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.
“If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”Psalm 139:8
Suburbia has many structural flaws, as we discussed in the last podcast; but no matter how flawed our environment may be, God is with us.
A few years ago I caught a bus to make an all-day visit to a local adoration chapel. The bus route lay through miles of suburban sprawl; shopping malls, gas stations, parking lots, car dealerships; imposed, artificial order and tacky tidiness, interspersed with litter and overgrown weeds, bits of land that nobody took care of (not that anybody actually cared for the lawn around the car dealership or the sign for the shopping mall; all the kempt landscapes were just one step away from abandonment or neglect.) From an elevated section of roadway, I looked out over vast residential areas, isolated by convoluted roads and HOA fences; hundreds of roofs all alike, too new for trees to have softened their outlines, bleak under a wintery sky. As I walked from the bus stop to the church, I crossed a freeway overpass roaring with traffic; superficial attempts at upscale design of curbs and medians contrasted with utilitarian electrical transmission towers and the all-pervasive litter. The church was in keeping with the setting; an oddly shaped, hulking building, islanded in a sea of parking lots and lawns. By the time I got to the chapel, the waste and dysfunction and sheer folly of the surroundings had thoroughly depressed me.
Yet as I slipped in I was washed clean by that indefinable feeling of peace and stillness that lives in places of prayer; He was there. And so were my brothers and sisters in Christ; all day long a steady stream of adorers came to visit the Lord, dropping out of their roaring suburban traffic and busy, fragmented suburban lives into the stillness which is a foretaste of eternity. Before I left that day, I had received the most intense experience of God in my life.
If we can’t find God while living in Suburbia (and in the persons of suburbanites), we are unlikely to find Him elsewhere; for without having found Him, all our attempts, our community building projects or model villages, will merely expand Babel. God is here, right now, not far away or long ago. And we are here too, with all our glaring evil and surprising good. We will not leave ourselves behind by moving to a new setting; if we are lazy, distracted, tepid, callous here and now, we’ll be so elsewhere.
Instead, the new world we’re called to build must flow from a change of heart, as Peter Land pointed out in the last podcast; all the change of scene in the world won’t cut it. A spiritual writer once said “We are given no encouragement at all to entertain our feeling that if only we did not get these headaches, if only we had nicer neighbors, if only we knew how to pray, if only we were more humble, everything would go swimmingly. We do not have to work out how to get ourselves into a good position for having a relationship with God . . . The newness inherent in any situation of encounter with God is brought by him, not us.”
All things work for the good for those who love God, even such bad things as suburbia; and from the hearts of those who love God good things flow forth . . . including a world that is better than suburbia!