(This post is part of series for my Formations of Christian Traditions class)
Do you have a roommate? How is it going? Have you found out each other’s worst habits and Netflix passwords yet? I was blessed when I lived in community after college to have four amazing housemates who were kind and funny and watched Gilmore Girls with me and made dinner with me and cared for me when I was sick.
Living in community is hard. We had different cleaning standards–the bathroom and kitchen counters sometimes felt like war zones. Sometimes people had different ideas about what community meant and how much time we should spend together. Even though we shared a lot of values (community, hospitality, empowerment, justice, sustainability, etc.) we had different understandings of how to live out those communal ideals.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers had problems like this, too. In popular imagination, monasticism involves being solitary waaaaaaaaay out in the wilderness, far away from the prying eyes and temptations of society. Monks live secretive lives where they eat bread or rocks or something–I don’t know–and, like, sit around being holy. Well, yes, there were some hermits then, and there continue to be hermits today who separate themselves from human community, but actually, early monastic communities–yes, communities!–were made up of small individual “cells” close to each other where monastics were able to practice a balance of solitary living and community. This might seem counterintuitive (can’t you be more pious by yourself where no one is able to distract you?) but some Christian ascetics seemed to think that being together would be more helpful to their understandings of God than being apart!
The New Monastic movement has similar ideals. Ian Adams, in New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, writes:
“If there has been a particularly rich source for new flowerings of Christ-community in the last few years I would suggest that it has been in the idea of religious community on the road. Community life lived in public space, shaped by contact with neighbor and stranger, recognizing that the journey is equally as important as the destination open to encounter, travelling light.”
I like this idea of being on the road together in a religious community because spiritual journeys do seem an awful lot like a road, winding and diverging and coming together again, with roadblocks and traffic jams and concrete medians. Brother Roger of Taize said that we should “live a parable of community,” which is what is happening on this road of New Monasticism. When we are on the road together, living in community, we are traveling parallel paths as we figure out how to shape our lives into actions and expressions of God’s love and Jesus’ justice worth living. The parable of community functions like a parable in the gospel of Luke: the goal is to provide an opening that changes how people understand their place in the world and their relationship with God. Thus, a community rooted in following Jesus would hopefully point others towards the teachings of Jesus.
Community is actually one of my favorite aspects of the Trinity. Though the Trinity is probably the MOST CONFUSING THING that ever happened to Christianity, it is also an amazing parable of community. By virtue of having 3 different aspects (“Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit”) that are all united under 1 being (“God”), the original posture of the church that values the Trinity is one of community (or in plain speak: 3 things that are kinda different all joined together to represent one big thing are a community–yeah, I know, still confusing).
But, anyway, how do we form righteous communities of joy and peace and love if living together is so darned hard? How can we study the Psalms when that roommate left his dishes in the sink again? Or if that roommate left her laundry in the washer for the third day in a row? Though I’m not sure if Abba Anthony actually had laundry issues with his fellow ascetics, he offers this saying to help root ourselves: “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” This saying encourages us to act with kindness towards each other, and for us not to go around judging each other, because we are not more righteous that way. If we are close to one another, we are close to God. And if we are hateful to one another, we are being hateful to God. The cause of community is a worthy, though difficult, one to tackle.
Mark Berry writes,
“Spirituality is often expressed as individualistic; even those who seek to do it as a solo pursuit. Christianity, too, has too often made the individual the focus of religion yet we know that the heart of spirituality is community. But this problem is not restricted to spirituality–culture as a whole is still wrestling with the bonds of individualism, with the notion that one has to be self-sufficient, that weakness is a bad thing!”
In Western culture (the context in which I have grown up) rabid individualism is rampant and self-sufficiency is gold. I often have to remind myself that it is ok to rely on people for help. It is ok to look to others to fulfill tasks I cannot fulfill on my own. It is ok that I enjoy working in a communal environment where I don’t have all the answers. This week, I challenge you to consider the ways in which we can create spiritual practices that are not individualistic, but that lift up communities and the communal aspect of God.
For this week’s practice, make a map of your community, widely defined: this can be your school, your family, your workplace, your friend group, etc.) Study it and try to define what values are present in this community. Mark the places where there is room for solitude and individual expression. Mark the places where there is a lot of hustle and bustle, and lots of life takes place. Each day, journal about one aspect of community that you are grateful for, and how you are impacted by being part of this community.
Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:
- What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
- Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
- How do I want to impact my community? How do I want my community to impact me?
Peace be with you.