Recently it was my privilege to attend a conference with the clergy of the Diocese of Central Florida, held at Canterbury House in Oviedo and organized by Andrew Petiprin. The theme was “Faithful Flourishing in the Episcopal Church,” and The Living Church and Covenant supplied the presenters. Christopher Wells, Jordan Hylden, and Zachary Guiliano gave three talks on ecclesiology, ethics, and mission, while a fourth panel session discussed especially what flourishing would look like on the parish level, with contributions from Jonathan Mitchican, Matthew Olver, Mark Michael, Graham Kings, and me.
It was a bit of a homecoming for me, having grown up at Christ the King, Orlando. Also, as a vowed Sister of St. Mary, I am a walking witness to the faithful flourishing of my home parish within the social revolution days of the 1960s and ’70s. For that reason, I thought I’d describe the characteristics of my home parish, which God used to lead me to his call to the religious life.
To adapt Hillary Clinton’s aphorism “it takes a village to raise a child,” I have been thinking about how it takes a healthy parish to raise a religious vocation. That may seem a strange thesis for those of us who know the history of the monastic movement, from its founding inspiration of rejecting the “comfortableness” of the legalization of the Christian religion by Constantine in the 4th century. However, a quick look at what we mean by “comfortableness” will help us see, by contrast, the richness that faithful flourishing would offer to a parish and the blessings that God sends to sustain it and lead to further mission.
Comfortableness is the epitome of the modern American lifestyle, aimed at a completely hedonistic life for me. With the removal of all challenges, aches and pains, worries and upsets, the cartoon life of a “couch potato” looms very close to the surface. It is a life where the demons of culture can easily convince us that “we deserve a break today” and the stamina of physical, mental, and moral health is “too hard.”
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a different model for a healthy parish family. After defining faith as the assurance of things hoped for, he describes the chosen people of faith from the Scriptures, but goes on to say:
All these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 11:39–12:2)
To switch metaphors, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation build members of the body of Christ into living stones of God’s temple. That is the foundation of a flourishing parish. However, in practical terms, it still needs to be nurtured by “a cloud of witnesses.” The further construction of this temple begins with a priest standing in the place of Christ by virtue of his reception of the sacrament of ordination to the priesthood. This priesthood differs from the priesthood of all believers, as a unique participation in Christ’s priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek (cf. Heb. 7:1-28). Our Protestant heritage often confuses the priesthood of all believers with this specific ordination and its tasks, which include feeding God’s people with the heavenly manna of the Eucharist and committing oneself to the ever-continuing athletic exercise of holiness, leading and training the congregation to reject temptation, to forgive fellow sinners, and to build up the body of Christ in love.
Gathering around their priestly leader, lay people are commissioned to use their unique gifts of the Spirit in witnessing to the God “whose service is perfect freedom.” Sunday school teachers are commissioned to teach the faith and Bible. Musical leaders practice psalms and spiritual songs with those called to serve God in his praise. The “Marthas” of the congregation serve on the vestry, the altar guild, the outreach committees; and the “Marys” of the congregation sacrifice their lives to the praise and glory of God and support the “Marthas” of the congregation with prayer, inspiration, and study of Scripture. When all these gifts are used in a parish, the young grow in grace and desire to share the work and effort.
Such was the parish I grew up in. It began as a tiny post–World War II mission in a growing area of young families, gathered around a veteran, a broken “Flying Tiger” who saw hell and returned to the living Lord in faith, love, humility, and service to God’s people. He didn’t do all things perfectly, but we knew we were loved, both tenderly and toughly, a winning combination sustained by the Eucharist, continual teaching of the Bible, and prayer book worship in Morning and Evening Prayer.
I believe that a flourishing parish will raise up future deacons, priests, and bishops, but also monastics who are willing to dedicate their lives to poverty (no personal possessions), chastity (no marriage), and obedience (within a religious order or community). The signs of a monastic vocation hidden within ordinary parishioners in our churches take careful discernment to see, but also exposure to the possibility of the joyful sacrifice that monastic commitment can be. Beyond the practical characteristics of a single person with no burdens of financial or familial responsibilities, a sure sign, given by God, is an inexhaustible yearning for the love that passes understanding, a soul fully integrated into the active and worship life of the parish, a soul who is always eager for more.
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I have been studying Dostoevsky’s understanding of theodicy, evil as the perversion of personhood, in contrast to the Western Augustinian idea of concupiscence, perversion of the will. What has this to do with the characteristics of a flourishing parish? Again, the training of Christians in parish families continues to strengthen us to face and overcome evil. We must look at the ideal of perfect goodness as the goal, and then practice with God’s grace to resist every force that would attempt to lead us astray.
Fyodor Dostoevsky held that true personhood is not a matter of making moral choices but of taking on responsibilities, the chief of them being the love of God and his people. He does not understand evil as arising out of the human demand for self-sufficiency so much as it springs from the human refusal to become persons in the sense of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). A right understanding of “miracle, mystery, and authority” is Dostoevsky’s answer to theodicy through the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Miracles follow faith, not precede it. Mystery enlivens vision and thought, it is “something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.” Rightful authority invites the free submission of the will. It begins in penitence, and ends in the acceptance, even the embrace of unsentimentalized, but not masochistic, suffering — only as discerned in the will of God in union with Christ’s suffering. All of this requires a delicate balance in mature Christian spirituality in every station of life, but most especially in the monastic state.
A flourishing parish is a wonderful symphony of grace.
Mother Miriam, CSM, is the superior of the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province, and lives and teaches at St. Mary’s Convent within Christ the King Spiritual Life Center, Greenwich, New York. Her other Covenant posts are here.
The featured image is the cloisters at Segovia Cathedral. The photo was uploaded by Holly Hayes, and is licensed under Creative Commons.
 A quote from Kallistos Ware in Ralph C. Wood, “Dostoevsky on Evil as a Perversion of Personhood: A Reading of Ivan Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26:3 (Fall 1999), p. 346.