Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: A Life Together by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist

I was excited when my review copy of A Life Together: Wisdom of Community From the Christian East (Paraclete, 2011) arrived. Last year I heard that Bishop Seraphim was working on this book and was excited about the topic. For those who do not know him, Bishop Seraphim was the former Orthodox bishop in Sendai Japan where he ministered both as a parish priest and then later as a bishop.

At the heart of this little book is the notion of community from the Eastern Orthodox Christian community. Focusing on the concept called "sobornost" which is a Russian word roughly translated as "conciliarity" or "togetherness." As Sigrist mentions many times throughout the book sobornost is a difficult word to translate since the meaning is not exactly the same in English.

Sigrist does for the Eastern Church what Bonhoeffer's book, A Life Together, did for the Western Church. Actually if you read Sigrist's book and Bonhoeffer together you'll get a thorough understanding of community life and how it can be fashioned and formed in our modern times.

Creating authentic community life in complete freedom is not an easy thing to do. A Life Together is not a "how to" book nor is it a scholarly or academic excursus of the subject but rather it is very much like the ancient Patristic writings, short reflections on the topic without much commentary in between. In other words, A Life Together reads like a series of reflections on community life rather than an extended prose narrative.

Sigrist brings together a wide host of voices in his book showing us how community life can be envisioned. From the perspective of a parish priest, of which I am, this book is a gem. Creating authentic community where everyones time, talent, and treasure can be shared in a spirit of freedom and authenticity is not an easy thing. Temptations for control, authority, power, and identity are constant, yet that is not what Jesus envisioned. He reminded his disciples not to lord it over the Gentiles since they were culturally and religious different than they were. He also warned them about the great potential for the abuse of power and position.

At the heart of Christian community is solidarity really since that is what happens when we all gather together around the Lord's Table on Sunday morning and offer our common prayer and praise and offer the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. Jesus gives himself to us and we to him and then us to one another. We become little Christ's to each other sharing in our common sufferings, pains, problems, as well as joys, happiness, and celebrations. Life is a mixed bag if you will, joy and pain, sorrow and happiness all together. By virtue of our baptism and confirmation and continual indwelling with one another we are formed and fashioned into a community. St. Paul uses the image of the Body, when one member suffers we all suffer, when one member rejoices we all rejoice. Whether we like it or not we are all connected to one another through the intimate bond of Christ.

A Life Together: Wisdom of Community From the Christian East would make a good book for a small book club or parish adult study. The short chapters would provide basic easy to read material and cultivate conversation. I commend Bishop Seraphim for taking on such a project.