“There is a correlation between our community life and our personal spiritual life.”
Learning to Play together
Humor is a way of creating and bonding community together especially when it is playful and not mocking.
Here in the Monastery in St. Otillien, at Vespers on a Wednesday night when the community frequently comes together for some recreation following Compline, the Organ prelude tune seemed ever so familiar! It was being played repeatedly as the Monks were entering together in community to begin the Monastic Daily liturgy of the early evening. Suddenly I realized what it was, it was the tune to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” As the Monks walked into the chapel I could see the smiles on their faces.
This was what we in the seminary called “a chapel prank”. We used to do them all the time. It seems also in Monastic life this is a sort of tradition of surprise when least expected. Then the liturgy began as it always did and finished as it always did. It was at this moment that one understood the ability of the monks to laugh and make light of all that they were involved in. I love seeing the monks here laugh or smile. It gives the observer a clear impression that they are filled with the spirit of the living God.
There can be no Monastic life without community and communication. Even hermits and desert fathers and mothers gathered weekly for eucharist and prayers or were dependent on someone to bring them their daily meal that they ate one time a day.
One of the greatest challenges for Monastic Communities that are dispersed is the building up of community. We live grand distances from each other. Our lives are usually very active in our own ministries or our own family circumstances where we live. There is not the familiarity nor the physical closeness that is a given in a traditional monastic community that lives in a Monastic Closure. This year the New Benedictine Community is trying a new form of community retreat since a number of our members are not well enough to gather physically for our annual retreat. We will gather six evenings by means of internet online and discuss various topics of interest and importance to our community. We also gather weekly for prayer as a
community. There are three opportunities each week for us to pray together as a community. This keeps us in constant communication. Finally we strive to have one on one contact with at least two or three members of the community on a regular basis where we talk about how we are doing, we share our personal story and journeys, we try to speak from heart to heart. It is our aim and goal that our communication amongst each other not be just light and pleasant but that we truly enter into some kind of depth with each other. Monthly we discuss a theme around the benedictine principles that bind us together. One of our community members writes a letter of introduction to the theme that is usually very helpful and brings us deeper into the discussion that we will embark on and reflect on in the upcoming month. Our Novices also go deeper into the theme with their mentor or novice director.
In a years time we discuss these benedictine themes.
and Daily Rhythm
“The Monastic Community is home for us for a lifetime.” writes our author. “Here a number of individuals share not only a common humanity but also the grace life of baptized Christians and the further grace of a monastic vocation. We share life with one another and write together the history of our community.
The Challenge of Christian Community
I have been a parish priest for 26 year now. I have had certain opportunities to live in community and to promote community especially when I was studying as a seminary student where we lived very much like a monastic community since that is the model most seminaries use to form and prepare priests and when I was Dean of the Seminary in Mexico City where I was basically the Prior of a small monastic and learning community of students. There is always lots of energy and even a bit of conflict when religious community is mostly comprised of younger students which is many times the case, but real Christian Community and Monastic Community as it is contemplated by St. Benedict has the intention of a community that is completely multigenerational from very young to very old. The two communities I visited this summer are varied in this way. I found the Jerusalem Community basically a younger community made up of in majority people in their 30’s and 40’s. St Otillien in contrast is made up of many generations. As with most traditional communities they are always a little top heavy with older monks. At the same time there is a good healthy dose of young monks, some who have entered as young as 19 year of age and are now in their 20’s. There are at least a dozen monks in their 20’s and 30’s. The amazing thing about this community is that there is no “official” age limit for joining the community. One of my friends just joined the community this year who is in his early 50’s. He comes already with much maturity and knowledge of the world. He will certainly be a great support and help in his new life as a Benedictine Monk.
The challenge of any Christian Community, especially Monastic Community is common purpose and focus. It is easy for communities to get caught up in “small things”. Money is frequently an issue which divides and pulls apart communities as well as families. Some communities are over busy with social activities and fund raisers. As important as they are they can easily keep any Christian Community away from their real focus of prayer, service, and living out community life in love and fellowship. Some communities are overly extended when it comes to outreach or work in the extended community in a way which distracts them from the real issues they should be facing amongst themselves. It is sort of like when parents of children spend all of their energy raising their children and then one day find themselves with an empty nest and alone yet they no longer really recognize each other as they did when they first met and before they had children.
Maturity is also an important factor in any Christian Community. One must learn to forgive, one must always put even issue in “perspective”, look at the big not the small picture and not get caught up in each passing crisis.
Interest of small groups of people over and above the entire community is always a danger. It may be the choir, it may be a women’s or men’s group, it may be an ethnic component within a community. It may be those who have been members of the community for the longest time. No one small group should ever have the final word over the interest of the entire community. St Benedict is very clear that everyone in the community should have a voice and then finally those who are in charge of leading the community have to make the final decision (vestry, parish council, prior, bishops committee, abbot, Rector, Vicar, etc).
Realism not Idealism
IT is important in any Christian community to be realistic and honest about its makeup and consistency. There is NO perfect community like there is NO perfect family.
Our author reminds us, “it would be unrealistic to see or to expect only an angelic or only a demonic community. To see the community simultaneously both, and to commit oneself to it in all it’s human ambiguity, is probably the more realistic course.” The challenge today where so many people are mobil and transient is really committing to a Christian Community for a long enough period to reap it’s benefits. I have seen so many people in recent years show up at the door of the church with great expectations only to last a very short time because a lack of understanding in the area of “commitment” and “compromise”. I admire communities for example that have a good number of people who have spent much of their entire life in that community. Again, they should never have the ultimate word, but should always be listened to.
Our final goal
Our author concludes reminding us that we are all capable of forming and bonding in communities that are life giving and life long. “The astounding fact of monastic community is that in spite of our evident human brokenness and in spite of our evident personal diversity, we can live together for a lifetime with a oneness and harmony that transcend all possible expectations. Ultimately it is the power of the Holy Spirit of God that makes us one, makes us a community.” This is why it is so important that all communities have their priorities always straight and in proper order. Christian Communities exist for one sole reason, to follow the walk and way of Christ together that leads them all to Gods mercy and loving kindness. As easy as it is at times to look at business as a model for Christian Communities we are not based on a model of “success” as most people understand success today. Neither numerical success or financial success in monetary value or worth are the goal of Christian Communities. We are not about accumulating wealth or even financial security as our focus and end, as important as it may be to pay salaries and keeping lights of our buildings on and our cooling systems working. In the future more and more communities are learning to share spaces, to share costs with other communities, and to rely less and less on buildings to keep the community together and in tact. This is a healthy direction to go as Christian Communities be they Monastic or not, are now becoming smaller and smaller. St Benedict imagined all of his communities to be no greater than 12 persons like the first community of Jesus and the Disciples.
We live in an age where individualism and mobility are some of the most highly valued ideals in modern times.
Monastic Community and Communication is like the “slow food movement” in contrast to the “fast food movement”.
Both options are available to all of us, yet it is hard to have both exclusively. Those who opt for the “slow food” and “slow church” and “slow monastery” tend to go much deeper in their lives, get to know each other on a more profound level, and even get to share a laugh or two from time to time.