Are We Connected?

How connected are we? Do your actions, thoughts, feelings, have an effect on me even if I am unaware (or on the other side of the world)? Is my existence bound within the existence of other human beings, or are we simply sharing the same planet for a period of time?

Connections between people, particularly of a spiritual nature, were declared to be mere superstitions in the march of modern rationalism. To believe in connections between people came to be seen as flawed – similar to a belief in an outer space filled with a “heavenly ether.” The rise of the mechanical universe displaced all ideas of true connections between people (or between people and things). Individuals became discrete, separate entities. The only possible effects that were allowed in such a universe were direct physical effects (which would include sound and the various forms of light), or psychological effects (how I react within myself to outside stimuli). Cause and effect were thus severely limited.

There have been some attempts within the modern world to suggest connections beyond this mechanical/psychological model. Depth Psychology (Jungian), has argued for a shared, collective unconscious, a common mind in which we all participate. The judgment of mainstream science is that such ideas are simply “kooky.”

But, the question remains: are we connected? Is our relationship to one another nothing more than the figments of our own neuroses and the violence of others’ actions?

The New Testament clearly contradicts the assumptions of the modern model:

But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1 Cor. 12:24-26)

The word rendered “composed” (συνεκέρασεν) in St. Paul’s thoughts on the body of Christ has a more accurate meaning of “mixed together.” “Composed” is not an incorrect translation, but our own weak reading of the word fails to capture the word’s original sense. St. Paul is making the point that God’s creation of the human body is precisely an interconnected/mixed entity. It is this “mixed” entity that most fits the Apostle’s thoughts on the nature of our life as the Church. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you,” for far greater reasons than simple cooperation. The “members” (“parts”) of the body do not exist in a strictly distinct manner: they have something of a “mixed” existence. So, too, are Christians (and humanity as a whole – for the Church is not other than human, but the display of what it properly means to be human).

Today’s increased “wholistic” practice of medicine has renewed an emphasis on the interconnectedness of the systems within the human body. It is only convenience that makes medical science label something as one system or another – for the body is a single whole.

St. Paul takes this “wholistic” or “mixed” understanding and applies it to our human existence: “If one member suffers, we all suffer…” This same understanding, in varying forms, is common in the teachings of the spiritual fathers of the Church. The Elder Thaddeus offers this observation:

Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and in the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed. If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us—in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only here on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Kindle Locations 615-623). St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. Kindle Edition.

The Elder is not suggesting that our thoughts have a profound psychological effect on those around us. He is rooted in St. Paul’s understanding of συνεκέρασεν – our connectedness. We are not each a separate world, but all part of one world. Just as it has become popular to acknowledge the so-called “butterfly effect” discussed in chaos theory (a hurricane’s beginning is effected even by the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the earth), so we should recognize that the whole of our lives – physical, spiritual, mental, etc. – is equally part of a whole.

Our cultural assumptions make us insensitive to the connections of our lives. The modern model of discrete existence supports the fantasy of a highly individualized freedom that is a foundational notion of modern consumer economies. We imagine that there are “victimless” crimes or “privatized actions.” We say to ourselves that certain behaviors are without consequence and effect no one but ourselves. This same fantasy makes it very difficult for us to understand the limitations of freedom and the inherent responsibilities of human existence. The results are a culture that is increasingly dysfunctional.

For Christians this individualized concept of the self undermines many of the primary realities of the faith. The Church cannot be rightly understood as a voluntary association. We are Baptized “into the Body of Christ.” The modern concept of the individual runs deeply contrary to Scriptural teaching on the nature of the Christian life. The sacraments, whose foundations rest within a world in which true communion and participation are possible, become more and more foreign to the individualized Christian experience. The sacraments are either deeply minimized (even to the point of extinction) or re-interpreted in voluntaristic terms. It is this re-interpretation of the sacraments that undergirds the modern notion of “open communion,” or “Eucharistic hospitality.” The exclusion of persons from the Cup of Christ is seen as an insult, a denial of their self-defined Christian identification. I have been told, “Who are you to say that I should not be allowed to come to communion?” However, “Individual communion” is an oxymoron.

