Community Living: A Wonderful Mess

Saturday, July 23, 2011

While on the beach recently, I read a book called "New Monasticism" by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It was an easy and quick read, yet it seemed like almost every page led me to reflect. "New Monasticism" is essentially a ecumenical movement to revive monasticism in a modern context - that is, without deserting the world, without vows, and without habits. It's an interesting and really, wonderful, concept. And to me, it's especially exciting to see Protestants rediscover the wonderfulness that is community life. I feel like it's something us Catholics have known and used for centuries, although it's constantly been reformed to fit with the times (and to fix issues), through women and men religious communities. Thousands of Catholic religious communities exist, with different charisms, for men and women who have the wish to live a religious life with others. And some, like the Daughters, have existed for hundreds of years. But, to many Protestants, the concept is something new, or rather better fitting: "so old it seems new". Now, ecumenical communities such as Rutba House and A Simple Way exist in large cities, where Christians of all denominations live together, pray together and live a modern monastic life together.

Unlike some entering religious life, I've already lived in community. I, more or less, have been for the past 8 years. Not in a "new monastic" community but in different ways. From living with suitemates in college to living with ten Sisters in the convent to living with fifty elementary to high school girls (sixteen of which in the same room). I've had the lucky chance of experiencing community life.

But community life isn't all "smiles and sunshine", just as religious life isn't "daisies and Jesus". You live with people you don't necessarily get along with (we are human, after all) or maybe you live with people you do like but don't like to live with, for one reason or another. Community life isn't easy. Sometimes it can be downright frustrating. It's a tug-and-pull of having patience through prayer, learning more about yourself and helping others and yourself become better people.

But that sounds incredibly secular. And religious community life is anything but. Living in community challenges you to become a better Christian, as you learn to let go of yourself, your wants, and your needs and put your Christian community above all else. It's certainly not an easy thing, but we can all agree it's worth it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote "The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us." (Life Together, 26). We must remember the real reason we're together in the first place - for Jesus. And from my personal experience, simply by being together in prayer, our community life deepens. With the Sisters in the convent and with the girls in the orphanage, both in Bolivia, we prayed together. I've done the same with the Daughters, the many times I lived with them during short visits. Many times, I looked around and saw my fellow community members in prayer. I mean, really saw them. I saw their brokenness by living with them (and I saw mine too, by the way) but by watching them pray, I saw their faith and their trust in a loving God. By saying the same words along with them, I felt more united with them in prayer than I would simply by living with them.

Community life isn't for everyone. But I can say, from experience, it is for me. During those eight years, for a short time, I lived by myself. I originally thought it would be great to be on my own, to do what I wanted instead of worrying about the common good for the community. I hated it. I missed the support of those same people that drove me crazy sometimes. I missed constantly learning about faith and about myself from them. I missed the accountability of doing the right thing - outside community, I could do what I wanted without someone there to be affected by my actions, whether they were right or wrong. I missed the connection I felt with others in prayer. My sadness over lacking community life is one of the things that led me back to religious life.

For those already living in community life, what do you love about it? What in community life challenges you?

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