For all of my Christian life, which is to say everything except for college and a few years after that, I limited my church involvement to within parish activities. Things like financial support, reading, teaching and the like. I thought at the time, and still think, that such things are important. There are a lot of jobs that need to get done (many that get almost no recognition) to help the Church get its job done. St. Paul speaks of the necessity of all of the parts of the body working together, with none being esteemed above the others.
In St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, he also tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. Of course, this passage spawned the somewhat notorious “What Would Jesus Do” fad. Regardless of how annoying the fad was, we do need to ask, at least, what did Jesus do? Probably the second most important “event” in history is the Incarnation. Jesus taking on human nature so that he could ultimately heal that nature and restore us to the state we should be in. He became one of us, interacted directly with us, communed with us. And not just “us” as in, the believers, but he interacted with everybody.
If we take that rather simplistic view of the Incarnation as a starting point, then it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that perhaps we should consider getting more directly involved with people beyond the comfort of our parish. Of course, the New Testament is filled with just such commands and examples, and the Church has carried this tradition on throughout the ages. Feed the hungry, give to the poor, visit those in prison, the sick, etc. I’ve long supported such ministries financially, and indirectly by teaching about them when I was responsible for teaching. I assumed that supporting such efforts was, more or less, the same as directly doing those things. As far as the objective outcome of caring for those needs, it probably is the same. However, I was missing one key component, one I should have clued in to since becoming Orthodox. Perhaps there is some even greater benefit that would come from getting directly involved.
The Fathers of the Church teach us that the degree to which we are truly human is dictated by the degree to which we relate to God. The closer the relationship, the more human we are. How, then, do we develop a deeper relationship with God? Clearly the first answer is by prayer. In Orthodoxy, the hesychast tradition has, at its root, a pursuit of St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.” We see this lived out by the great Saints of the Church, many of which were monastics. Monastics, however, are known for something else, even if that may not be the intent of anyone seeking out the monastic life. All monasteries, for the most part (I don’t know of any exceptions) routinely host large numbers of pilgrims, generally providing food, a place to stay, and spiritual guidance, meanwhile asking nothing in return.
The act of caring for others, of course, is commanded by our Lord, as mentioned above. The question is why? The incarnation gives us a clue, as do the words of our Lord when he was describing the last judgement. It is because when we take care of the poor, we are, in fact, deepening our relationship with Christ. This is not merely in a manner of speaking, but it is real. It is tangible.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in ministry outside of the Church, to people who are not necessarily members of any Church, let alone ours. FOCUS North America has launched a program in San Diego to work with a local Rescue Mission to provide dinner to homeless in the downtown part of San Diego. Every Wednesday, groups of Orthodox, representing various parishes in the area, cook a meal, serve it to about 100 people, clean up and head on home. We get the opportunity to talk with and eat with these people who live on the streets of downtown San Diego. Young and old, single, and yes, even families (which is, I have to say, more heartbreaking than anything else we run into).
The feeling that I get by participating in this is rather hard to describe. It’s not pride, nor is it a sense of self satisfaction, even though I’m as susceptible to these feelings as anyone else – maybe even more so. It’s somehow deeper and more fulfilling. I am reminded of the experience of Merry and Pippen when they drank of Ent draught:
The drink was like water, indeed very like the taste of the draughts they had drunk from the Entwash near the borders of the forest, and yet there was some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night. The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour as it coursed upwards, right to the tips of the hair. – The Two Towers
Perhaps it’s but a small taste of what it is like to really relate to God.