If you were to go into the office on the main floor of the mission, one of the first things you would notice is that one wall is covered with photographs. I spoke of this wall in Corina’s story, but this wall is more than the story of one person, it is in some ways, the story of the Mission itself. As I mentioned before, these are the photographs of those who no longer alive, but still part of the community here. The photographs span almost thirty years of mission life. Thirty years — no great time in human history, but a descent time in a human life never the less.
One question we are always asking here is what or should be specifically Orthodox about our approach to mission. There are many views out there, but in our context, the Wall tells us something significant. Each of us at St. John’s brings things from our own past and after some time here, and for reasons I cannot explain, I was attracted to go back to a small book, which at one time played an important role in my own life, The Rule of St. Benedict. I hadn’t read the Holy Rule, as it is called by Benedictines, for almost forty years, but somehow it was asking me, to read it again.
True, St. Benedict belongs to the undivided Church of fifteen hundred years ago, but what I wondered, does it have to say to an Orthodox mission in twenty first century Toronto. St. Benedict wrote for monks and this is not a monastery by any stretch of the imagination. He wrote for monks living in sixth century Europe, and this is neither Europe, nor the sixth century. But he was writing for those who wished to live a life in community according to the Gospel, and that is what we are trying imperfectly to do.
The wall of photographs in the Mission, typifies for me, one of the keystones of the Rule of St. Benedict, indeed, the foundation of each community he began—the keystone of stability.
St. Benedict has some none to favorable comments on those who wander from place to place under obedience to no one but themselves. If that was today, such monks would plaster the internet with selfies and comments on their own holy exploits.
So you may be asking yourself, “What has this to do with the wall in the office?” The photographs cover almost thirty years of the life of St. John’s. Each person is precisely that, a person. A person whose life for a shorter or a longer period of time included being a member of the community here. Some of them were even buried from St. John’s, sometimes at the request of their families, and some because they had no families to arrange their funerals. Almost all of them had someone or several people from the Mission at their funeral, wherever it was. Each of them had a personal relationship with the community here.
In an age when things happen quickly, and immediate results are all too often sought, the wall speaks of the importance of stability, of the importance of just being here, not for a weekend or a week, but year after year after year.
You may delude yourself into thinking that short term is enough, but you cannot and don’t and you will not build relationships with human beings in the short term.
Take Jay for example, a large jovial guy always cracking jokes, who was found dead in his apartment following a seizure, and whose funeral was held here. He was not the first member of his family to be buried from here. Both his parents and his sister were also. You don’t “earn” such a relationship, except over years of stability.
Jay would probably have had a chuckle at the comment of the funeral director, who said as the pall bearers trod gingerly over the frozen, icy January snow towards his grave, “Hope they get a move on, I worried the bottom might drop out of the casket. He was big guy after all.” If you hadn’t known Jay’s sense of humor, this might have seemed a callous remark, but somehow it was fitting.
Or Cathy, whose life had been almost destroyed by drugs, but who came day after day to the Winter Breakfast Program because she was accepted here and people turned a blind eye to her repeated requests for winter clothing. She probably sold them for drugs, but here despite outward appearances, she was seen as a person and not as a label. She was murdered, knifed to death in the street, another victim of a disordered life, another crime statistic. But here she was a person and only seen as such because people had taken time over years to see the person underneath the addict. And as anyone involved in the rehabilitation of addicts will tell you, recovery is achieved only after many failures and over a long period of time. Only a stable community can offer this support.
The desert Fathers had a saying, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you all things.” St. John the Compassionate might equally have said, “Stay in your mission and poor will teach you all things.”
Stability might not be exciting, but it alone is fruitful.