and disagreement, but which is also the only condition of real growth and self-knowledge. Somehow the Church in its wisdom has to teach us to overcome our egotism, individualism, and shortsightedness. Somehow it has to make us into members of the one body, so that a common mind is reached on communal decisions, factions and resentments are quieted and fall to rest, a real concern for each other — a “love of neighbor” — is generated and regenerated, and so that it is really in the name of God and not in the name of our private passions that the symbolic two or three gather together.

Finally, we need to look to the community of strangers, to see our specific task for the present moment in the encounter with whoever is before us; we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison. And here, once again, we find tremendous problems. Our society is complex and fragmented, and the temptation is for us to be moving too fast to be aware of the need in front of us, and also for us to be so overwhelmed by the collective suffering of the world that we fail to absorb even a small part of its reality. Yet as members of the universal Church we must care for the people outside our gates and, like Christ himself, go after the stray sheep lost in the mountains and bring him to the Father. I do not mean we should “convert” him to Orthodoxy; but we should place ourselves where he is, try to see what, at the deepest level, he needs, and try to give it.

Secular world, sacred world

We live today in a predominantly secular society. Secularization of thought is all around us, so that we live, or should live, against the grain of much of social life. But this secularization of thought is not just around us; it is in us. Secular values easily invade us, our homes, our churches. This means that our spiritual path has to be somewhat individual and personal. We have very little idea of what it is to inherit the faith as a way of life which reaches into the whole of the society around us and into everything we do. It is here that I want to draw on the peasant culture of rural Greece, where an ancient oral tradition immerses people in Orthodoxy from their earliest years.

In Ambeli, the people live with the simplest technology: what they need, they make; for raw materials, they use what the countryside affords. They build their own houses. To build a church is not a huge undertaking but a natural way in which people express themselves; and churches grow up everywhere — in villages, by roadsides, on mountain tops, in remote valleys. But even in the most tiny church with the roughest of workmanship, there is the familiar symbolic scheme: stone walls, whitewashed interiors, deep window recesses, wooden beams, a simple iconostasis, a tiny apse, a few icons, a stand or two for candles. Sanctuary lamps are lit by little dried flowers which float in olive oil; lighting is from them and from beeswax candles which fill the churches with the scent of honey. These are churches built by people who have absorbed, without thinking about it, a long tradition in Orthodox use of space and materials, and they can’t get it wrong. No church is a slavish replica of any other, nor does it speak with the voice of individualism and novelty. All these churches speak with a single voice of the same pathway to God. Building churches is a matter of common experience, not of individual taste.

These churches reflect a particular understanding of the material world. Olive oil and beeswax are thought of as the only fit materials to use in lighting a church, for oil is said to be the tears of Christ, while beeswax is “pure.” Here is just a hint, then, of an iconography of the material world itself. We know that there is an iconography which orders man’s use of the material world, but these people go a step further. According to this way of thinking, the material world itself is not inert, but has a particular sacred character which makes it more or less fitting for particular sacred purposes.

Those who make up the congregation are practically related with many aspects of the church. The people who pray in the church may well be those who built it. Their way of life relates them to the same symbolic world that Christ inhabited, whose images he passed on to us. They themselves are builders and carpenters, bee keepers and harvesters of olives. They are shepherds and goatherds. They have vineyards and cornfields. They make candles and wine and draw water from the spring. They make the prosfora from wheat which they grew and harvested and bring it to the church wrapped in blue and white napkins which they wove. We say that the gifts in the Liturgy are the produce of the work of man as well as the work of God. In a village like Ambeli, the people are part of the action of the Liturgy long before they make prosfora. They initiate this action every autumn when they plough the fields and sow the wheat.

Such people are involved with the life of the Church to an extent inconceivable to us in our consumer culture. More than this, they are related to each other to an extent which it is difficult for us to experience. Firstly, there is no difference between the church congregation and the village community. Secondly, regardless of personal differences between the members of the community, and there are many, everyone in the community is educated by a similar tradition and shaped by a similar understanding of the world — how to build a church, how to plough fields, how to bake bread. They inherit a unified understanding in which, although there is room for an infinite diversity of detail and discussion, the fundamental themes are constant.

This common experience governs the way people keep the saints’ days, give birth and deal with death, believe in God and discern the work of the devil. There is a complete wisdom passed on by the oral tradition and transmitted from generation to generation which is the birthright of every child born into the village. It is because of this shared cosmology that a community is made out of what otherwise would be a lot of separate households.

