Community: Perspective Matters
Rhonda Miska holds a master’s degree from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. She is a contributor to the book Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press, 2015). She teaches in Religious Studies at Clarke University and is a candidate with the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska
“We have all known the long loneliness, and the answer is community,” Dorothy Day famously wrote. If Day is right and community is the answer, there are many ways to live out Psalm 133:1 “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
We are made for each other. We become who we are called to be through community – not our dream of community, but the unglamorous reality of community.
There's a story of an earnest young Christian seeker who lived in a religious community, worked hard, and rose early each day for prayer who desired to grow in holiness. As he learned about others who would deny themselves sleep to keep prayer vigils, underwent intensive fasts, or would intentionally seek ways to create physical discomfort, he got to wondering if he should try something similar.
He posed this question to his spiritual director, a wise nun who had recently celebrated sixty years in vowed religious life. After listening to his question, she leaned forward and spoke to him with great gravity. “My son,” she said warmly, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“You live in community.
Trust me, that is all the asceticism you need.”
It is easy to romanticize community. We envision a radical, counter-cultural, life-giving, Acts-Chapter-Four style alternative to the alienating, post-modern Western norm. We spin dreams of a wholesome life where we live with like-minded comrades, spending our days growing vegetables or tutoring at-risk kids and our evenings having stimulating conversations about our ideals, laughing, praying, or playing music together. That image can be true, but it’s never the whole truth.
Community is hard and daily life is filled with micro-aggressions. You get into a communally-owned car to find that it’s been left with an empty gas tank, or that someone ate that last banana that you had hoped to use in your breakfast smoothie. Or sometimes you are the guilty party: it’s your misplacing the keys that frustrates someone else and leaves you feeling guilty and embarrassed.
Beyond these many small annoyances, there are more significant wounds in the common life. There can be bitter conflict and betrayals that come when someone we trusted fails to live up to our expectations – or when we ourselves fall short of the ideal. There is the slow drain of energy that can come from community process – meetings that last for hours, struggles to resolve conflict in ways that live up to stated values. Building community is challenging when it involves people of different ages, genders, education levels, and world views. It can seriously tax our emotional reserves.
Why would I – or anyone – make this choice? To give up independence for interdependence, to assume both rights and responsibilities in a group, to live in mutual submission, to embrace relationships of accountability with others is profoundly atypical. To make a permanent commitment to this lifestyle is even more atypical.
When I look to my own life, I find that my periods of deepest growth and flourishing were in the midst of deep community engagement and all the tensions and challenges, joys and annoyances that engagement entails.
It is when I am living with others and seeking to truly encounter them with authenticity while simultaneously seeking to be vulnerably honest with them that I am most whole, creative, and generative. Those I live with hold up a mirror to me and I see more clearly my strengths and weaknesses, my beauty and quirks, my blessedness and brokenness.
Struggling together in community seems to be the blueprint for holiness. When I look to Scripture, I read the truth that the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die in order to bear fruit. I see Paul’s exhortations that we are to clothe ourselves in self-sacrificial love. I find the model of early Christians in the book of Acts developing relationships, struggling to live together in the midst of adversity. Community is the road by which we become who God calls us to be – together. Jean Vanier wisely noted that “community as such is never an end in itself. It is people and love and communion with God that are the goal.”
So how do we connect the dots between the challenges of the common life and Vanier’s “people and love and God?”
When I am confronted with a small frustration like someone leaving their clothes in the washing machine on “my” day or discovering a car has been left with a near-empty gas tank, each of these micro-aggressions presents me with a choice: resentment or grace.
If I choose resentment, my heart grows smaller. If I choose grace, I can take a breath, check my ego, embrace the “asceticism” of community and choose to not make a big deal of it.
Luckily, if I don’t make the right choice, I know that the day will likely provide many more opportunities to choose grace!
Like the wise nun told the young seeker, community is, in fact, a form of asceticism. The Greek word for asceticism means “training” or “exercise” – bringing to mind Hebrews 12 and “running the race set before us.” As I take the first step into a life in community, I simply pray that I can embrace this asceticism, run the race, and continue to trust that the alchemy of community will do its good work on me.