I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.
Walking as Community
We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?
The Dangers of Community
A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves.
A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ.
By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.
These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.
In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, St. John Henry Newman distinguishes between “real” and “notional” assent and understanding. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying his argument, “notional” knowledge is the sort of knowledge we have of abstract concepts. In a notional way, I assent to the proposition that 2+2+4; I believe this to be true. We also have notional knowledge of many concrete realities that we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, my knowledge of Julius Caesar, and my assent to the reality of his existence, is notional.
We gain “real” knowledge through direct experience. I have real experience of my parents, and can give a real assent to their existence. We can also have a “real” knowledge of some concrete realities we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, Newman explained that he could have a “real” knowledge of a fire in London even when he was hundreds of miles away. This was possible for him because he had direct experience of London, and direct experience with fires, though not with this particular one.
Newman does not mean to say that notional knowledge and assent aren’t real, but rather that such knowledge and assent aren’t based on concrete experience. He goes on to explain that notional knowledge generally does not touch us as deeply as real knowledge.
Our knowledge of God can be either notional or real; Newman calls the notional knowledge of God “theological” and real knowledge of God “religious”. For our spiritual life to grow and develop properly, we need a real, religious experience of God. Our Faith isn’t an abstract proposition, but a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus wanted this relationship of faith to be a communal rather than a purely individual matter. This is the purpose of the Church: to bring us together in union with Christ as the mystical body.
As with our knowledge of God, our knowledge of the Church should be a “real” knowledge. The Church isn’t an idea or a list of rules. Nor is it the building down the street. The Church is a community to which one gives one’s life. Though the Church is spread across the world, it is also local and particular. William T. Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed contains the following beautiful reflection on the local nature of the Church:
This universalization of the body of Christ, however, is never detached from the local and the particular, for the eucharistic community is essentially local, gathered around the altar in a particular time and place. Furthermore, the particular is of supreme importance because the Eucharist is not a mere sign that points to Christ; this particular piece of bread is the body of Christ . . . The catholicity of the church is not sustained by a cosmopolitan detachment from the particular . . . “Catholic” means a gathering rather than a spreading out, a unification of the many through attachment to the local eucharistic community. One becomes more catholic, more universal, the more one is tied to a particular community of Christians gathered around the altar.
Sacrosanctum concilium outlines the same idea:
41. The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.
Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.
42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
If we are connected to the Church through the local Eucharistic community, then in a certain sense it is almost impossible to fully join the Catholic Church in the USA. It is almost impossible to gain a real, experiential knowledge that would enable us to give a real, as opposed to a notional, assent to the Church’s claim on us.
It is perfectly possible to have a loving relationship with Christ—he can be encountered everywhere. It is perfectly possible to enter one of the many church buildings, and receive life giving sacraments. In a sense, however, the Church can only be joined if that building contains a true community gathered around those sacraments, a community to which one can give one’s life. All too often, our church buildings contain merely a disconnected collection of individuals showing up to a “Mass stop”. Even if we participate in extra-liturgical activities, we tend to go our separate ways, living and working apart from one another.
This perhaps explains why some individuals join the Church only to leave it again. They’ve heard about the Church; they give a notional assent; but not finding the concrete reality, nominal assent can never become real and vivifying. Discussing this problem, the priests who host the “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast said ‘there is nothing to bring them (converts) into”!
Newman does point out that it is possible to come to real knowledge, and therefore real assent, without direct physical experience. He explains that if someone tells him there’s a fire in London, he can get a real knowledge of it, in part because he’s experienced fires and cities before. In our case, however, this indirect route to real knowledge is very difficult. The Church is a kind of community, and most of us have never experienced a real community. Our so-called communities tend to be more voluntary and accidental collections of individuals with a high turnover rate; perhaps it isn’t surprising that this experience shapes many Americans’ participation in the Church.
This means that for most of us, the Christian life is out of reach, since the Christian life is fundamentally about participation in the Church. We can live “as Christians”, since that can be done anywhere. One can live as a Christian even in a concentration camp or on a desert island. We’re each personally responsible for our response to God’s Grace. Yet the “Christian life” remains out of reach for the isolated individual.
The essential nature of community for joining the Church may also explain why Christianity declines in wealthy countries and thrives in poor ones. Wealth is largely a means for avoiding the necessity of community life, as I address in this blog post.
What can be done about this? We have to enrich our faith, moving from nominal to real knowledge. We have to find others to gather with: as Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. Such gathering must eventually move on to commitment, formal or informal, or one has not truly “joined” anything. And further, such gatherings should not be separate from the parish structure. There are various nominally Catholic groups that capitalize on the desire for community, and build themselves up at the expense of the local church. Even if, at present, the parish is merely an uncomfortable and empty shell, it provides the structure that assures our local community is really an instantiation of Christ’s body, a branch on the vine, not a lopped branch doomed to wither.
By building local community, we can renew the Church by being the Church, by making it once again an “ekklesia” or assembly, instead of merely a building.
