God’s Presence is Found in Community

God’s Presence is Found in Community February 11, 2011

He [Abba Poemen] said that Abba Theonas said, “Even if a man acquires a virtue, God does not grant him grace for himself alone.” He knew that he was not faithful in his own labour, but that if he went to his companion, God would be with him. [1]

Grace is not given to us to be individuals separated from each other. We are called to be the Body of Christ, the Church, a community. While there is an element of our spiritual development in which we work out our own salvation within ourselves, developing different virtues to combat various vices, not everything can be done all alone. We need to be with others, to work with them, and indeed, for them. We will find out that when we sin, when we fail God, going out to be with our brother or sister, we will find out God’s presence will be there with us, giving us the grace we need.

“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20). When we are united with others in faith, we become more than the sum of our parts. To be with someone else, we have to open ourselves up to them. We stop being closed in upon ourselves. We are open, not only to our brother or sister, but to Jesus and his grace, allowing us to transcend ourselves in the process. When we cooperate with such grace, we will find ourselves growing in virtue, becoming the one God meant us to be. Not only do we attain such grace by opening ourselves up to others, we find that grace leads us back into the world, to be a vehicle of grace for others. The more we go out and spread that grace, the more grace we can get, the more virtuous we can become (we must, of course, continue to strive for virtue, otherwise God’s grace has not yet been activated in our lives).

Our attainment of virtue is not to be seen as a thing for ourselves, but for those around us. We are called to follow the example of Christ. What he has given to us is not to be seen as a possession to be kept to ourselves alone, but to be shared; we are the stewards of God’s grace, and we are to seek out those who need it and offer it to them. The more we give according to what we have been given, the greater we will be transformed, and the more like Christ we will become. That is, of course, our goal. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:2).  We shall be like him, because we shall have striven for that purity and attained it. “And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1John 3:3). But that purity, like Christ’s purity, is not achieved so that we can rest in ourselves, but it must always be achieved to improve our relationship with the other.

We are made in the image and likeness of God, God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit: three lovers, united to each other in love. God’s purity is found in God’s love. To be like Christ is to find ourselves transformed into lovers, giving ourselves to each other, sharing with each other the glories God has given to us. We rejoice in the accomplishments of others, even as they rejoice in ours. We experience them together, and become transformed together. As we become purer, more like God, the more we share our purity with others, the more we share the grace God has given to us, helping others experience the glory of God’s kingdom through the gifts God has given to us. We have never been meant to be islands unto ourselves.

People often ask, why can’t I experience God in my life? Where is he? Perhaps we would do well to remember what Abbas Poemen and Theonas have told us here. If we want to experience God, we need to go and work with others. When we strive not for ourselves, but for someone else, we will see that we can and do more than we can do by ourselves. When we notice this, we will see the work of God in our lives, and know that he whom we seek is there with us, however subtle his presence might be.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 188.

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  • If there are three individuals, or only two, and they have Christ with them, what more do they need? Is Christ somehow incomplete until such time as something more is added to this two or three? Is this presence of which Christ spoke not real?

    • There are many different yet real ways Christ’s presence can be with us. Sacramental presence is one way which is different from this kind of presence discussed here. The East likes to discuss his real presence in icons, his real presence in communion [the kind which requires eating to recieve], his real presence in the midst of his people (Christ is among us!), etc.

      St Cyprian of Carthage reminds us, however, sometimes we might think we are gathered in Christ and are not… but what that means, I think, is not as limiting as he thinks.

  • brettsalkeld

    Amen Henry.

    As John the Evangelist said, “He who claims to love God, whom he cannot see, but does not love his brothers and sisters, whom he can see, is lying.”

  • Ronald King

    Rodak, I think it is a measure of numbers. God desires that everyone be united in love. In John 17:20-23 Christ prays “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me…so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”
    Verse 26 adds “I made known to them you name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”
    I think volumes could be written about those verses that directly apply to the recent debates here and attacks against VN about how to address social justice, abortion and conversion.