Fundamental to this cosmology is the existence of God. A range of simple phrases heard repeatedly each day incorporate a whole theology: “If God wills,” “God first,” or just “God!” (with an expressive finger pointing to the sky), “God doesn’t allow you to be lost,” “He who goes with God makes progress,” “God is trying us.” God is said to “hold” or “contain” all things, including the devil. Man’s freedom to sin is from God: “That’s how God has made us.” The finger of God is everywhere, even down to the fate of the Christmas pig — “Much food and few days; that’s how God has shaped him.” And if the presence of God is perceived, so is the work of the devil, who is said to “progress” or to “dance” at evil speaking and quarreling, and whose emissaries, the demons, are known to wear their shoes out racing around the world inciting men to evil. Where people possess this sort of shared understanding of the deepest things of life, there exists a communal bond which even the numerous disruptions between the various houses cannot destroy.

One sign of this bond is seen in a healing stream of well-wishing and gift-giving running through daily life. At the simplest level, these gifts are given in the form of blessings and good wishes which flow continually between people as they meet. To someone who is ill, one says, “May it pass,” or to a pregnant woman, “A good birth,” or to a person leaving the spring with washing, “Good fortune as they get dirty again!” But more than this, there is a continual movement of reconciliation which is lived out in a constant interchange of hospitality rooted in the liturgical life of the church. On name days the housewife will make great basins of batter puffs to serve with honey and a glass of raki to all who drop in. By the end of the day everyone in the village who is able, friend or enemy, has come. At weddings, everyone who passes by the celebrations or comes to watch, is treated to a bite of something and a glass of spirits; it is obligatory also for the bridegroom’s party, on its way over the mountains to the bride’s village, to offer refreshment to anyone they happen to encounter.

If hospitality is the norm in marriage, still more is it seen at funerals and great memorials. At these events each person in the village passes through the house to receive a meal of beans and bread given in the name of the dead person. Giving — and forgiving — is again stressed in the food for the dead given out after every memorial service — a mixture of boiled corn, raisins, walnuts and parsley, with pomegranate seeds if available, and a little sugar. As they take it, they say, “May God forgive him (or her).”

Hospitality within the community is a sacred act, performed not selectively, out of personal preference, but communally, out of a community response to one of the deepest imperatives of the Church — to love one’s neighbor. These acts of hospitality are sacred acts built into the social order, and they counteract the other side of social life, that in which the devil progresses, in which personal preference, egotism and family advancement get the upper hand. What we see here is the sacramental life of the church being lived out in the separate households and involving the whole community in a reciprocal movement of giving, forgiving, blessing and reconciliation, which, in spite of all, welds the people of God, friend and enemy, into a single community.

The home as church

In our part of the world, many of us have the experience of using our homes as a church with, literally, only two or three present. This can be difficult, but it has its extraordinary moments. I remember one evening in Aberdeen when, having turned the sitting room upside down for our fortnightly Vespers, no one came. I began the service in a bad temper, but we had hardly started when I realized that the words we were singing were being sung in churches and monasteries all over the world and the fact that we lacked a congregation vanished before a sense of our being an indivisible part of the whole church, united in a single act of worship. It is a Vespers I have never forgotten, whereas many more populated services have vanished from my mind. This presence of the invisible church in our houses isn’t an extraordinary event, but one which is part of the symbolic structuring of the world; for our houses are places where a eucharistic action is, or should be, a part of normal life

In the way the house is set up there are already indications of this: icons in corners, family prayer, the presence of the Gospel. Then there are the other resonances of liturgical life which all have their roots in the church but which come to fruition outside it. The fasting and feasting which have their spiritual origin in the sacred times of the church year, must be given shape in the house; the consecration of bread and wine, the sharing from the one cup, has its counterpart in the meal of the household where the food is blessed and given. In the house the sacraments of marriage and baptism are carried forward and lived out, as well as all those elements which are so vital a part of the life in Christ: love, generosity, confession, forgiveness, healing.

I suspect that every liturgical action in church has its counterpart in our life in our houses, and that in this way our houses are, or could be, true icons of the church. For example the priest or the deacon carefully consumes the last of the holy gifts so that absolutely nothing is wasted, but surely this action is not confined to the elements of communion. It is an enactment of how we should treat the bread of the world, how we should treat all food — an illustration of the fact we should have reverence for all things; we should waste nothing.

