Podcast Episode 10
An interview with Jack Sharpe from the Bethlehem Community of Bathgate, ND. The Bethlehem Community publishes children’s literature as Bethlehem Books.
The History of the Bethlehem Community
The Beginnings in Portland
Jack tells the fascinating story of the Bethlehem community’s development over time. It started as a Charismatic young adult ministry associated with a Baptist church in Portland Oregon; at one point over 80 young adults lived in the 15 houses associated with the group. Over time, the commitment of the members to community life deepened, and they became an independent community, with the members living together and holding all property in common. They gave up their individual jobs and opened a bakery to support the community.
Joining the Catholic Church
As time went on, they felt the need to belong to something bigger than themselves; they studied the Early Church and monastic traditions. Eventually, this led the community to enter the Catholic Church in 1993.
At the same time, the bakery wasn’t working out for the community. They took a leap of faith by starting a publishing house, Bethlehem Books, dedicated to Christian children’s literature, even though they had no experience with this kind of work. To finance their first print run, they sold the bakery and apartment building. Then they waited for God to provide.
Publishing Books and Answering Phones as Benedictines
God provided through Fr. Fessio, who hired the community to answer the 800 number for Ignatius Press. This income gave them the freedom to run Bethlehem Books without worrying about turning a profit.
Through mutual friends, they found a permanent home at a former state school for the blind in Bathgate ND. They also found a permanent spiritual home as Benedictine Oblates; this allowed them to connect to a spirituality and way of life larger and older than their community.
Experience of Community Life
50 years of community experience has given Jack Sharpe a lot of wisdom about living with others. After he outlined the history of his community, we had a fascinating discussion of these more theoretic topics.
He outlined the proper relationship to authority, which is crucial to any successful community. Dysfunctional communities have a fearful relationship with authorities inside and outside the community, which manifests as abject submission to community leaders and total rejection of authorities outside the community.
Community not Clique
Communities can not be made up of people who are all alike. If that is what brings people together, the result will be a clique, not a community. The Grace of Christ working through the mystical body can bind together diverse human beings in love.
“The Humble Hear and are Glad”
We also discussed the importance of humility in community formation and communal life. Starting out with utopian ideals of perfection is unlikely to get a group very far. Even more importantly, the community has to make sure that the weaker members are able to “stay the pace.” Jack quoted psalm 34: the humble will hear and be glad. Is the message of a community making the humble and weak glad?
A Foundation of Love
We concluded by talking about the love of Christ and neighbor as the only true foundation for community life.
Listen to the episode to learn more about this fascinating community!
Header image: Casa Maria and “Rolf and the Viking Bow”, courtesy of Bethlehem Books
“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of another in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left a traditionalist community in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.