The teaching of the faith regarding Personhood requires an acceptance of the connectedness of existence. Human sin tends towards fragmentation, disintegration and a radical individualism. The ultimate individual existence is the one that refuses love. The presence of the “other” is perceived as a burden and limitation. Rebirth in Christ is an entrance into a connected existence – into existence as communion. The “other” is not a burden – it is utterly required for true existence.

In the story of human creation, Adam, alone (before the creation of Eve), is described as “not good.” We were not created for aloneness. But the creation of Eve is described in terms that go further than “other.” Had “other” been the only requirement, then any of the animals whom God brought to Adam would have been fitting for the purpose. But Adam’s exclamation at Eve’s creation is in the language of connection: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The “other” is also, somehow, my self.

The daily discovery of the “true self” that marks the path of salvation, is the fruit of love. It is the constant realization that my life is not my own, but is rather found both within and somehow outside myself. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that “outside myself” is something of a false concept. We must say “something of a false concept,” for the true self is not the loss of identity, a blending of the self with all else: it is communion.

The sacraments, then, are not discrete actions of the Church designed to enhance our spiritual experience: they are revelations of the way of life. For in every case, the sacraments are the life of communion, whether Ordination or Eucharist, Baptism, Chrismation, Matrimony, etc. It is for this reason that we can observe that “the whole creation is a sacrament.”

This same communion describes the means, the path, and the life of salvation. Earlier discussions on the blog have ventured to suggest a communion that reaches even into the realm of hell. Communion is not a quality or an activity of life – it is the very essence of life – its sine qua non. For this reason the faithful are taught to pray for the departed, to know and share in the prayers of the saints, and to believe that we are helped by their prayers and they benefit from ours. In such things we are not being taught how to pray, we are being taught how to live.

In Genesis, when God proposes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes. “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” And he proceeds to argue for increasingly smaller numbers of the righteous for whose sake God will spare the unrighteous. It was said at one time that there were three righteous men on account of whose prayers God spared the world. It is a Biblical notion. Our connectedness is our life.

 

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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30 responses to “Are We Connected?”

  1. eliot Avatar

    Incredible! I have recently been reading about Martin Buber’s I / It – I / Though phenomena in dialogue. The difference between discussion and dialogue, transaction and communion. I couldn’t help but wonder how this relates to the Christians life and fellowshipping (communing) with what 2 Timothy 3 mentions as “people to avoid”. As Orthodox do we look upon the “malicious, slanderous, self centered anti-Christ” and still commune? Do we attempt to see our connectedness, the Imago Dei, in the face and gaze of the enemy?

  2. KS Avatar
    KS

    I recall from Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, discussion of the modern world of the “buffered self” contrasted to the pre-modern “porous” self. I’m very grateful for this blog post for fleshing out what a self that is in communion (“porous”) entails from an Orthodox standpoint.

  3. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you for an excellent post, Father. I join the other commentors in making a literary connection by quoting Dostoyevsky’s remark:

    “There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.”

    This is the negative approach to describing universal communion, but just as apt, I think. Perhaps this was the realization of Jesus Christ as the Man of sorrows. Elder Thaddeus takes the positive approach, “God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it.” I must read that book.

    This also reminds me of Schmemann’s insight that the Eucharist as the body of Christ is a revelation of what always already is in fact the case about bread, about us, and the world as sacrament. I think this is why the objectification of other persons is so disgraceful. Dis-grace: a rejection of our brother – by positing his separate existence – who is our life.

  4. Essie Avatar
    Essie

    I echo Eliot’s question. So many of my nearest and dearest seem to have assumed the face of the anti-Christ, and my love for them feels like a heavy burden as I struggle not to judge, but still to protect myself from their blasphemies. Sometimes it feels as if I am literally losing my mind, trying to uphold my faith and the teachings of Christ while these seemingly bridgeless gulfs distance me from my relationships with friends and family. I know I am not alone in this.

  5. Kevin Combes Avatar
    Kevin Combes

    Father,

    Would you say that this connectedness, is communion, with others, with all living things, is at the heart of “eternal life “?

  6. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Kevin – powerful question.