Again, a priest is only Father to the extent that he is a father in God to his flock, and that even a biological father is only father to his children to that same extent. The priest in the church and the father in the house are both icons of a single reality; and Christ is the archetype for both priest and father. So both church and house are part of the same symbolic world, and the difference between them lies not in any categorical change of essence but more in the altered time scheme of the house, a lowered intensity. What we find perfected in the Church we have to bring with us into our homes to be lived out there. In using our houses as churches, we are not changing our houses into something which they aren’t but simply revealing their true nature.

To return to the Greek villagers, there is a saying which makes explicitly this sort of connection between the house and the church, though it is phrased in terms of the family and the divine world: “They say that Christ and the Mother of God are eating up there as we are eating down here.” Here, therefore, a correspondence is set up which involves the meal in the earthly household and the feast of the holy figures in the sacred world; and thus it follows that the meal in the home, imaging the feast of the divine persons in heaven, images also the Liturgy at which the consecrated bread is broken and distributed.

Another correspondence relates to the custom of women abstaining from all work on the eve of great feasts. To spin or sew at such times, it is said, damages their relationship with the heavenly world: “If you use a needle or pointed thing, you pierce Christ, and if you work with wool, their bread is full of wool.” This enforced idleness is difficult for women used to handwork during any quiet moment, so it figures as an ascetic discipline rather than a charter for relaxation. It demands skill and recollection if, when the bell rings for Vespers, the housewife is ready for the advent of the quiet evening, and it requires self discipline during the evening itself. The effect of the rule is to concentrate the mind during the day so that the evening is removed from customary preoccupations. Its requirements are identical with those of the Cherubic Hymn in the Liturgy, where we are enjoined to “lay aside all earthly care.” In this way both the evening before the feast in the house and the moment before the consecration in the church are marked by the same necessity — to be in a state of recollection. It is fair to assume that the purpose in both house and church is the same: that we should become icons of the cherubim.

The woman and the house are virtually identified with one another. “It is the woman who holds the house together,” people say. “Without the woman there is no house.” While it is the man’s role is to bring raw materials into the house, it is the woman’s role to bring these things to order: she bears and nurtures the children, cooks the food and carries water, she spins, weaves, and sews; she guards the ritual life of the house in all its complexity; she takes care of fast and feast; she cares for the dying and “remembers” the dead. And all this she does at first hand with her own skill and endurance. To connect the woman with the house is to connect her with the mysteries of birth and death, with the physical well-being and the spiritual protection of the living, with hospitality to the stranger, and with the continued relationship of the house to the sacred world on which all depends. This is most apparent in her weekly preparation of the loaves for baking, for here there are incorporated actions strongly reminiscent of the actions of the priest at the proskomedia.

It is, then, not surprising that there are many references to the correspondence of the woman with the Mother of God. On one occasion this link was expressed with extraordinary clarity: “The woman is the Mother of God in the church. The woman is the Mother of God. She is the church.” We can thus see that the woman is the figure which unites house and church: the house is the church.

Welcoming the stranger

Hospitality in these villages is seen as a sacred duty. For instance, gypsies and beggars will receive bread and cheese from nearly every house — an act carried out in the name of the divine world. It is a sin not to give to beggars, for “These people too are God’s creation.” However, in giving to the total stranger, the passing traveler without home or kin, an extraordinary degree of interest and compassion is offered: village doors open wide, the best food is offered, the best bed prepared.

Behind such acts lies a mythic value on hospitality portrayed in numerous folk tales. A poor widow left out of the celebrations to which the whole village had been invited, had put loaves of cow dung to bake, to deceive her hungry children until the people returned and she could go out to earn a handful of flour. A knock at her door revealed an old man with a staff whom she invited in and, obeying what he asked of her, she found the cow-dung loaves changed to aromatic bread, and the rotten barrels long empty of wine brimming again. Another story presents the contrast: one man, grudging his rare meat stew bubbling on the hearth, three times ignored an old man knocking on his door, only to find, when he turned again to the hearth, the ultimate horror — the stew turned to human flesh.

