You meet someone and like them. You slowly get to know them. Conversation and sharing, listening and learning, a picture or a reality begin to emerge. You think about them when they’re away. You’re aware that you matter to them as well. The thought of anything hurting them is painful. This is friendship.
We easily reduce friendship to a set of shared emotions. Why we like someone else, we can imagine, rests on a complex set of experiences, hopes, fears, and emotions. But then someone asks this question: “Is there anything between you?”
On the surface the question is innocent. It could mean nothing more than a curiosity about shared emotions. Are you going to declare a relationship on Facebook? But, taken another way, the question is much more puzzling. Is a relationship anything more than a psychological phenomenon? Are we, in fact, utterly separate in our existence, with nothing more than the experience of our own minds? What if someone said of your friendship, “It’s all in your head?”
You feel very close to this person. The friendship has now lasted several years and has been very consistent. One day, speaking to someone else, you describe the thoughts of your friend. However, your description is scrutinized: “How can you possibly know what’s going on in someone else’s mind?” You cannot think of how to answer the question, but you believe your description and your experience are true and correct.
In theory, our modern culture believes that relationships with other people are merely psychological phenomena – they are all in our head. There is occasional research to try and establish some notion of extra-psychological relationship (such as ESP), but even that is largely an extension of psychology. But there is an entire realm of human experience that such a belief ignores. And it is an experience that lies at the very heart of classical Christianity.
This experience is found in the concept of communion. It refers to a true participation and sharing in the life and actual existence of another. It is not a label for a set of feelings nor a synonym for being close with someone. It is a term that truly means what it says. The Greek is koinonia, a state of “commonality.”
The Orthodox faith teaches that we are saved by communion – in particular, communion with Christ. When a person is being baptized they are asked three times by the priest: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” According to St. Paul, we are then baptized “into the death” of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. That is salvation. Christ’s death becomes my death and my death becomes His death. Christ’s resurrection becomes my resurrection, etc. Every sacrament of the Church is about union with Christ, or union with another human being (marriage). It is predicated on the possibility of true communion and participation.
The claim that this is true and possible distinguishes Orthodox Christianity from virtually every form of contemporary Christian believing. It is the foundation of the sacramental world of the Church. When we eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood in the Holy Eucharist, we believe that there is a true sharing, a real communion:
Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him. (Jn 6:56)
Living in such a manner that this communion is made manifest in our lives is the entire purpose of the Orthodox Christian life.
Communion, if you will, is one of the most fundamental elements of Christian grammar. It makes sense of many things, and many things discussed in Christian teaching only make sense in its context. Wherever communion is ignored as a reality, Christianity is deformed and distorted into a caricature of its true nature.
In the Apostles’ Creed, a confession of faith found in a number of Western Churches, the phrase “the communion of saints” is offered as an element of belief, on a par with the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. However, in the minds of most contemporary Christians who confess this Creed, the communion of saints is often left as a vague, ill-defined notion, mostly confined to some idea of fellowship with those in heaven.
In terms of the New Testament, true knowledge is ultimately only had by communion (koinonia). The sort of rational, observational collection of facts that passes for knowledge in our world, would be nothing of the sort in theirs. When John’s gospel says, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3), it is a reference to knowledge by participation, or communion. It is precisely because true knowledge is communion that knowledge of God is eternal life. That knowledge can only be had by true participation in His life.
In a similar manner, St. Paul cried out, “…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may have communion in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead!” (Phi 3:10-11)
Interestingly, communion lies at the center of the traditional practice of venerating the saints. Communion works by love. Indeed, true communion is perhaps the main point of love. We not only want to be with the other, we want to share in their life and existence. In the example of friendship described at the outset, there is an experience of communion for which we often have no word in our modern vocabulary (having changed the meaning of communion). We experience communion but are at a loss to describe it or defend it. When we are told that it is simply a thing of the mind, we have no response. Modernity is a lonely construct.
The veneration of the saints is simply what love for them looks like. The cultural expressions of kissing icons or burning candles before them are no different than other cultural expressions of love. But a world without cultural expressions of love quickly becomes a world without love. Human beings require touch, for example, in order to live. We are not creatures of the mind.
Years ago, I wrote my thesis at Duke on the Icon as Theology. During that time of study, I came to realize and understand that an icon can only truly be seen in the act of veneration. For seeing the icon, according to the Church’s teaching, is a relational matter, an act of communion. Many people look at an icon and see an object, perhaps a beautiful religious object. But without veneration, the love offered to the one who is present in the depiction, there is no communion. In the act (or many acts) of veneration we enter into the reality of communion.
This veneration has developed a liturgical expression in the life of the Church, but it is the same in our relationship with all persons. Through love, expressed in a variety of appropriate manners, we truly know the other by participation (communion). In some measure, we enter into and share in their life. In some measure, their life becomes ours and ours becomes theirs. This is especially true in marriage, in which a man and a woman become one flesh. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, “My brother is my life.”
That communion and participation in the life of the other is possible is one of the single most contradictory challenges to the modern world-view. We are not utterly individual in our existence nor in our experience. We are beings whose lives are best expressed and fulfilled through communion. When this is rightly understood, it is nothing more than the proclamation of the primacy of love.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2)
If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)