  7. Michael Baulman Avatar
    Michael Baulman

    In my recent experience I have found three things:
    1. The more I repent, the more interconnected I am
    2. The darkness only has the power over me that I give it. Even when it is in others.
    3. I can only repent for myself. The sins of others create situations in which I must repent because we are connected

    My Dad (born in 1901) taught the interconnectedness of all creation and used that reality in his profession as a public health officer. He was amazed at those who did not understand.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Eliot,
    As Orthodox, we live within the life of the Church. I leave the judgments that are sometimes made (such as the severing of communion, etc.) in the hands of those whom God has appointed for that fearful task (such as my Bishop, or the Holy Synod of the Church). Insanity will ensue if we take such judgments upon ourselves as a private matter. And, in all things, we are commanded to love.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Essie,
    Your love for them should feel like a heavy burden – that is the nature of the Cross. When we consider the Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Blood, we too easily forget that it is His Body “broken for you,” and His Blood “shed for you and for many.” When we enter into and live in communion with Christ, it is not a communion with only the just – but with all those for whom His Body is broken and for whom His Blood is shed. It is the Cross. That Cross is the bridge – across which He has found you and me and across which He can find those whom we love who are, at present, estranged.

    We are living in extraordinary times – and it is difficult, no doubt. Other times have had their difficulties – being fed to lions and crucified, etc. But these times are our times – we were appointed to live in just such a time. Cling to Christ and pray – turn the pain of your heart and its burden to tears, if possible, and offer them to Christ on their behalf.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Kevin,
    I think it is, indeed, the only form of true life. We have turned the phrase “eternal life” into a phrase describing mere “longevity,” when it is, in fact, a statement of a quality. God alone is eternal. Eternal life is the life of God. All things are in Him, were created by Him and for Him.

  11. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, you write:
    In such things we are not being taught how to pray, we are being taught how to live.
    This is beautiful, thank you!

    Thank you also for your words to Essie regarding the times that we’re living in. I have been considering Christ’s prophecy of end times in Mark’s Gospel, and thinking about the word “apocalypse.” I’m thinking that our entire age is about this revealing and uncovering. All of our upheavals reveal the old and are part of the birth pangs of the new. So, with Jesus’ words that we are to “Take heed, watch and pray,” I’m trying to think that these times are actually filled with opportunities for us to live His commandments, live faithfully, prayerfully as you put it best. I wish I could always hold onto that perspective!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    I believe that it is largely hidden from us just how many are affected and even saved by our prayers. We are in a great spiritual battle. It is not politics or technology that is our enemy – it is a spiritual battle as described in Ephesians 6.

  13. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father. I think you are right. My questions now would center around how we can better be aware of this, that great spiritual battle you name, and to “take heed, watch, and pray.” Time for me to reread Ephesians 6 now!!

  14. Essie Avatar
    Essie

    Thank you, Father, for your reminder of the nature of the cross.

  15. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    It’s hard to build a healthy society from a false anthropology. It seems the source of many of our social problems are loneliness and fragmentation. But strong bonds are often forged out of necessity, not voluntarily. And in a wealthy society, we don’t always “need each other” to survive. I watched a few episodes of the Walking Dead with my husband, and I thought the show was really about community and how it is formed, not zombies. I often wonder if a silver lining of societal collapse or disaster would be a return to the relationships we all long for deep down, but these crises are sporadic.

  16. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father,
    I frequently find myself caught up in the drama of an injustice, or responding to lies and cruelties, deterioration in our country or elsewhere. It’s hard to know how to formulate a rule for when and where to detach, and when and where to act hopefully with righteous behavior. This becomes more difficult with social media. Are there any sort of guidelines for this?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    There are, more or less, an infinite set of opportunities on social media for such things – which becomes a distraction in our lives – for the most part. There’s no set rule that I know of, but it’s good to refrain as much as possible. One measure is this: what is the result in your heart when you’ve acted? Is it at peace, or is it stirred up and filled with passions (anger, judgment, etc.).

    St. Seraphim said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

    Good rule.

  18. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father
    I will have to work on this, the discerning of peace.

