A small icon sits on my desk, a copy of The Trinity done in the early 15th century by Andrei Rublev. The original is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but another copy can be found in the Meditation Chapel at the Cathedral. The icon is also known by the title The Hospitality of Abraham as it depicts a scene from the Hebrew book of Genesis where Abraham greets three strangers and offers them food, drink and rest.
While there are many interpretations of this icon, I want to use it here to meditate on the meaning of community. The readings today talk about the building up of the early Christian community. For me, our current situation brings the question of community into sharp focus. How do we understand community when the pandemic does not allow us to meet together? How do we build community when our communities are torn apart by racism and the very real violence that this produces: verbal, physical and institutional?
First of all, I should say the obvious. Community is not created by the simple fact of being in the same room. Nor does belonging to any particular category, whether defined by race, class or gender, mean that one “belongs” or feels that one “belongs,” despite the fact that we talk about “cultural communities” (do we remember that white people are also a “cultural community”?).
I would like to suggest a way that the Rublev icon can help us to think about community. The three persons in the painting both are and are not the same. They appear similar and yet are dressed in different colours and associated with different objects – a house, a tree and a mountain – symbolizing their role within the Trinity. They are both the same and different, the one Godhead in three persons. The relationship of the three figures is of unity in love, a love that encompasses both oneness and difference.
I would argue that community is created through relationship, through the active engagement that respects both sameness and difference. It is not given beforehand. It is a practice, wrought through everyday gestures as much as the rules and institutions through which our lives are organized. As such, it is incredibly creative.
As a Cathedral parish, we have found ways to create community through technology, the internet making it possible to connect with each other across the physical distances that separate us. In the months and years ahead, we will be called to find new ways to continue this process. More largely, we create community and heal the world each time that we walk across the divisions of race, class and language in order to be with others, in a love that recognizes both our connection and the profound differences of history and experience that make up “who we are.”
I want to make a brief note on what that encounter with the other might look like, another whose experience and history is profoundly difference than one’s own. To do this, I will take a brief detour through the work of the feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray. If each person is both absolutely unique and made in the image of God, then her thoughts on how to encounter difference ethically are pertinent here. Irigary argues that each person must remain faithful to who they are, and leave a space for the other. This entails the creation of an initial silence so that the other can speak, as well as a recognition of the limits of one’s own world or point of view. It also entails acceptance that one will be changed by the encounter with the other, at the same time that the other will always remain to some degree unknowable. This acceptance of difference and the call for open-ended dialogue where we each can be heard is necessary to creating community. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, it can become a becomes a community in the image and likeness of the Trinity.
Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers (Acts of the Apostles 9:31).
— Sheena Gourlay