In Simone Weil’s beautiful essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, she explains that prayer is simply the turning of one’s attention to God. It isn’t a busy activity, but rather a peaceful practice of being present before God and attentive to him.
Attentiveness can only be gained through practice. According to Weil, the development of this capacity for attention is the real purpose of school work. Each particular subject has a “useful” purpose, but any subject serves to build the capacity for attention, and this deeper purpose is more important. Even if someone has no natural aptitude for their studies, the attempt to concentrate is still beneficial for building attention.
This means that a student should strive to do the work well (otherwise they would not be truly attentive) but without worrying too much about goals or ends. Instead, they should strive to do each thing for itself and as a preparation for prayer.
Weil explains that every time we pay attention, we “destroy the evil in ourselves.” Evil divides and dissipates. This can be seen in the division between God and humanity, in conflicts between individual human beings, and in the internal battles we each fight against our lower tendencies. By concentrating, we “pull ourselves together”, overcoming the evil impulse to dissipation.
What is Attention?
To pay attention well, we need to know what attention is. Weil writes that attention is a negative effort, the act of holding the mind open in the presence of something. “Jumping” on a concept or idea too quickly is not attention, and can close the mind to the truth. At the same time, we can’t “jump” away from the idea or person before us. Weil describes attention while writing as waiting “for the right word to come of itself at the end of the pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”
This negative effort of attention is hard for us. We’re very busy, and we want to stay that way: it makes us feel important and protects us from ourselves. We don’t like to be “re-collected” with ourselves and passively present before God in prayer, or before another human being or even an idea. Yet this is what Christ asks us to do. In the Gospel, the servants who were found patiently and attentively waiting are called blessed.
This virtue of attention is necessary for community, and also fostered by it. Weil points out this connection:
“Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
Community is all about giving others our attention, emptying our souls of self so we can take the other in; so we can, as Weil put it, say to the other “What are you going through?” Without this attention, community becomes soulless and sterile. “Companions” are literally those who share bread with one another; in a more extensive sense, they are those who share their lives, share their attention.
In doing so, we’re imitating Christ, who emptied himself for our sake. Not only will we imitate him, but in imitating him through attention we will truly find him. It does not matter what we are doing, whether studying, working, or serving our neighbor: if we are open and attentive to the things around us, we will find him there before us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”. All things are kept in being by the loving attention of God, so that when we look on anything with love and attention, our gaze meets his.
“Prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”—St. Thérèse of Lisieux
In this episode, I interview Sean Domencic, director of Tradistae, about his experience as founder of Holy Family House in Lancaster, PA.
Holy Family House
When Sean and his now-wife Monica were engaged, they came to realize how important Christian community was to living out the Faith. They started to discuss this idea with a few friends. One of them had a lot of experience with the Catholic Worker, a movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker movement is best known for providing personal hospitality to those in need in houses where the workers live with their guests. The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on social justice was very appealing to Sean.
Sean and Monica begin discerning opening a house of hospitality. They committed to the idea while attending a retreat for Catholic couples and families interested in community. After that, everything fell into place. They rented a house with two other friends, and named it the Holy Family Catholic Worker House. The local parish helped them to find people who needed assistance with housing, and they quickly filled the available space. They’ve just bought a second house to expand their ministry.
Community Life at Holy Family House
The members of Holy Family House have weekly community meals and round table discussions, and pray vespers together. They still have outside jobs, so they can’t do as much outreach to the wider community as they would like.
The Future of Holy Family House
Although Sean emphasized that those starting community shouldn’t expect too much right away, he also emphasized that they should be open to wider visions of what might be possible in the future. In addition to their houses of hospitality, he hopes that his community can eventually start a Catholic Worker farm. They are also interested in helping to turn their local parish into a real community, with members living near the Church and building up a vibrant local economy of mutual aid.
As well as talking about the development of Holy Family House, we discussed Christian community in general.
Expectations and Vision
Sean talked about how important it is to have everyone involved in a new community “on the same page”. People can easily come into a project with incompatible visions, which only crop up later. They can cause a lot of heartache and trouble down the road. A clear vision gives a community something to coalesce around.
Friendship and Intentionality
In earlier podcasts, we’ve discussed the importance of starting out organically, starting with friendship instead of a blueprint. Sean agreed with that, but pointed out that such a group of friends does need to move on to something more structured. The ability to commit to a shared project is a test of friendship, and can help to deepen it. Even once this happens, however, the community can’t stop valuing the friendships; the friendship and the vision are the two poles between which the community has to keep going back and forth.
Catholic Social Teaching
It is vital that Catholic Communities have an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and on service to the poor. As Peter Maurin said, such communities need to be clear about what the world currently is, what it should be, and how to get from here to there. Without this clarity, Christian community can easily deteriorate into a sort of Christian suburb. Sean also pointed out how important it is that a community embrace voluntary poverty. Sometimes those who desire community want to wait until they can do so from a position of economic strength, but this may compromise the community’s integrity.
