Lessons from a Space

March 18, 2015 Length: 8:25

Dn. Pawel, the prefect of the Lived Theology School Program, discusses the narthex of St. John the Compassionate Mission and its meaning.





Usually parables of community are about a person or a persons but today I’d like to speak not about a person as such but about a place and what this space means. For those of you who’ve never been here a little lesson on the geography of St John the Compassionate mission.

To start at the bottom of St Johns entering by a set of steps at the side of the building you will find yourself at the basement. The basement includes a laundry area essential for the daily work of the mission and the bakery which is actually a separate building next door to 155 Broadview Ave. The basement area also includes the office where all the administration and accounting of the mission, the thrift store and St John’s bakery takes place.

Then there’s an open area that is used for various things including food for families, bridges on Wednesday evenings, catechism, orientation for new volunteers and so on. The furnace room which is next to this space doubles up for all kinds of storage and a workshop.

To the rear is “the Cage”, where food is stored and where freezers preserve our meats etc are to be found. There is also an area, hardly and office where Angela who does all our text stuff including our newsletters is to be found. At the very end of our basement is our sacristy which means that all the vestments used in the chapel go on an interesting little trip through the basement, up some steep steep stairs, through the main refectory area to the chapel, arriving a few feet above where they left from.

If you would enter St John’s via the main entrance the first thing you would see is the wall that separates the “hall” (in inverted commas) from the “chapel proper.” On this wall is a large fresco of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, which in Orthodox Tradition is also an icon of the Holy Trinity.

On the walls are frescos of several saints:

  • St John the Compassionate who is the inspiration for the life of St John’s
  • St Maria of Paris who is the inspiration for the Lived Theology School
  • St Silouan the Athonite who is the patron of the mission parish
  • St Xenia of Saint Petersburg who is the patron of St Xenia house which is a house of transition from homelessness to housing
  • St Moses the Black who reminds us that the Church is without discrimination

And the fresco of Christ blessing the loaves and the fishes based on an ancient fresco of this subject, the artist who was a refugee volunteer at St John’s some years ago made it personal to St John’s as the faces of those depicted are faces of people who have been or are members of the community here. The face of Christ is that of what one could call a Toronto street Christ, you could see such a face here especially during the winter early morning breakfast programme.

This refectory area on Sundays and big feasts is transformed into an extension of the Chapel proper to accommodate all those who come here for services. So what is it at those times? Church? or Hall? or Refectory? In reality it is properly the Narthex of the Church and traditionally the Narthex was where tables would be setup after the Divine Liturgy for the faithful to eat a common meal similar to the Agape feast of the early Church.

To the casual observer it appears to change from Church, to hall, and back to Church and back to hall again. But appearances deceive because it is in reality always Church. And in our life here, the Narthex is restored to its ancient and original function.

Only last week someone who has been attached to the life here for over twenty five years commented on an occasion where someone was using bad language in the basement and was rebuked by someone else who said “you can’t speak like that here, this is a Church.”

Our views of what is and what is not Church are sometimes too narrow and too restrictive.

St John Chrysostom said that the Church should have two tables, a table of the Lord and a table of the poor. He spoke about Liturgy after the Liturgy, and what is this Liturgy after the Liturgy if it is not serving the poor and those in any kind of need? As poverty is so much more than the mere absence of wealth. The same person who made the comment on the basement as Church remarked, “at St John’s serving the poor was the starting point not an add on to ‘Churchy activities’”

Or as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius remarked many centuries ago, “the problem of these Christians is not only that they feed the members of their own community, they serve anyone in need.” Marcus Aurelius saw such behavior as a threat to the established order of the Empire and that is why he martyred so many Christians as an only way of controlling this abominable unRoman behavior.

Though they may not take part in any of the services at the mission, although of course some do, those who come here are in little doubt where they are coming, they are coming to the Church.

Perhaps they have a better insight than some believers who do come here only for Church, for Worship, in that they recognize instinctively that Church is more than just a place, it is, or it should be a community of people, a community of people through whom the Liturgy flows, and that in fact it makes little difference where you are in the building or what you are doing in the building. It is all Church, it is all Liturgy, it is all about where the people of God assemble. So after all, this podcast is about people and not just about a place.