The theme title of this year’s All-American Council “How to Expand the Mission” has caused much fruitful reflection. It is a healthy theme. It shifts our attention to the importance of growth. It is commonly understood that a growing organism is a healthy one. This applies to the OCA, as a whole. This focus on growth moves us away from our pre-occupation with just surviving. We have endured wave after wave of crisis, turmoil, and scandal. Yet, we are alive. If we are truly alive, we must grow.
The whimsical watercolor illustration of our heroes of the past brings us back to an earlier era. We are invited to connect with the vision of Saints Tikhon, Innocent, and Raphael, and many others who devoted their lives to bringing the Orthodox faith to a new land. We are invited to join them in a certain purity of intention, an optimism that led them to make bold strides to advance the Gospel. Someone once said that if the 12 apostles had known just how far the “ends or the earth” were, they would have never ventured out of Jerusalem to fulfill the Great Commission. We are invited, like the apostles of the past and the not-so-distant past, to have great faith and rely on our experience of the Truth of our Faith rather than on outward circumstances. In that same spirit, I join in the discussion and offer my own “two cents” to try to answer that all-important question which was the theme of this year’s All-American Council.
We need to give people what they need, even when they don’t know that they need it. If we give people what they need, then they will be drawn to the One who can only satisfy us. What people really need is God. Only He can satisfy what the soul really yearns for. People were designed to walk in the garden with God, in intimate communion. On the level of the conscious mind, most are unaware of this need. In fact, many are actively opposed to God. They deny His existence, hate Him, or consider the notion of God as irrelevant, yet deep inside, even in hearts of the enemies of God, there is a hard-wired need for His Presence.
At the Council in Atlanta, our monastery set up an information table in the exhibitor’s hall. We passed out brochures, gave away tiny bottles of our honey, and invited as many as stopped by to come and visit us in Manton. Being a little late to turn in our booth registration, we were relegated to a quiet, not well-frequented corner of the hall. We met some wonderful people, made some good contacts, and generally did the best we could, yet it was our hope that our 8-foot, hand-painted banner would leave a memorable impression on everyone who viewed it: “How to Expand the Mission? Build More Monasteries”.
Why, you may ask, would the construction of more monasteries expand the mission? The answer lies in how we invest our energy. Everyone is used to seeing things done in an earthly way: Let’s fix up the Church building, commission beautiful icons, improve the singing in the choir, make the sermons more relevant, have a fantastic youth program, a great adult education program, etc. These improvements in our parishes are good and important and much-needed, yet, if we lose focus of the therapeutic mission of the Church, they fall short of meeting the real need. What people need is the real, tangible presence of a healed person. This person becomes the conduit of the grace of God to everyone around him or her. We Orthodox have an unusual way of doing things. Historically, rather than putting our energy into streamlined outreach programs, we build monasteries in remote places and fill them with monks or nuns. Through ascesis and repentance, these monastics acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit and thousands around them find their salvation through them. Saint Herman of Alaska is a classic example of this form of passive evangelism. And it has worked for thousands of years.
Our generation looks for something real. The Orthodox Church holds that one “real thing” as a precious treasure—she most perfectly preserves the reality of the presence of God. Let us build monasteries in our hearts, where we are separated from this vain world, where we are forever humbling ourselves before God in repentance. If we do this, we become genuine people. When the soul encounters something genuine, it is immediately drawn to it. The battle for the souls of humanity is a spiritual battle. Only when we can “go deep” in our spiritual lives can we make any headway in this battle. Saint Paul writes, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). The world waits for us to be truly healed and truly Christian, and when they see it, they will come. They will come in the thousands.