Consumerism can easily seep into a Christian community that is focused on providing a “good life” for its members. This can sometimes happen due to the seemingly harmless desire of parents to provide a good education and cultural environment for their children. As Sean said, there’s nothing wrong with education and cultural enrichment; he hopes he can provide these things for his future children. More importantly, however, children need to see that their parents are trying to live out the Gospel. Without this, any cultural environment is likely to become hypocritical, and children are quick to pick up on this.
Avoid Division, Embrace Discussion!
Sean and I discussed the fact that we have various disagreements on ideological points, but that we still see one another as allies. We can see one another’s projects as valuable, due to our shared commitments to the Church and our shared interest in social justice. This is in line with the Catholic Worker tradition of the Round Table Discussion. We need to be committed to seeking the truth, but we need to do so in unity with others who may differ from us. As Tim Keller said in a past interview, there will be political and ideological differences in any community, but these differences can’t be allowed to tear the community apart. Without a commitment to unity, the quest for truth will falter as different perspectives are isolated in their own ghettos.
Sean’s Tradistae project attempts to present the tradition of the Church; in particular, it attempts to show that Catholic Social Teaching is a vital aspect of the Church’s tradition. Too often those interested in Catholic Tradition are only interested in relatively superficial aspects of it. The Tradistae project seeks to change this; it includes a podcast, easy essays, and social media outreach.
A Conversation with Doctor Cameron Thompson
Malcolm and Doctor Cameron Thompson discuss the Benedict Option, both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book of the same name. During the discussion, they draw on Doctor Cameron Thompson’s book The Original Benedict Option Guidebook and on Malcolm’s articles Rescuing St. Benedict from the Culture Warriors, and The Benedictine Monastery and the Franciscan Field Hospital.
The Culture War
Too often, Christian community is seen through the lens of the culture war. In this narrative, building community becomes, in Doctor Thompson’s words, “the back-up option”; something conservatives can fall back on if they don’t win the culture war.
A culture war framing of the Benedict Option is disastrous particularly because it obscures what St. Benedict was really doing. St. Benedict did not share the concerns of 21st century culture warriors. Rather, St. Benedict founded his monasteries because he wanted to follow Christ and help others to do so.
We don’t need to build community because the surrounding culture is hostile. We need to build community because we are Christians, and community is necessary for the Christian life. Christ founded a Church, a community, not just a bunch of gurus with a unique school of thought.
Nor is our battle against flesh and blood, but rather against evil, which runs through every human heart. If we buy into the notion of the culture war, we can be too quick to see outsiders as enemies, and too slow to see and fight against evil inclinations in our own hearts and within our communities.
Rod Dreher’s work contains two divergent narratives: the Benedict Option as culture war and the Benedict Option as Christianity fully lived out. If our community building is to be fruitful, and if we are to be faithful to the original vision of St. Benedict, we must reject the first narrative and embrace the second.
“Liberalism” and the Breakdown of Community
Community is necessary even for a good human life. As Doctor Thompson pointed out, the kind of “liberal” individualism we see in today’s world is a modern aberration. Historically, all cultures were communal. In the past, community was just natural, and Christians could build on this natural foundation. Today, when community is not natural, Christians have to become more intentional about building community.
It should be noted that when we mention “liberalism” in this episode, we aren’t talking about the Democratic Party or the “left”. Philosophically speaking, both Democratic party and the Republican party are classically liberal. Liberals take the individual and the individual’s rights as the philosophic starting point in thinking about community, rather than emphasizing society as a whole.
Liberalism breaks down communities because it focuses on individual selves. This focus is a philosophic mistake, because we only become fully selves through our relation to others. An individual can’t fully understand his or her own personhood apart from relationships to other persons and to God.
The Role of Economics in Community
One of the main reasons for the modern breakdown of community is the elimination of communal economics. For instance, in many countries the common land that would have once been managed by the community has been privatized.
As we work to restore community, it is important that we include an economic dimension. If we all live in the same area but then go our separate ways for work, we haven’t really built an integrated community. Instead, we’ve build something like an American suburb from the 1950’s.
In such a context, there was a certain amount of neighborliness, but a deep sharing of life was absent. It isn’t surprising that when many Americans think of community, this suburban model is what comes to mind for them; it is often the only kind of community that an American has experienced. During the episode, Doctor Thompson talked about his move to Italy, which gave him a clearer perspective on the lack of community in the USA.
This emphasis on local, community oriented economics is just one aspect of a deeper principle. Community needs to be rooted in the local, the particular, the real. Community may begin to develop online, but it needs to move into real life as soon as possible.
Serving Christ in Others
We are called to serve others, but we can’t do so in a patronizing, superior manner. A key aspect of Benedictine spirituality is serving Christ in others, in a concrete, practical way. Everyone around us should be seen, and served, as Christ himself. This attitude can help us to avoid seeing ourselves as the “heroes” who swoop into “save” other people. Rather, if we are serving Christ in others, we have to embrace a spirituality of humility and respectful love.