  19. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Janine,

    As someone who years ago came to view social media as one of those evil genies that unfortunately cannot be put back in its bottle as much as we would better off if it could, I (even so) struggle with the same work as you. Moreover, I feel triply guilty for having inculcated the same bad habit in my (otherwise) mostly praiseworthy children. Besides Father Stephen’s measure, I would add never, never let social media substitute for the nearer particulars of your real, physical life.

    Our imaginations are so much abler than our bodies that we prefer solving (mostly) imaginary problems or at least imagining that we have contributed to their solution, rather than doing what is apportioned us. I think this is what is encapsulated by “first, make your bed.” Near and mundane is not often exciting, but it is real: “whoever is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.”

    This sin is one that I most often need to repent of.

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    And last but not least, as Father has said, ‘tears are good’. When I have been bound up in my passions, tears and prayers are the beginning of the peace that passes all understanding.

    But in my experience, discerning the peace before a decision is made is indeed the hard part. Especially, it’s hard to see beyond the passions to the ‘lake’ beyond. But sometimes I do see glimpses. Glory to God for the bends in the stream of life. May we take them in peace.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I think this is why the objectification of other persons is so disgraceful. Dis-grace: a rejection of our brother – by positing his separate existence – who is our life.

    Thank you for these words, Owen. I needed to hear them.

  22. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    I often wonder if a silver lining of societal collapse or disaster would be a return to the relationships we all long for deep down, but these crises are sporadic.

    Laurie, I came to the conclusion long ago that society has built so many backstops into its web that a complete collapse is very much unlikely. We will have to live in the times we are in, it seems. May it be for the salvation of all!

    Our imaginations are so much abler than our bodies that we prefer solving (mostly) imaginary problems or at least imagining that we have contributed to their solution, rather than doing what is apportioned us. I think this is what is encapsulated by “first, make your bed.”

    Such good advice, Mark! We live in a world that more and more is imaginary–it imagines that whatever it fantasizes is real. And we spend our times solving “imaginary” problems! Thanks for this.

    Father, thank you for the advice concerning social media. Whenever I attempt to “right a wrong”, I know I am in fact in the wrong. Perhaps it is helpful to say that, when someone asks a question, it is okay to answer (in kindness, not in rightness)? But when someone makes a declaration, perhaps it is better to abstain? A discussion, not an argument or challenge…. Pride is a wicked taskmaster….

  23. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Mark thank you also for your good and helpful advice. I was born into a culture (Armenian) in which my grandparents survived a genocide, and now that genocidal threat continues today with a deliberate mass starvation. So I feel I must try to help them, and I do through the Church’s orphan and relief funds, and those for chaplaincy for the people. There is a spiritual/religious component to that which I believe is important for multiple reasons. But I am also asked to help publicize their plight and that happens through social media. So I realize I have to do this prayerfully, the right thing at the right time and for the right reason. But it is very easy to get caught up in the urgency of the circumstances and the extreme emotions of others. I frequently feel I have gone too far. So, Father’s admonition regarding the spirit of peace is something I believe I really do need to focus on, and I have found it to be so: there are times when just entering into social media is disturbing.

    Mark, you wrote: Our imaginations are so much abler than our bodies that we prefer solving (mostly) imaginary problems or at least imagining that we have contributed to their solution, rather than doing what is apportioned us. Oh, this seems so true. I once had a therapist who told me I thought I could solve problems by worrying about them. That is probably still 99% true! And we do know what Christ said about anxiety.

    I began to use Facebook originally to keep in touch with friends and family far away. (I also write a blog and post updates there too, as well as on Twitter.) But these days, just logging onto FB I feel like I am in some different world, something strangely missing the fullness of reality, and I don’t like it and it’s creepy. Maybe it’s nice to be polite (like birthday wishes) or I like to post photos of gardens I like, something beautiful. But we definitely have social ills because everyone becomes a Hollywood publicist, and statistics show that for all of us, but especially young people, social media use produces growing rates of anxiety. Logging onto twitter is some strange frantic horribleness, akin to a part of hell as I experience it. But unfortunately that is where a lot of the publicizing of the plight of these people happens, as so many journalists use it.