In explanation of the enormous value placed on hospitality and the joy with which it is given, we can see that two things mark out the stranger: One is that he will not stay forever to be an impossible burden. The other is that, by virtue of his transient position, he can make no return. In normal life there are inevitable constraints on continual uncalculated giving. But the advent of the stranger offers a unique chance to the family to break out of these limitations and to give without reserve. The food given so freely has been won from the earth by the united efforts of the whole family, and the household delight to be able to set it on the table if someone comes: “Your own bread — not one of those miserable town loaves; and wine from the barrel in the cellar, a midzithra [a hard cheese for grating], some feta [soft cheese in brine], eggs…” The stranger calls into being a transfigured household, an icon of the divine plenitude. This is the house, hyperbolized in folk tales, in which cow dung becomes bread, empty barrels flow with wine, and within which the sacrifice made returns as a blessing, while, conversely, the family who turns its back on the stranger, turns its back on the kingdom of heaven and finds the sources of its prosperity withered at the root.

The wellsprings of hospitality spring from the people’s response to the divine law, and from the emphasis on unilateral giving which characterizes the giving to strangers. In this there is more than an echo of the words of Christ: “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:34-35)

Cosmos as Church

Orthodox Christians naturally understand that places and things become impregnated with holiness — we venerate relics and icons, we visit places where saints have walked, we make pilgrimages to holy wells, ruins, monasteries, mountain tops. But it is less a part of our modern world to see that these places are holy in themselves; that the natural world itself, even before the saints have hallowed it, is filled with God, if only we had eyes to see, and can itself teach us about God, if only we would let it.

We are afflicted by this blindness partly because of the secular and mechanistic ideology of our world today, partly because of a certain theological correctness which is over-fearful of confusing the creation with the creator. But our tradition speaks against both extremes, and has no difficulty in putting God firmly in the center of his creation.

Christ says that not one sparrow falls to the ground “without your Father.” He is present in every living thing. Vespers begins with Psalm 104, a hymn to the glory of God seen through the glory of his creation, to God “who stretches out the heavens like a curtain… who walks upon the wings of the wind.” Light, clouds and wind are revelations of God himself.

It is said St. Nektarios of Aegina, who lived in the last century, had the gift of being able to let other people hear the grasses praising God. St. Maximos draws a picture in which the divine wisdom permeating the natural world draws man to this natural world as part of his longing for God: “God, who created all nature with wisdom and secretly planted in each intelligent being knowledge of Himself as its first power, like a munificent Lord gave also to us men a natural desire and longing for him. Impelled by it we are led to search out the truth, wisdom, and order, manifest harmoniously in all creation, aspiring through them to attain Him by whose grace we achieved the desire.” (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 284) St. Basil, in the Hexaimeron, sees the natural world as a school of divine wisdom: “The world was not conceived by chance and without reason since it is really… the training ground where [reasonable souls] learn to know God.” This training is still accepted on the Holy Mountain as part of the discipline of contemplation — physiki theoria, the study of the natural world, where, as St. Basil says, “by the sight of visible and sensible things the mind is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.” St. Basil is talking about minute observation of the natural world — the “wise and industrious bee,” the “cunning and trickery of the squid.” Regarding the sea urchin, which can foretell calm and tempest, St. Basil comments: “No astrologer… reading in the rising of the stars the disturbances of the air, has ever communicated his secret to the urchin: it is the Lord of the sea and of the winds who has impressed on this little animal a manifest proof of his great wisdom… If God has not left the sea urchin outside His providence, is he without care for you?” Again St. Basil: “If sometimes on a bright night, gazing with watchful eyes on the inexpressible beauty of the stars, you have thought of the Creator of all things; if you have asked yourself who it is that has dotted heaven with such flowers; if sometimes in the day you have studied the marvels of light; if you have raised yourself by visible things to the invisible Being; then you are a well-prepared auditor, and you can take your place in this august and blessed amphitheater” (p.82).

The natural world is an “august and blessed amphitheater.” We who have a place in it, should be there only as well prepared auditors. The cosmos is a Church.

In Ambeli the natural world is a complex reality to the villagers. In one respect the area “beyond the threshing floors” which ring the village carries the associations of “wilderness,” where at any time one might meet legions of devils whirling their way about at their master’s bidding, while within the threshing floors lies the socialized world where the patron saint “has his dwelling,” and where the pooled energies of the people are at hand to give physical help and to ward off demonic attack. However, for the solitary person who can undertake the ascetic task, it is the wild places which are seen as “pure” and the village itself where people are gathered, in which is to be found every kind of sin.