This recognition of Christ in those around us can also help us to avoid the temptation of forming a clique. Cliques form when an individual or group tries to surround themselves with others who are just like them. They feel that they are superior, and so they only want those around them who respect this perceived superiority. (Doctor Thompson warned that the formation of cliques may become more likely if we see ourselves as Christ and others as recipients of Christ’s ministry in us, rather than seeing them as Christ.) By contrast to the clique, true communities will contain diversity and disagreement. Tim Keller discussed this in an earlier episode.
A healthy community needs leadership. True Christian leadership is simply an aspect of this kind of service to others. The true leader seeks to serve those in his care to the best of his ability. Further, in a Benedictine monastery, the obedience required is not merely vertical, from the monks to the abbot. Rather, obedience is also supposed to be horizontal, between the monks, as well as being internal, the personal obedience to the commitments one has freely made.
Don’t Plant Flowers!
Those interested in the Benedict Option sometimes become too focused on “preserving” particular cultural elements. Doctor Thompson points out that this is a mistake. Instead, communities should focus on fostering the underlying spirituality from which culture can grow.
He used a wonderful analogy to explain this. At one point, he had to move an established vineyard to a new location. If he had planted flowers or grapes or leaves from his vines in the new location, they would have just rotted. Instead, he dug up the roots. He had to leave behind much of the branch structure, but he kept enough of the root and stem so that new vines could grow. Of course, the new growth wasn’t in exactly the same shape as the old growth. Nor did the new grapes that the vines eventually produced taste exactly the same, because the vines were growing in different soil and in a different climate.
Similarly, the implementation of particular cultural practices from the past shouldn’t be our focus. They’re like flowers, leaves or fruit: eye-catching, but not fundamental in the same way as roots. Instead, we should focus on planting the roots of faith lived out in community life, and from those roots a new culture will grow. It will have similarities to other cultures that have grown out of the Faith in other times and places, but will also have differences, as is the way of living things.
The Monastery as Village
The Benedictine monastic model wasn’t invented out of thin air. It was modeled after the Umbrian village or clan that St. Benedict was familiar with. The traditional village contained obedience to legitimate authorities and laws, a shared way of life, communal property, and common worship.
Doctor Thompson suggests that we should take as our model or ideal not the “intentional community” but rather the village, which is more organic and natural. When people talk about patterning life after monasticism, they are often referring to the early modern restoration of monasticism, which wasn’t always true to St. Benedict’s original vision. If we forget the roots of the monastery in the village, we may be unable to successfully draw inspiration from the monastery in patterning our own communities.
Advice for Finding Community
Doctor Thompson had several pieces of advice for those seeking community. (He prefers the term “grow” rather than “create” or “build” community.)
- Live a life of deep, personal prayer.
- Find an experienced guide.
- Look at real life, working examples.
- Try to find others who are seeking the same way of life, but even if they are not similar to yourself.
- Root yourself in a local area.
Working for the Glory of God
In conclusion, we can draw from the last essay in Doctor Thompson’s book. He describes how we each have a patch of “earth”, both literal and metaphorical, to cultivate for the glory of God. As each of us seeks to give glory to God through our lives, humanity is able to encounter the love of God. The building of community can help us to live out this “cultivation.”
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Augustine Tardiff, a member of the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario. They discuss the history and spirituality of Madonna House, the life of the founder, Catherine Doherty, and the formation of intentional community.
Origin and Structure of Madonna House
Madonna House is a lay apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty, a Russian refugee who worked with the poor in the US and Canada before retiring to Combermere. Augustine pointed out that she didn’t intend to found a community, but people kept coming, and a community gradually grew up around her. This is similar to the origin of the Benedictines and the Franciscans; saintly figures have the ability to attract others, even without intending to do so.
Eventually, the community became more formalized; it includes lay men and women as well as priests. It is structured rather like a religious order though there are differences canonically speaking. The community members share their goods in common. Most of them live on the Combermere property; there are a number of smaller satellite communities around the world.
New members initially make a series of temporary promises to the community. After having been with the community for ten years, they can make a life-long promise to remain with the community.
Augustine said “Her life story would make a two hour Hollywood movie!” She was born into nobility but lost everything and had to flee Russia after WWI and the Communist revolution. After many harrowing adventures, she made her way to Toronto. She worked with the poor in Harlem and worked for racial justice. Her love of God was what attracted people to Madonna House; she showed them that the Gospel way of life is possible.
Organic Development and Openness to the Spirit
It can be dangerous for a community to start with a highly detailed plan; this can block the workings of the Holy Spirit. It can be tempting to impose a plan or vision on other people. The vision of Madonna House, in contrast, has evolved over time.
The evolution of perspective can also happen to those who join a community. Augustine described his own journey to community life. Initially he was much more focused on leaving behind the problems of the world, but he came to see that this was not a sufficient perspective on community life. Over time, he also came to see that his initial focus on finding a good place to support his personal relationship with God didn’t take relationships with others into account. We don’t have to sacrifice our relationship with God to help others; these two relationships always go together.
