LIFE IN COMMUNITY

REFLECTION

The individual who is simple, who accepts themselves as they are, makes only a minimum demand on others in their relations with them. Their simplicity not only endows their own personality with unique beauty; it is also an act of love. This is an example of the truth that whatever sanctifies our own soul does, at the same time, beneft everyone who comes into our life.

Source: The Passion of the Infant Christ in A Child in Winter by Thomas Hoffman

To live fully and creatively with other people is about as fundamental a human need as life itself. It is something we all struggle with right from the very beginning, when family life first makes its demands on us as small children having to relate to parents, to brothers and sisters, to an older generation. As time goes on, the number of circles in which we find ourselves continues to grow like ripples from a stone thrown into a pool. So as an adult I have come to recognize that in my lifetime I shall move in and out of a succession of differing communities based on family, neighborhood, church, work, leisure, and many more of those interests and commitments which make up the complex network of relationships surrounding us today. I shall belong to a variable number of such communities at anyone time, and they will change with the varying pattern of my life. I must be typical of many others who have found this succession of interlocking communities both enriching and demanding.

Stated in the simplest of terms, the challenge posed by community life, whatever its form, is this: How can I learn to love all these people in the way that they really need to be loved? How can I relate to them in a way that allows me to be fully myself, not playing roles or games, and that also allows them to be themselves? In other words, how can I discover and affirm my own uniqueness while also acknowledging that it is only in relation to others that I shall find my full personhood?

As I wrestled with these questions, I discovered that I was looking less for lists of good techniques for building community than for clarification of underlying principles. That is why the source I have come back to time and again in the past ten years is the Rule of Benedict (discovered almost by chance as a result of living in Canterbury, which in the Middle Ages had been a great Benedictine community). This choice may seem somewhat surprising for a Christian laywoman in the later twentieth [and early twenty-first] century. After all, the Rule was written for a community of men in sixth century rural Italy, and the short monastic text of nine thousand words might not at first seem to have any sort of relevance to present-day life. Yet because Benedict shows such an amazing grasp of the human psyche, because he shows us how to be human and to become more fully human, what he has to say applies not only to those who live in monastic communities bound by enclosure and by vow but also to all of us who struggle to live out our Christian commitment today. The practical wisdom of his Rule has continued to guide and nourish me, helping me to see more clearly what is involved in this demanding business of living fully, freely, and creatively with others.

Ultimately, Benedict’s Rule is about the living out of Christ’s love in daily life—something which is at once immediate, accessible, and relentlessly demanding. [One] aspect of Benedict’s vision [is] respect for persons.

 

RESPECT FOR PERSONS

Benedict appeals to me because he starts with no theory, no abstraction. He starts with each of us as we are and where we are, in all our human frailty and limitations, with our weakness and our strength, our woundedness, and our potential.

His Rule is totally realistic about people. The people who make up his community are typical of those with whom I also have to live: restless, lazy, careless, as well as patient, quiet, hardworking. In building all these people into one community, Benedict is concerned for the good of each. He challenges the strong and gives them something to strive for; he makes allowances and concessions for the weak, and he varies his approach according to the need of each individual. Describing, for example, the role of the abbot, Benedict writes: “He must vary with the circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be. He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken, directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving, and encouraging them as appropriate.” Here Benedict is simply making a statement about the unique value of each person. His starting point is that we should see each person as a unique creature of God. In his own day this was a radical statement. In his community he brought together slaves and free, Romans and foreigners, men who owned land and men who worked the soil with their hands. In the words of a statement from the American Benedictine sisters today, “He wrote in bold letters across the pages of history that every human being is sacred, that each has a right to develop to full potential.”

Here is something which may seem obvious, yet it is something we neglect at our peril: Benedict is saying simply that Christian community is built upon respect for persons. The common life never becomes some piece of abstract idealism. He would probably have approved that aphorism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren loves community.” Perhaps we also need to hear again this very simple and basic statement about the worth of each and every person. We pay lip service to it in the roles Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram have for us in the game of self-analysis and self-assessment which is part of the fascination with “self” running so violently through our society today. But society goes on to bombard us with a further message. We are told to succeed, to prove ourselves, to climb the ladder of self-advancement. We are encouraged, sometimes subtly and sometimes more openly, to project images of ourselves which will impress. This would have been totally unacceptable to Benedict. While he is always anxious that we should use our gifts and talents, fulfill our potential, and run toward God through our good deeds, he is also clear that we stand before God with empty hands, that we identify with the publican by acknowledging our total dependence.” This leaves no room or possibility for the feigned identity with which we find it so easy to deceive ourselves—that mask which we assume so readily.

At the moment of entering the community, the novice stands before the rest of the community and says, Suscipe me—accept me, receive me, O Lord. These simple words are profoundly important, for they lay the foundation of any fulfilling relationship—whether with self, with others, or with God. They have become words that I come back to time and again and make a prayer for myself. They ask of me a total honesty, a handing over of myself to God just as I am, hands with all my flaws, my vulnerability, my gifts, and my strengths. This is an act of obedience to my creator. But it is an act which then allows me to do the same to others. For unless and until I accept myself, I have no hope of accepting others. It is this total and honest acceptance first of myself and then of others which makes possible any true community living.

This is of course no more and no less than living out the radical implications of the gospel, and as always Benedict points me all the time to Christ and to the gospel. What he is asking of me is that I should accept, love, and forgive myself since I know (though how often I forget, or worse still, reject) that I am accepted, loved, and forgiven by Christ. This is the foundation, and the only foundation, on which I can base my relations with others.

Advertisements