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
City of the Lord
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Tim Keller about his experience in community. Tim discusses the importance of community life and describes the spirituality and activities of the City of the Lord, a Charismatic covenant community which he has been part of for 40 years.
We all have a covenant
Tim explains that, far from being esoteric or unusual, covenant community is fundamental to the Christian life. Every Christian is part of a covenant relationship with the Lord and with other Christians, simply by virtue of baptism. For Catholics, this is reinforced by the Eucharist, the Sacrament of unity.
Community as an “altar call”
Building a community is a way to reinforce and claim the covenant we have already entered into with the Lord. This covenant gives us rights and responsibilities that are difficult to live out alone. The community helps individuals to affirm and ratify their commitment.
God’s face to the world
We discussed the amazing reality of our Christian mission. As members of the Mystical Body, we have to show Christ’s love to the world. The love in a community is the best way to show others the love of Christ.
Commitment to one another
Tim discussed a fundamental shortcoming that limits the effectiveness of many Catholic programs, from men’s groups to youth outreach: those in the groups are not actually sharing the whole of life together. If the men in a small group, for instance, were actually sharing the whole of life and knew one another’s families, they would be more effective at offering support and guidance. (See our blog post on supporting one another in community here.)
“The poverty of riches”
In the past, community was natural; people needed one another. Tim pointed out that today, our wealth has created a certain kind of relational poverty. We need to rebuild the kind of caring community that once existed.
The City of the Lord Community
For 40 years, Tim Keller has been a member of the City of the Lord community, which is based in four cities in Arizona and southern California. It is a Charismatic Covenant Community in which groups of families come together to share life in Christ with one another. Tim described the activities of the community, ranging from block parties to healing ministries, and the many small groups that met under the umbrella of the wider group. For several years, he was also part of their Brotherhood, a group of single men in the community who lived a monastic-style life together.
Over time, many of the families that made up the community relocated to live near one another in an urban neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona. This made it easier for the community members to maintain an informal social life with one another in addition to more formal planned events.
The community of believers is for a mission, to show the world the love of Christ. Tim Keller described the many ways the City of the Lord reached out to the wider world. Just by living in community, the members were able to provide an attractive witness to others.
The Next Episode
This is the first of a two-part interview with Tim Keller. In the next episode, Tim will talk about the mistakes that can be made while building community, the Sursum Corda community he is helping to form in New Mexico, practical steps for community building, and the four pillars of community life.
- 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.
Cover image: Arizona desert. CC BY 2.0: Kevin Dooley
“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.
An interview with Aaron Pott from Denver’s “House of Welcome and Mission.”
Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter Land interview Aaron Pott, who lives in a small Denver-area Christian intentional community, Casa Karibu Sze-Ming. Aaron talks about the origin, history, mission, spirituality, and structure of his community; the “home liturgies” that help glue the community together; the ups and downs of community life; raising children in a community setting; sharing burdens with others; the financial benefits of community; ecumenism; the other communities he has experienced; the balance between consensus and leadership; the dangers of idealism and overly-high expectations; not expecting a community to meet all of one’s needs; staying connected to a wider community; and the importance of hospitality. Peter Land is able to talk about his experience staying at Casa Karibu as a pilgrim traveling through Denver.
(Image shows some of the CKS members in 2019. Courtesy of Aaron Pott)
Everyone knows that interacting with other people can be difficult, whether the others in question are family, friends, fellow parishioners, or just the folks across the street. Given that attempts at building community involve increased interaction with others, it should be obvious that expectations of finding “perfection” or “escaping problems” in community life are naive. Someone starting out with such expectations will likely find only dissatisfaction and will soon be looking for another, supposedly better community someplace else. Realism is critical, and there is no way to run away from ourselves; if we have problems in one place or situation, we’ll likely have the same problems wherever we go.
Important as this realism is, I want to go farther and suggest that community is a good way to find troubles and difficulties; not merely in the sense that living in closer contact with others is always a messy and difficult process, but that the trouble of community is in a certain sense the reason community is desirable.
That might sound crazy; why would we want to find trouble? Don’t most people have enough troubles of their own? In fact, that is one of the perceived benefits of wealth; it insulates one from other people’s troubles and allows one to freely choose associates. In podcast three, Peter Land described how he found a greater sense of community among the poor as opposed to the rich. In rich communities, houses and yards are large, and the inhabitants can afford travel, leisure activities, private transportation, and expensive “toys;” the result is that neighbors don’t see one another as much.
The fact that this kind of “social insulation” is only possible for the rich should suggest to us that it is not entirely desirable from a spiritual point of view. (After all, Christ said it was hard for the rich, not the poor, to enter heaven.) In fact, in the same podcast we discussed the different kinds of poverty, and how spiritual poverty often coexists with material wealth, precisely because the wealthy are able to indulge an illusion of being in control, and so are less likely to recognize their dependance on God.
St. Augustine describes how our enemies are given to us by God to “exercise us,” and G. K. Chesterton pointed out that Christ told us to love both our enemies and our neighbors, because they are frequently the same people! In any community, there will be a wide range of personalities and outlooks, and the resulting conflicts will “exercise” us, strengthening our spiritual muscles, and mortifying our selfish inclinations. In fact, just as we only realize the extent of our physical weakness when we start working out, we’re likely to feel that we’re quite saintly and self-less until we start rubbing up against other human beings in all their stubborn contrariness.
On another level, sharing troubles and struggles with others in community is the only way we can develop compassion, which is literally a “suffering with.” St. Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens, sharing in the joys and sorrows of others; but this is only fully possible in community, by the sharing of a common life. In doing so, we’ll be imitating Christ, who had compassion on the crowds and on humanity in general, to the point of dying with us that we might rise.