If the total picture is many dimensional, there is one principal feature: the village exists within a sacred geography. As the people walk through the material world, they pass through a spiritual drama. Powers of good and evil are felt as real presences, experienced through the natural world as well as through human actions, so there is no thing and no action which is not ultimately set within a spiritual context. In leaving the church building, whether for the village or the wild, people are not leaving a sacred space for a profane or secular space, but exchanging one kind of sacred space for another.

The land

Consider just one aspect of life in the natural world outside church and village: the land. Work on the land is infused with the two great themes of the Church, the Fall and the Redemption.

For much of the agricultural year it is the Fall which is uppermost in people’s minds. The Fall is experienced quite literally: “Are things otherwise now?” they ask at the end of the story, referring to the agony of dragging a living out of reluctant ground. Yet there is one point of the year when the curse is overcome and nature and man join hands: when the wheat harvest is gathered in. This is the moment for a village-wide explosion of joy. Neighbors pool their animals to make the threshing teams, glasses of raki and plates of batter balls and honey are offered freely to passers-by, and a cooked meal is carried with ceremony out of the house and eaten on the threshing floor, an event that brings together the house and the natural world. It celebrates the healing of the division caused by the Fall. It is the wheat harvest which brings about this union.

Wheat has a complex symbolism in village culture: As bread it forms both the great village loaves which are eaten with every meal, and the prosfora for the church; it is both the staff of life and the body of God. As the raw grain, it is used at death to symbolize the seed corn of the soul. As cooked grain, it is used at memorials or saints’ days for the kolyva or food for the dead, being, for the memorials, kept whole, and for the saints, bruised so that it bursts during the cooking, to signify joy. So wheat appears as an image of life, death and resurrection. The ripened corn of the new harvest does not represent food for the body only, but the eternally renewed gift of life to man, with Christ himself the principle of the resurrection which takes place within it every year.

The imagery of the agricultural year is echoed in the rhythm of the liturgical year, which also begins in the autumn, its first major festival being the Birth of the Mother of God on September 8, and ends in the summer with her Falling Asleep on August 15. There is thus a correspondence between the earth, and the Mother of God, represented, on the one hand, by the cycle of the seasons from the sowing of the seed in the autumn to the gathering in of the harvest of the grain in July and August, and on the other hand, by the figure of the Mother of God whose presence pervades and embraces the entire liturgical year. It is a pattern of meanings running through the agricultural life which only at times becomes evident, but it is nevertheless a lived reality which reiterates again and again through the long years of toil in the fields the story of man’s salvation.

I have mentioned the community as church, the house as church, and the cosmos as church. We find it hard to live in any of these churches as we should, but in this age perhaps the cosmos is the most difficult. We are used to the idea of the church being holy; we are used to the house being part of what is referred to as the Liturgy of life; but our urban way of life makes it difficult for us to live in, or even to think of, the cosmos as if it were holy. Even the word “environment” is misleading, since it indicates something in which we are put but from which we remain separate, whereas the spiritually apprehended cosmos is only possible if we allow a movement in which the divine in us answers to the divine in it, and in which the natural world around us becomes part of the inner landscape of our own souls. There is a poem by Thomas Traherne, the 17th century Anglican divine, one of the last voices of Orthodox spirituality in the native tradition, which expresses this:

“The world was more in me than I in it

The King of Glory in my soul did sit.

And to himself in me He always gave

All that he takes delight to see me have.

For so my spirit was an endless sphere,

Like God himself, and Heaven and Earth was there.”

Because we have, collectively, gone so far from this understanding in our present age, I see it as one of the vital works of the Church today that we should try to reintegrate ourselves with this way of seeing things.

Lastly, it is important that the Church does not see itself as exclusive. To live in these sacramental universes is to live in the Church. But to experience things in this way is not the possession only of Christians, for “Christ is the light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” As Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow remarked in the last century: “We know where the Church is, but we cannot say where it is not. The walls we build on earth do not reach to heaven.”

Julie Williams’s essay is a shortened version of a lecture delivered in Oxford in May at the diocesan conference of the Russian Orthodox Church of Sourozh in Great Britain. The full text will be included in a booklet soon to be published by St. Stephen’s Press (30 Oxlease, Witney, Oxfordshire OX8 6QX, England). She is the author of Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village (D. Harvey & Co., Greece; ISBN 9607120051), published under her maiden name, Juliet Du Boulay. The author’s husband, Fr. Alexander Williams, is priest of the Community of St. Nicholas in Dunblane, Scotland.