    There is certainly room to say that I seem to feel something horrible will happen (maybe to me? my conscience?) if I am not trying everything I can to help, and that might just be a giant temptation or delusion.

    Anyway sorry to be long-winded.

    Dee, you wrote:
    But in my experience, discerning the peace before a decision is made is indeed the hard part. Especially, it’s hard to see beyond the passions to the ‘lake’ beyond.
    Oh yes, that’s why Father’s advice makes sense to me, regarding how it leaves me feeling. And I suppose we are mortals to learn by experience.

  24. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Janine,
    I hope I’m not too much of a pessimist. I can let it get me down because I don’t expect to make a change in the world that has lasting effects for the benefit of society.

    I have a few sentences from St Nicholai of Orhrid about our connectedness:

    Do you know my child, why the clouds are closed when the fields are thirsty for rain, and why they open when the fields have no desire for rain?
    Nature has been confused by the wickedness of men and has abandoned its order.

    …Do not cry, my child, the Lord will soon return and set everything right.”

    #39

    I have a tendency with the rest of Western Christianity to feel that the ‘end’ has come. But we are not taught to lose hope or faith in such events that we see now, nor are we to have the hubris of thinking we know when the end is upon us. Christ says this and also says that when the end has come, there will be no uncertainties about it. What we see now, may well change, if each of us perseveres with the strength of heart to follow His commandments and follow Him.

    As we see in Father’s article, we can certainly learn how we are all connected, not just to each other, but to the world, every leaf, every blade and tree, flower, rock, insect, bird, and animal. We are taught to give glory to God for all things and with our noetic eyes to see our Lord in all things of the earth. And sometimes such vision is excruciating. I know I struggle mightily with this and pray for trust and faith.

    May God bless us with His peace in our hearts, keeping our compassion and love intact.

  25. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Amen, Dee.
    I started reading a little book by Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe. It’s called “Strength in Weakness.” I’ve only begun it, but it seems a powerful answer for now, about how setbacks can be God’s answer to a prayer because God seems to work “best” through us within such circumstances. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around, except somehow personal experience seems to show us this. And of course, we have St Paul’s witness in 2 Corinthians 12. But I am thinking somehow we really need this message for this moment

  26. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I have perhaps a silly question or a strange one, and I’m not sure where to ask (or even if I should), but at any rate, here it is. I have heard the phrase “covered with the blood of Jesus” from various Protestant sources. One woman explained it as part of atonement ideas, that we’re “covered” on the day we die for our sins, because He already paid.

    But I’m wondering what significance it has in Orthodox terms, although I can’t say I’ve heard that exact phrase in Orthodox services, etc. although certainly we understand our Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. But I’m wondering, especially in connection with the fulfillment of the Passover, how might an Orthodox understanding of this look in our lives?

    Apologies if the question is annoying or misplaced (post may be deleted if so)

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    Your friend’s explanation is not what Protestants have traditionally meant by the phrase. “Covered with the blood of Jesus” has generally meant that His blood cleanses from sin and is the “covering” that shields us from judgment or condemnation. I’ve not seen it in Orthodox usage. One Biblical image that comes to mind is the description of the martyrs in Revelation:

    “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13–14)

  28. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father. I’ve been thinking lately about the ancient connection of sacrifice with community, so I am thinking this is the deeper meaning of the blood of Christ. I read a commentary about the Revelation passage you quote that said the washing by the blood signifies baptism. In either sense it is about communion I suppose. Lots more there I don’t understand, I’m certain. Much gratitude again.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Janine,
    Thank you for mentioning Bishop Irenei’s book. It sounds like a timely word I need to hear also. I’ll read it too.

  30. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    “ I don’t expect to make a change in the world that has lasting effects for the benefit of society.” (Dee)

    I don’t know that I expect to make any changes either (actually I’m trying to let go of that expectation). But for 2 years (??? I think) I have benefited from this blog and the discussion in the comments, which is so vastly different than I experienced anywhere else (in a good way). It’s an experience example that there is another way to think and live than is taken for granted. I always feel such relief coming here and reading (usually have nothing much to say in response, but I carry the words away with me).

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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

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