Being in but not of the World
Madonna House is not separated from the world; it has a strong emphasis on hospitality, with hundreds of guests coming every year. These guests come to experience spiritual revitalization, and then take that renewal of spirit back into the wider world.
Augustine also stressed how “natural” the life at Madonna House is. He pointed out that it isn’t so far removed from everyday life as to be irrelevant to the normal lives of those who visit. The members don’t wear habits, and don’t “put on” a “holy” aspect. As he put it, the people are “good people”, but they are “just people.”
The fact that the community contains both men and women is also part of this kind of “normalcy.” Augustine remarked that this aspect of the community is unusual but very enriching.
Some of the satellite houses run clothing rooms and soup kitchens for the needy. Many of them, however, have come to realize that there are a lot of other organizations that provide material assistance to the poor. Many of them now focus on offering “prayer and listening houses.” They provide a Christian presence and listen to others, helping to combat the pervasive problem of loneliness. Those who run such houses say they are busy from morning to night. People just keep coming to them.
Living the Liturgical Year at Madonna House
The emphasis put on the liturgical year at Madonna House is one of the aspects that Augustine found particularly appealing. He said that in the world, feast days are hardly different from any other day, but in the community they are a big deal. He also discussed the Eastern Christian influences on the liturgy and spirituality of Madonna House.
Working the Land as Spiritual Practice
Madonna House runs a farm where they grow a lot of their own food. Working the land can help us to realize our dependence on God. The care that farmers have for their animals can give us insight into the care that God has for us. Like the animals, we don’t always understand what’s best for us, and we are prone to getting into trouble, but God loves us anyway.
The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty: Madonna House Spirituality
During the podcast, Augustine mention Catherine’s “Little Mandate”. It wasn’t that God spoke to her and told her to write this down; rather, these were themes that came to her over and over again in prayer. These principles are the best short summary of Madonna House spirituality.
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
Give it directly, personally to the poor.
Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me,
going to the poor, being poor,
being one of them, one of Me.
- Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
- Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
- Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
- Love…love…love, never counting the cost.
- Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.
- Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
- Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbors feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
- Pray always. I will be your rest.
Cover image: Combermere Madonna House. Photo by Rob Huston, CC BY 3.0
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
During my discussion with Tim Keller, we talked about “family traditions”, ways to bring the Faith into the home and make it come alive. I have many fond memories of my family’s traditions. For instance, on Holy Thursday evening we would “strip the house” by removing pictures, decorations (and clutter!) in imitation of the stripping of the altars in the churches. The absence of usual items about the house was very striking and made Good Friday feel different. On Easter Sunday we lit a special vanilla scented candle that was only burned on that day. That smell is now the smell of Easter for us. At Epiphany, three of us would dress up as the three kings and process with our gifts to place in front of the Nativity set. As well as many traditions tied to the liturgical year, we had other traditions associated with birthdays and anniversaries.
When my mother and two of my siblings became chronically ill, it was difficult to keep these traditions going. Many of them were scaled down or discontinued. This was unfortunate on many levels, but particularly because they could have helped to dispel the depression that chronic sickness in a home can produce.
This problem goes far beyond family traditions. Chronic illness puts an individual or family into survival mode. All sorts of things get dropped, from social interaction to hobbies and recreation, simply because there isn’t the time or energy for them. The chronically ill can become invisible, dropping out of society and disappearing into their homes; they are rarely missed or remembered. They often feel abandoned by friends and family and by the Church.
A supportive community can at least partially solve this problem. In Tim Keller’s community, the whole community participates in various traditional activities. Such community participation would make it easier for families dealing with chronic illness to participate in religious and social rituals.
Unfortunately, chronic illness makes it harder for a family or community to participate in or form community. Beyond the obvious drain on time and energy discussed above, the chronically ill face many unique challenges that can make it hard for them to find community.
Healthy members of a community or social group can unconsciously push the sick (and their family members) away. Particularly in our culture, there is a lot of pressure on individuals to “get over” things. People feel the need to “put a cheerful face on it” so that one doesn’t “drag the whole group down.” Compassion literally means “suffering with” and is by definition an uncomfortable emotion. The sick or sorrowful act as a sort of “memento mori”, an unpleasant reminder of the troubles of life, that many people would rather not encounter.
Even if a group makes every effort to be accommodating, these cultural mentalities can cause the sick to feel that they are “being a burden” and withdraw from social interaction. In our culture, being independent and self-sufficient is honored as a virtue, and those who are forced into dependency feel that they are failures. This is the result of a certain “muscular Christianity” which ignores the fact that we are all totally dependent on God’s mercy.
The physical disabilities that accompany chronic illness, of course, can also hamper social interactions. These disabilities may not be obvious to those who haven’t suffered from them, and so are not taken into account. For instance, I know three people, two family members and a friend, who are unable to be out in the sun for more than a few minutes due to lupus and other chronic conditions. This of course makes certain social activities impossible for them, and family members have to choose whether to go to events and leave them behind. (Maybe this one is more obvious to me because I live in Colorado, where the Sun is like a giant hairdryer in the sky!)
