On December 26th, the Eve of the Feast of John the Beloved Disciple, the Monsignor Scott Rassbach+ arrived with members of Rose Cross Community in Portland to celebrate mass with Seattle’s Holy Paraclete Community, a mission of the Apostolic Johannite Church. This feast is of particular importance to the world wide Johannite community which describes itself as a spiritual tradition carried in part through the initiatory tradition of John the Baptist, exemplified in the relationship between Christ and the Apostle John. The service itself was well attended for this small community that was granted last year to Monsignor Scott+ and me by His Eminence, +Mar Iohannes IV and His Grace, +Mar Thomas, with people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds – a fine example of the acceptance of diversity that epitomizes this tradition and sets it apart in many ways.
Following the Gospel reading, Monsignor Scott+ announced that our small community had been elevated from its status as a mission community to that of a narthex. In the Apostolic Johannite Church, our communities fall into one of three primary categories: a mission is group of members that meet irregularly and are ministered to by visiting Johannite clergy; a narthex is a local study group under the direction of a lay or clerical leader; and a parish, is a fully functioning body of the Apostolic Johannite Church with regular clergy and services. This news was followed with a wonderful impromptu sermon on the nature of a narthex in the context of the AJC and in history, Eucharist, and our group meeting at a local restaurant for food and fellowship following the service.
In the week following the service, I have been given much to think about as the current lay-leader of Holy Paraclete Community in light of Monsignor Scott’s+ homily and there is doubtless more to think about as I undergo formation in my studies with Saint Raphael the Archangel Seminary on my process toward ordination to the priesthood. Formation, itself, is an interesting terminology to use in this context. As someone with a background in the plastic arts, a fervent love for Sculpey, and an appreciation for ancient and modern architecture I find myself thinking about the development of this community and myself with the same enthusiasm and reluctance as an artist or architect seeking to build something that will outlast the temporal here and now and grow and develop into something that I pray will last years beyond my physical life been extinguished. The whole process, in many ways, can be considered the building of architecture of spirit that is at once deeply personal and communal in nature.
Following the death of Jesus, the disciples traveled throughout the world scattered like seeds in the wind yet each carrying a blueprint of what the master builder had left them for creating a new society. Some, like James, stayed in Jerusalem and continued working on their own personal spiritual development with the community they had known there, while others started laying the foundation for new communities around the Mediterranean and as far away as India. Nearly all of them met violent ends at the hands of the civil and religious authorities of the time except for one, John, who according to holy tradition, was exiled to Patmos off the coast of modern day Turkey and lived to an old age and dying in Ephesus. Saint Paul, the only apostle to have not physically been present during the life of Jesus, mentions of John that he along with Peter in Rome and James who remained in Jerusalem, was one of the pillars of the Church (cf Galations 2:9).
As the community that established around Peter became known for its dogged dedication to creating a new temporal society and the church of James in Jerusalem worked gently to bridge the gaps in philosophical and theological disagreements between the Christians and the Jews, the vision of John was nearly entirely spiritual – free from the confines extremes of Jewish religious law and attachment to physical establishment of a new religious community. All three visions of these apostles however, form the supports upon which rest the ethical, moral and philosophical axis of the living church to this very day using the blue prints of Jesus.
By the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, it’s generally acknowledged that the Christian community had been expelled from participation in the synagogues and temple establishment and so most, in particular non-Jewish converts to Christianity, began meeting in the atria of the houses of sympathetic patrons who may or may not themselves have been converts while those who were interested would often wait outside the open area before gaining admittance to the mysterious Christian church. This place, which in Roman architecture of the time was called the fauces, in modern architecture a mud-room, would become the basis of the narthex as these communities would grow and become independent buildings of worship.
From a spiritual perspective, the narthex remains a mudroom of sorts. Separated from the nave of the church, it is the place where day to day business can be discussed, local gossip and profound observations exchanged, and where newcomers are welcomed. It’s also where we ourselves are at our least focused and meditative and mired in the concerns of the world but where we are reminded of our hope for spiritual purification. In many ancient churches then as now, the narthex would often include a baptismal font so that infants or adults could be baptized there before entering the nave, and to remind other believers of their baptisms as they gathered to worship. As a place of penance, the narthex is at once symbolic of the desert through which the ancient Hebrews wandered with Moses, the outskirts of society where John the Baptist cried like a voice in the deserts, and the wasteland where Jesus meditated for forty days and was tried and tempered. It’s also an oasis, a place of refreshment and hospitality. Then as now, hospitality is the highest law among desert nomads in the Near East and any weary traveler who found their way to an oasis would be greeted hospitably and given aid as they continued their journey. Everyone, regardless of rank or status, must pass through the narthex before entering the nave – the Holy of Holies – of the church.
As the lay leader of Holy Paraclete Community, a narthex of the Apostolic Johannite Church, I hope this community embodies what it means to be a place of similar welcome and hospitality, rest and refreshment, information and cordial chatter. Myself, I hope also to be tested and reminded about my own moral and spiritual deficiencies whereby I can better see what I need to work on in my own process of spiritual purification and development as well as better learn what I need to learn to be of aid and hospitality to those whom I meet wherever I may be. As a Johannite, I hope it is here that I cannot so much come to be loved as to better learn how to love, not be known so much as know, not so much receive as give, and in dying to old behaviors be reborn daily with my community in the light of holy gnōsis.