St. Paul admonishes us not to forsake the gathering of believers. But here is the thing: none of us, Christian or otherwise, forsake the gathering of believers. The question, and what must be kept in dear remembrance is the question “what believers”?
Look at who you offer your time you, who you spend your time with. More than likely, they believe as you do or as you would like to learn to. Now, think of what they profess as their beliefs. Now think of what you yourself profess. We surround ourselves with people of like belief. We do this naturally. It is not something we readily forsake to do. We prioritize gathering ourselves here as though unintentionally. But if we think on it for a moment, if we risk intentionality, what do we see? Do we gather ourselves with those who believe as we do or with those who believe or as we say we do? Do they practice the beliefs they profess? Do we?
For the Christian, we are called to not forsake the gathering of believers, the gathering of Christians of profession and practice. This is why we attend church, why we become “practicing members of a church.” It is through being active in a church that we become a practicing part of The Church. We practice our faith at church in this gathering. It is good for us. We Christians, our life is a life of community and solitude set dancing. It is ambiguous, often, which is the “lead” and which the “follow.” I cannot help but think that it is community that leads the solitude, challenges it and encourages it. Solitude is the crown of the hermit, the ascetic who has gone outside the life of the world. For most of us, this is not the case. For most of us, community teaches our solitude and it is from the community of the gathering of believers that our solitude is a place of growth, of being a Christian, of becoming like Christ. Community, “my” community, is not, however, only for my own sake. This is a rather selfish way of thinking of it. Yes, I am active in my home parish for the sake of my soul. I am not active in the parish life for my sake alone—it is not a public solitude—but rather for the sake of others, for their sake perhaps even more than my own. When I forsake the gathering, I am neglected my brothers and my sisters. I am prioritizing something else over them and over God. It is always a matter of priority and of intentionality. Always. This said, I admire and worry and pray for those who I know who make a habit of absence. I admire the strength of their faith. I could not do this. My solitude would teach me a different faith. I am not so far along in my faith as to sustain this. I worry for them: I worry that they are cheating themselves of growth and cheating themselves also of the blessings of loving and giving to the community of their home parish. I pray for them: pray that their faith can indeed sustain their absences, and that they do not begin to think that it can, and that they will prioritize things differently so as to live the life they profess.
It is a curious thing, the life of community. It is not that it brings contentment so much as it offers comfort. It is not that it offers happiness so much as joy. It is not that it offers home so much as that deep sense of homelessness that the Christian is called to know, but also to know the hope of being at home in the present among those with whom all eternity will be enjoyed. Eternity begins always in the moment, in every moment. It is in the moment that all things happen. “It is only ever in the moment,” Father Joshua told me once in confession, “it is only in the very now that we pray or do not pray, that we love or do not love, that we sin or do not sin, that we repent or do not repent.” It struck me deeply, particularly because it was in that confession that he told me if I missed another Sunday I would have excommunicated myself. Three Sundays of absences. That was his rule. “There are always sudden things,” he told me, “but as soon as you make a habit of absence, you must repent of it. Your absence wounds those present. You are part of this. Never for a moment think that it is only you who suffers when you are not here. We all suffer. That’s how it is.”
But look here, today is a delightful day. Today we voted on the purchase of a building for church. Today Father Joshua’s words are dear and deep with me. I am repenting even now of my absence. Singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, being present during the Agape Meal, these are how it is with home. These are eternity. I am not a good singer, mind you, and I am new at teaching. But the choir needed basses and I can somewhat sing bass. They needed a new teacher as the fellow who had been teaching is working to pursue the Subdeaconate. I am encouraged and I encourage in conversation, even in that the conversation is there at all. What matters more than this? This is practicing eternity in the very now. It is how home is. It is how love is. It is how comfort is and solace. It is how guilt is and repentance. The community I call my own is never for my own sake.
I miss gathering with believers in poetry and beauty. It was, sometimes, good for my soul. Sometimes it was ruinous. Sometimes it was both. But prioritizing this is something I am and will always be as though guilty of. It is part of me. I will gather still with believers in poetry and beauty, only I will not profess that faith with them, nor will I practice that practice. All things which are not Christ and the community of him are vanity. Some vanities may prove beneficial, proper even, only they can only be so so long as they are held as vanities, however dear.
But ask: with what believers do you gather? Do you gather with them intentionally? What gathering do you forsake? Is this forsaking intentional? Do you practices and your professions dance? Do your community and solitude dance a growing dance?
Lord, have mercy. I have forsaken the gathering of believers on many occasions, at times even in thought while present bodily. Forgive me, those of you who I have led astray, in profession or practice, with word or with deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.
Happy “Lukan Jump.” Here we begin the movement towards the Fast of the Nativity. I must say, I am terribly looking forward to it.