The necessity for a special diet is a particularly difficult physical disability. In our episode on cult mentalities, Peter DeGeode and I discussed the way that the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament kept the Chosen People separate from surrounding groups. Sharing food is a “material sacrament” that helps a group to bond. Those who need a special diet can’t participate in it, leaving them feeling left out and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, people sometimes misunderstand this need as a mere preference or fad, and try to “encourage” sick people to “just try things!” This can lead to awkward and unpleasant situations.
These difficulties can be overcome, but it is impossible to do so if the community is based on human strength instead of Divine grace. Both Tim Keller and Jack Sharpe discussed this spiritual danger that can infect intentional Christian communities. A community can see itself as made up of a spiritual “elite”, as superior to those around it. Instead, a community should realize that it is made up of weak and broken human beings who are dependent on God’s grace. This spiritual humility can translate into greater acceptance of the physical and mental weaknesses of others.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed the importance of “going to the peripheries”, of paying attention to the marginalized. This is critically important for community building. We’ve previously discussed the necessity of reaching out to the poor to prevent an intentional community from becoming a “Christian suburb.” The chronically ill should be seen as a particular kind of “periphery”.
If those in a community do not reach out the marginalized, they are not heeding the words of Christ.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”‘Matthew 25:34-40
Due to the social invisibility of the chronically ill, community members should consider active and intentional outreach to them. Without such active outreach, it is unlikely that they will become part of a community.
How can a community do a better job of incorporating the chronically ill? What spiritual advantages can this encounter with the periphery bring to a community? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Leave a comment below, or contact us.
Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Dan Almeter from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, Georgia. They discuss the history and growth of the community over time and its structure and spirituality. Dan also talks about his personal experience with Fr. Thomas Dubay and how Fr. Dubay influenced the community.
The Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community started in 1973 in Augusta, Georgia. It grew out of a large Charismatic prayer group. A number of people in the group started meeting to discuss living the Christian life in a more intentional way, and out of this smaller group 12 members ultimately formed a covenant community. The group grew rapidly; today it has 700 members. The 12 founding members were all Catholics, but they discerned that they should become an ecumenical community. (In part, this was due to the fact that Catholics are such a small minority of the Christian population in Georgia.)
The ecumenical nature of the community has a lot of influence on its spirituality. There is a large focus on scripture, on personal daily prayer, on being open to the charisms of the Holy Spirit, and on enthusiastic worship. Contemplative prayer plays a large role in the community, in part through the influence of Fr. Thomas Dubay. There is also an emphasis on good interpersonal relationships and accountability.
The community has a leadership council of seven elders, who are elected by the community and serve for life. They are assisted by a complementary leadership council of women. In addition to this, there are numerous small group leaders and other leadership positions. Before an individual can become a vowed member of the community, there is a two year postulancy.
The members of the Alleluia Community serve those in the local area in a number of different ways. Members are free to start their own initiatives which are then supported by other members. Many service projects have started this way. They include:
- A food bank with multiple locations across half the state
- A city wide soup kitchen at different local churches
- Prison ministry
- Service at local churches
- Street evangelization
- Prayer and healing ministries
- Pro-Life work
- Ecumenical organizing at both a local and an international level
- And a spiritual direction training program
Relationship of the Alleluia Community to Local Churches
Dan emphasized that the Alleluia Community does not compete with local churches; instead, the community serves local churches. One requirement for membership is that an individual has to be a member in good standing with a local church. Local pastors appreciate this, since the community is not pulling members away from their congregations. There are many priests and protestant pastors in the community, each of whom serves their wider religious congregation.
Communal Economics and The Family
Dan explained that the community started out owning everything in common. They pooled their funds and bought a run-down set of apartments in a rough area of town. Over time, however, owning everything in common became unwieldy as the community grew. It also infringed on subsidiarity and the rights of parents. Under the original scheme, a father who wanted to buy anything for his children had to apply to a central committee. The community members now own their houses individually. They still contribute 10% of their incomes to the community fund, however, and 6% to run the community school. Most of the members also still live in the same geographic area.
We noted that very few Christian communities manage to hold everything in common while still allowing families to be full members. A notable exception to this dynamic is the Bruderhof. Dan commented that this may be possible for them because they collectively own their own means of production.
(For more information on the Bruderhof, see our recent interview with some Bruderhof members here.)
Ecumenism and Unity in the Alleluia Community
The Alleluia Community is ecumenical, and is enriched by the diversity of spiritual perspectives among the members. We discussed the importance of unity among Christians. While unity on doctrinal issues may be important, unity in love and serving the Lord is more important and has to come before any progress can be made on doctrinal issues. At the Alleluia Community, the members don’t try to resolve their doctrinal differences. Instead, they focus on relating to one another with love and respect.