If we try to carry the burdens of others by our own strength, we’ll be crushed by the weight; we’ll soon by envying the rich their insulated suburban lives. If we carry the burdens of others as a participation in the sufferings of Christ, we are bearing the burden of Christ, carrying His yoke, which is ultimately easy and light because He bears it with us. As Christ promised, where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there among us, in the sacred reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Our neighbors are not just training exercises for us; they are part of us, and we are part of them; with them, for them, we lay down our lives so that we may rise again to eternal life with Christ our Head.
Developing three themes from the podcast episodes
Working together, particularly outdoors, is a wonderful way to build team spirit. The ability of shared work to create bonds stems from its material, physical aspect. All human community depends on the material world; our unique, individual souls can only communicate and relate by means of our physical bodies. We participate in many different, overlapping communities, all based on physicality, from families to neighborhood to nations. Eating together is almost a sacred thing; even the very word “companion” derives from “those who share bread.” Even in the supernatural realm of salvation, where we might expect a greater focus on the spiritual, we are redeemed by Christ “God in the Flesh” who walked and spoke with us, died and rose in the body, and founded a visible, material Church that is joined by means of the sacramental use of material elements.
As we attempt to build community, we need to keep in mind that humans are both (spiritual) individuals and (physical) social beings. Cults and totalitarian regimes do not allow for the proper freedom of the individual, but an excessive focus on the individual can warp our understanding of society. Today, we’re in danger of building over-spiritualized, intellectual cliques of people “just like us”, instead of genuine communities based on physical proximity, with all the diverse “messiness” of opinion and outlook that this entails.
As physical beings in a material world, we experience fear, including fear of the future. In podcast two, we briefly discussed the phenomena of “prepping”: preparing to survive natural disasters or societal collapse, typically by stockpiling food and weapons in a remote location. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the concerns about the future which motivate prepping; the future does look dark and preppers correctly note that our society lacks sustainability and resilience. Most of us couldn’t function with an extended blackout, let alone societal collapse.
Despite the looming possibility of hard times ahead, I think that prepping is a deeply flawed reaction. I could make many practical arguments against classic prepping; to mention just the most obvious, preppers tend to have an obsession with apocalyptic scenarios involving sudden and total social collapse, sometimes to the exclusion of more probable situations. There are also many philosophical and spiritual problems with “prepping” as generally practiced. (For one thing, large stockpiles of food are suspiciously reminiscent of the rich fool in the Gospel parable, who has food saved up “for many years”!)
I want to focus here on the prepping attitude towards the future. The prepper does have a point: the current state of society is seriously flawed in many ways. In fact, the instability that concerns the prepper is merely a symptom or result of flawed conditions in the here and now; the current state of our society is not desirable, regardless of whether or not it might break down in the future. We should start living differently right now, instead of waiting till for our dysfunctional lifestyles become impossible. “Right living” is almost always composed of actions which are beneficial on many different levels. Getting to know one’s neighbors may indeed be a good preparation for facing disaster together, but that’s a very backward way of looking at it! By all means, raise vegetables and learn skills, not because of future-oriented fear, but rather because of a desire to live rightly in the present. Like the Rich Fool, we do not know if we’ll survive the night, and thus a single-minded focus on the future is out of place for the Christian. “Prepping” has been a cultural phenomena since the sixties; in that time, many preppers have come and gone, dying before they were able to put their stockpiles into action, wasting the resources** that could have strengthened their communities and fed the poor . . . not to mention providing them with “treasure in Heaven!” (Not that we should become “spiritual preppers” trying obsessively to “earn” Heaven by stocking up merits. Nobody can “earn” Heaven. Just as community based on trust is better than individual stockpiling at providing earthly security, we’ll ultimately enter Heaven through trust in the mercy of God. If we obsessively focus on “avoiding hell” our spiritual life will become stunted and legalistic; a better focus is on loving God and neighbor in the present moment. Both Heaven and hell start now, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce.)
The prepper’s preparations are disconnected from day to day life; a similar lack of integration is one of the defining marks of the modern world. Our lives are scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized; work over here, recreation over there, religion and politics and friends and neighbors and relatives and education all neatly placed in separate compartments. This lack of integration creates stress and overload in life, and can lead to a deep lack of integrity; different sets of principles are operational in each context, leading to a lack of moral and intellectual consistency.
As we build community, we need to strive for integration, taking care that our projects knit back together the shards of life instead of producing further fragmentation. As mentioned in the podcast, our projects should not be “one more thing,” another compartment, another thing to “do;” instead they should provide an overarching framework, bringing neighbors back together, working and praying and playing together in a particular, local place, in that present moment which is the only one we truly possess.
*T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.: an acronym meaning “The End of the World as We Know It.” Used by prepper and survivalist groups.
**None of this, of course, applies to prudent precautions against bad weather, power outages, or other routine situations. For instance, the government recommends keeping a few weeks of food and water and some other supplies on hand. Sensible precautions of this sort are actually an act of charity, ensuring that you do not become more problem for society to deal with in a stressful time. This is very different from stocking years of food for a “black swan” event which may never come.
Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz discuss community development. Topics include: the purpose of this website, the importance of organic development, the tension between intentionality and organic development, the primacy of friendship, core groups, the role of time and spatial relationships in building community spirit, community as an internal attitude or virtue that needs to be developed, an integrated life, the preferential option for the poor, poverty and community spirit, prepping, security in community, individualism, isolation, and the unexamined life.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)