    • Ronald

      Right. I am trying to make these posts this week (and hopefully next) to counter much of what is going on; they are for me as much as for everyone else, of course. If we can bring what they say into our lives, Christ will be working as this post says. It’s difficult, though, when people come not for Christ, but for political gain. This, I think, is also an answer to Rodak. Some people who come here come, in the name of Christ, but are they gathering together with us in Christ? I don’t think so.

      • Ronald King

        It is the debate that excites them and me and it accomplishes nothing other than exhibiting that they are excellent debaters and I am not. If seeking the truth of God’s love were as exciting then I think the post you have written would be filled with comments as to how to make this a reality.
        I am sad that this does not happen. The individualism has fragmented the faith into thousands of different directions that satisfies only the ego.

        • I hope sometimes the debate does advance something better, but it is hard to tell.

  • “sometimes we might think we are gathered in Christ and are not”

    So the only sure thing would be in the Communion, since that has physical properties which are accessible to the senses and empirical verification?

    • Iconographic presence is real. And the sure thing would be in community too. But what has to be established is whether or not we are truly gathered in and with Christ, or if something else is going on — for example, if someone wanted to gather for a black mass, that might affect the presence.

  • M.Z.

    I’ve really enjoyed your last two posts here.

    • Thank you.

      I plan to be doing some more posts from the Desert Fathers for next week. I have one already somewhat planned, though I need to edit it and add to it. Then I think I have the one to follow it chosen, now, too. Not all of them are going to be easy to write upon, but I think they offer something which is important for us all, and worth considering beyond all the mess we see around us.

  • Good medicine for the end of rough week Henry. Thanks for posting this!

  • I don’t know about the iconic presence, Henry. Not only was that not established by Christ, but, as a Jew, He would probably have considered such a thing to be a graven image and an idol.
    Coincidentally, among my current readings is The Philokalia. I don’t know that active involvement with large groups of people in the world is thought by the Desert Fathers to have been conducive having room for Christ in our hearts. I fear that in our culture this would, for many people, include involvement in church activties, to the extent that congregations have become more of a social setting than a participation in Him. Certainly, what I have read thus far would indicate that if, for instance, one’s opposition to abortion is an occasion for the arousal of great passion, especially in the form of anger, then that opposition is playing right into the demonic game-plan. I am personally suspicious of large collectives of any kind, and of any kind of group-thought. If you read the Gospel sayings of Jesus carefully, and without preconceptions instilled from writings outside of the Gospels, you will come to the realizations that Jesus taught always to the individual. Salvation was a matter of putting one’s own house in order, and His teachings were to show how that is to be done. The Desert Fathers, being either solitaries, or monastic, clearly did not feel that this individual work could be accomplished while one was running around trying to save the world from itself.

    • Rodak

      As a carpenter, and carpenter’s son, likely he made images. And Jews made images — we have all kinds of images in synagogues from the time. Jesus is himself the “image of the invisible God.” His incarnation results in the creation of an image

  • He was a carpenter, not a sculptor. Jews in His time did not make images. Well, maybe some of the Hellenized Jews who also participated in games naked, and in other pagan activities. The part of the reason for the money-changers in the temple was so that coins with the graven images of men and foreign gods would not be carried into the temple proper and defile it. Such coin could not go into the coffers. Jesus was an image of God only in the same sense that you are an image of God. But it was making an image of that image which was prohibited by the commandment. As I’m sure that you know, we get our word “deface” from the practice of pious Muslims smashing the faces off of statues and bas reliefs, mostly on churches, during the time of the Crusades, and after, in honor of that divine injunction.

    • Rodak

      Yes, Jews at his time DID make images. And carpenters did images at that time. You must understand the time. It is not like later carpentry. Carpentry was more exhaustive a discipline.

  • Okay. Fine. That issue is a minor tangent to my main point, which was about collectivism. But since you insist upon it, who are a few of the major Jewish artists of the first century, or before, whose works and names have come down to us along with those of the Greek and Roman artists of their day? Where can one view their sculptures in wood, bronze, or stone? Being ignorant of them, I’d like to familiar myself with those names and works.

  • RCM

    Henry, this is a wonderful reflection.

  • I see this manifested in every day of my life, pretty much everywhere I interact with people. Even here on VN. My challenge is to remember that, and improve my self control, and my what a long way I have to go.