Father Thomas Dubay and The Alleluia Community
Father Thomas Dubay influenced the founders of the Alleluia Community, who read his book Caring, a Biblical perspective on Community. Later, Fr. Dubay became Dan’s spiritual director, and Dan started a study group within the community to read Fr. Dubay’s writings on contemplative prayer. Dan shared stories of his personal interactions with Fr. Dubay and we briefly discussed some of Fr. Dubay’s books, including Happy Are You Poor.
Community and the Christian Life
Community is necessary for the Christian life; without a community one can’t advance in sanctity. Those we live with “rub against us” and show us our weaknesses and imperfections, but they can also build us up with their strengths. A community also makes it possible to evangelize, which is an integral part of a Christian life.
Authority in Community
Those in positions of authority in a community should see themselves as servants, helping and serving the other members of a community. Further, they only have authority insofar as they’ve been given authority. Community leaders can call members to live up to the agreements and commitments they have made. That doesn’t give them authority over other areas of the member’s lives.
Advice for Starting Out
Dan gave a few pieces of advice for those trying to start a Christian community.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel! There are established communities out there that have already made all the mistakes and figured out what works. You don’t have to make the same mistakes again.
- Move from less intentional to more intentional. The Alleluia Community started from a large prayer group; similar large, low-commitment groups can help to find like-minded individuals to build community with.
- Be clear about your vision. If the vision isn’t stated clearly and thoroughly understood and shared by those trying to build a community, there will be trouble down the road.
For More Information:
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof. They discuss their personal stories, the history of the Bruderhof, the connection of poverty and communal living to the Gospel, and the tension between culture and intentionality in the Christian life.
The Bruderhof (the name means “the place of brothers” in German) is a network of communities that originated in Germany in the 1920s. With the rise of Hitler the community fled, going first to England and then to Paraguay. Over time, the community grew, and now has over 3000 members in 29 different locations. They are dedicated to living out the Gospel as a group; among other things, this means that individuals in the group don’t own private property.
Love in Community
Rick pointed out that two Bible verses highlight the importance of living together as a community. In 1 John 4:20, we read “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is easy to fake love of God, but not so easy to fake loving care for brothers and sisters in Christ!
Similarly, Rick pointed out that 1 John 4:12 says “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts.” That “but” is significant. The world is supposed to see God in the way Christians love one another. How can they see this if Christians don’t live in community? Our message is not just a bunch of words, but a concrete reality: the Kingdom of God.
Why do the Bruderhof members hold everything in common? Why is communal living important? As Charles said, because it is important to God. The Bruderhof sees communal living as a way to live out Gospel poverty and to imitate Acts 2 and 4. Charles and Rick explained that if we see ourselves as one body in Christ, then we ought to hold our goods in common, just as a married couple do. Avoiding private property helps members to be detached and free to follow the Lord, and sharing material goods is a concrete expression of love. We discussed the importance of Christian unity, which can often be reduced to a philosophic or theological concept. In reality, unity should be demonstrated in daily life.
The communal economics of the Bruderhof community is also a protest against the corrupting influence of Mammon in the world, and the violence and inequality which this influence causes.
Following Jesus as the Sole Motivation
Charles stressed that he didn’t join the Bruderhof to gain community. (In fact, he pointed out that he isn’t communal by nature!) Nor did he join the Bruderhof to “live differently” or to “escape the world”. He lives in community because the Gospel tells Christians to do so. If we see community as goal in itself, or an escape from the world, or as a means toward the success of a cause, it will fail. Only the love of Christ can support us in the daily task of serving one another in a community.
Family is Sacred, but not Sufficient
In any community, there can be tension between family life and the life of the community. The Family is instituted by God, and so is sacred; a community which tries to override family life is heading for disaster. On the other hand, we see from the Gospel that family is not sufficient. Families need to be integrated into a greater whole. Charles and Rick explained that in their experience, children adapt well to community life . . . in some cases, more easily than adults!
Community Can’t Replace Commitment
Community can’t replace personal commitment, whether for children or for adults. One of the dangers of Christian community is that it can obscure the need for each individual to make a choice to follow Christ. We can’t depend on social pressure, custom, or tradition, nor can we assume that because we fit in well with a community we are following Christ fully.
Similarly, a child who grow up in the Bruderhof has to make a personal decision to remain with the community. Charles and Rick explained that parents in the Bruderhof can’t assume that their children will remain members; they may have a calling elsewhere.
A related danger is basing a community on merely human strength or virtue, or seeing community as a gathering of one’s tribe or type. This will produce a clique, not a true Christian community. We’re all flawed, but in a community we can help to strengthen and support one another.
Attachment Comes in Many Forms
The Bruderhof emphasis on a communally economic way of life helps to avoid a certain kind of attachment, but Charles and Rick pointed out that another form of attachment is a particular danger for those living in community. Members of a Christian community can become attached to their traditions and customary ways of life. Charles emphasized that he didn’t join the Bruderhof because of the Bruderhof; he joined it to follow Christ. Communities have to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, always ready to drop aspects of their culture if they are no longer a help to living the Christian life.
