In light of the recent waves in the Catholic world regarding Latin mass, and the need to be in unity, it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on what it takes to be a community. Benedictine monastics have the particular charism of living community well, as a microcosm for the Church at large. We practice certain skills and virtues that are meant for the whole Body of Christ. Here are a few.
Prayer Before Ministry: Prayer in community comes first. Any ministry we do must flow out of prayer. If we are trying to manage our world without first asking God to help us be in synch with God’s plan, something will go amiss.
Prayer in Common: The practice of praying together forces us to practice being one community. Our prayer will be more steady if we listen to each other and try to pray with one voice. Matching pace and pitch with each other comes easily some days, but other days it is really hard. It takes humility to let go of my own need to have things “my own perfect way” if that’s what is needed to stay in harmony with my neighbors. Sometimes we just need to relax a little and go with the flow.
Common Table: If we share meals together regularly, we have a chance just to be together, to practice speaking civilly with each other. No one wants to fight over a really good dinner. Why ruin it? Meals are a great place to practice humane conversation, care for the other. When we give each other our full attention, leaving our technological gadgets for another time and place, good things can happen.
Putting Our Gifts at the Service of Others: We need everyone’s gifts for the good of the whole. We need the shiny noticeable gifts, and we need the subtle, strong gifts. We need graceful spiritual gifts, and we need concrete gifts of action and resources. Everybody’s gifts matter. Thus we need to invest in each other and support each other. We also need to be ready to develop whatever it is God has given each of us, and to use it for the sake of service. Gifts are not meant for one’s own glory, but for God’s.
Moderation: We call each other to moderation in different ways. Each should receive what is needed: not too little, but not too much. When we are moderate, it is easier to be considerate of others. Moderation also gives strength for the long haul. Extremism takes energy that cannot be sustained.
Stability: When we are committed to this group of people, this place, this family, we stick with it when things are hard. It allows us to be present when things are beautiful. It gives us time to notice growth over time, or to perceive change that has been subtle in developing. Stability helps foster trust in the people around us. Wendell Berry once spoke of how everything we need for our own salvation is right where we are. Put down roots. Learn about the language, the culture, the soil, the geology, the people. Learn to love what is right here.
Conversion: Part of stability is recognizing that if something or someone bothers me, I can’t expect them to change. It’s my own inner conversion that will help me learn to live with reality. Lifelong conversion is part of being Christian. We’re on a journey of sanctification, and we are not finished being purified until we see the beatific vision. Until then, we have to allow God to work within us and change us.
Trust: Learning to trust each other can take time, but this is the gift of true community. When we know that others will be there for us, and they know we’ll be there for them, we can relax and focus on the important things in life. Trust is real currency today, and it is worth working to build and maintain it.
Unity in Diversity: A community needs an identity. Healthy boundaries are part of being human. But there is a real goodness and beauty in a community that can support a wide range of diversity while also holding a deep unity. Being able to nurture and enjoy the diversity among us is a sign of maturity and self-assurance. A unified, differentiated body has a range of helpful organs that help it do wonderful things. So in the Body of Christ.
Good Order: Every community needs some kind of good order to hold together. Benedictine houses have community rank, based not on intelligence or wealth or good looks, but simply on date of entry. Every community needs appointed leaders who can be the voice of decision, the eye looking out for the good of the rest. Leaders also need the counsel and wisdom of those who can help them do what needs to be done. Clarity of roles helps.
Obedience: To obey, at its root, is to listen, ob audire. Obedience means making space for humble growth in holiness, not always getting my own way. It means listening to the needs of others as well as my own. It means listening to and respecting the wishes of those in authority, for the sake of good order and respect for the common good. Sometimes it can be hard, but with practice, if one is in the right place, it comes naturally, as joy in faithful service.
Relationship with Christ: In Benedictine life, as in the Christian life, we are invited to see Christ everywhere: in the person of the abbot or prioress, in the sick, in the guest, in the poor, in the young, the old, the irritating, the lovable. We are expected to spend a significant period of time every day entering into Scripture so as to encounter and be changed by Christ the Word. We meet him in the sacraments. This relationship needs to be at the root of everything we do, whether as individuals or as a community.
As a Church, it is our job to be the Body of Christ. Working at being community is part of our mission. If we can do it well, we will be a sign of the presence of Christ, and evangelize the world.