More Information on the Bruderhof
You can find more information about the Bruderhof at their website.
(This is the second part of the interview with Tim Keller; if you haven’t yet done so, you might want to listen to part 1 first.)
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Tim Keller discuss the mistakes that can be made while building community, the Sursum Corda community and the 4 pillars of community life, the importance of a culture of reconciliation, and some practical pointers for building community.
Utopianism is a grave danger for those trying to form a community. The pursuit of an unattainable ideal will almost certainly result in disillusionment and failure. It also will keep those involved in such a project from learning from existing communities. Worse, it can create an incentive to hide personal or community failings to preserve an ideal image. When such hidden flaws are revealed, the community may well collapse because it never had a solid foundation.
Connected to the danger of utopianism is the danger of giving fellow community members unearned trust. Tim Keller said one should “Trust but verify”. Those striving to build Christian community are just as broken as anybody else, and bad things can happen in a community.
Accountability needs to be carefully balanced with individual autonomy and free will. Any community needs to have at some accountability, but it can degenerate into an overly controlling environment.
Envy and Competition
Community members also need to realize that each member has different strengths and weaknesses, different skills, and a different family situation. Not everyone will be equally successful in each area of life. If this isn’t realized and embraced, it can result in “family envy” and feelings of inferiority and failure. Community can’t be based on merely human strengths, but rather on the love of God.
A community can easily fall into a sort of spiritual pride. The members may come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians, and feel that anyone who really loves God would join them. The community needs to see itself as merely one of the possible ways of living the Christian life.
Family Life in Community
Balancing community and family life is another area in which a community can make mistakes. Without healthy families, the community will fall apart, but the number of community activities may sometimes hamper family life.
Needy people are often attracted to a community. Community members can help such people, but they have to realize that such help can only go so far. Otherwise, such people may end up monopolizing the attention of the community, which can’t actually fix their problems.
The Sursum Corda Community
When Tim and his family moved from Tempe, Arizona to Albuquerque, New Mexico, he thought he would be able to start another branch of City of the Lord there. This didn’t prove possible, however; local Catholics were uninterested in joining something they couldn’t experience in person. He realized he would have to embark on a much slower and more organic process. He started meeting with local families, and gradually they began to form the Sursum Corda community.
We discussed the importance of the twelfth chapter of Romans; it provides a beautiful blueprint for the Christian life, and “Romans 12” became a slogan for the City of the Lord Community. We are “transformed by the renewal of our minds” as we follow Christ.
Pillars of Community Life
The Sursum Corda community came up with a set of four “pillars” that can support the spirituality of a healthy community:
- Love Jesus
- Cultivate Relationships
- Build Culture
- Live Mission
These four pillars build on one another. Everything flows from a healthy personal relationship with Jesus. That relationship with Jesus flows out into healthy friendships with others; relationships need to be built and strengthened in an intentional way. Out of those relationships grows the culture of a wider group, a community. Such a community, living out of the love of Christ and healthy relationships with one another, naturally lives out a mission to the wider world. Mission becomes part of everything such a community does, bringing people into the life of the community.
Outsiders experience the four pillars in reverse order. Somebody is invited to a community event or meeting; while there, they experience the loving culture of the group. Over time, they build relationships with community members, and eventually encounter Jesus in a deeper way through the community.
A Culture of Honor and Respect
To build a successful Christian community, the members have to create a culture of honor and respect for one another. They can’t gossip, backbite, hold grudges. They need to be intentional about asking for forgiveness if they have hurt another. Bad things will happen in community life. A community needs a culture of love and forgiveness to get through the rough patches. Disagreements may arise about politics, theology, parenting, and many other topics. The community, however, can’t let such disagreements become divisions. We can’t be in a hurry to write others off.
Practical Steps for Building Community
As Tim pointed out, all this talk about the wonderful things communities can do can be rather intimidating to those just starting out! He advises the following practical steps to build community in your local area:
Just start meeting! Find a few other families or individuals and just get together to talk. Have meals together, have fun, and most importantly, pray together.
Ground everything you do in the Faith; that has to be at the center, or the resulting community will be fairly shallow.
Over time, as the community develops, the time will come to get more intentional. One of the ways to do this is to start meeting as small groups alongside the main bigger group. Men’s and women’s groups are a good way to do this.
Visit existing communities! They are a great source of inspiration and guidance. Both City of the Lord and Sursum Corda would be happy to have you visit.
Don’t give up! The process of building community is a long, slow one. There will probably be setbacks and trouble along the way, but if you persist these setbacks can actually strengthen the project over time.
- You can find the City of the Lord website here.
- You can find the website of Tim’s community, Sursum Corda, here.
- Tim mentioned John Paul II’s letter Christifideles Laici, which can be found here.
Image: Ken Lund; Sandia Mountains CC BY-SA 2.0