“Community is not a good goal in itself but is a beautiful byproduct of seeking God’s kingdom together.”
The “myth” that I resonate with the most in Mark’s talk is what he calls the myth of belonging—the insidious expectation that, if only I find the right community, my needs for companionship, direction, and growth will be met. This reminds me of a talk I attended years ago by Dorothy Maclean, co-founder of the Findhorn Community in Scotland. A young man stood up at the end of the talk to ask her a question: “My friends and I are interested in starting a community. What advice do you have for us?” Her response: if you’re interested in creating community for community’s sake, don’t bother. This is a recipe for disaster. A community bent on self-fulfillment will implode under the weight of accumulated disappointment, because this is not what community is for. Rather, a community must first be comprised of people with a shared intention that carries each out of themselves in some form of service. With so much talk of longing for community and meaningful connection in our day, I believe this understanding is crucial. And it would seem to present an odd paradox: in a sense, community as a goal must be aimed at indirectly, arising from the aspiration to serve rather than for the fulfillment of the legitimate personal need for community.
As anyone who has lived in community for any significant amount of time knows, this is not as simple as it may sound. Even with the best of conscious intentions, the unfulfilled needs and wounds of the past will insinuate themselves in the form of subtle or not-so-subtle demands on our community-mates. How we respond when this happens makes all the difference, especially in a dominant culture that may seem to exuberantly affirm us in our perception that our needs will be better met elsewhere, providing us with all manner of seductive images of greener pastures. And of course, sometimes it’s true—sometimes we simply need to move on. But when we do, we will as likely find ourselves haunted by the same unfulfillment in a different guise. The script remains essentially the same, only the actors and stage props change. What then?
In his Rule, Saint Benedict provides a startling contrast to the rootless search for fulfillment that has so many of us in its grasp. Everywhere we are confronted by a radical de-centering, from ourselves to the other who is Christ, especially as encountered in the person of the abbot or abbess, to whom is given willing obedience; in the stranger or guest, whose needs press upon the comfortable rhythms of the daily round; in the sick, who require our care and attention; in all our sisters and brothers, with their unavoidable foibles and weaknesses. At the heart of this Rule lies the 12-rung ladder of humility, outlining the descent of the self in terms that even many contemporary monks and nuns find jarring. Difficulties with language aside, this is actually my favorite part of the Rule. Why? Because if in my obedience to Christ whom I meet in others I can quietly embrace suffering in my heart, without weakening or seeking escape, in times of difficulty, dissatisfaction, or even injustice (fourth degree of humility), then I am no longer ruled by suffering, disappointment, insult, or injury. Pain no longer compels hand or heart. If I can be content with what is deemed the lowest occupations and pursuits (sixth degree of humility), and believe in my heart that I am nothing, a nobody (seventh degree of humility),* then I am liberated from the feverish pursuit of trying to be a “somebody”; liberated from the rivalrous game of comparison. Then, I am liberated from the allure of the whole array of symbols our culture (and subcultures) dangles before us as bearers of the rewards of prestige, security, power, love, fulfillment. Only then can I be free of the burdens of anger, lust, the urge to retaliate; free to forgive, to be an agent of peace and reconciliation, to love Christ above all else.
Of course, contemplating this “lofty” downward trajectory of the path of monastic transformation makes me painfully aware of my own radical insufficiency and failings. After all, I am attracted to this topic of cutting through the illusion of community as a source of self-fulfillment because I have been guilty of it time and time again. This is why I value such wisdom from the monastic tradition, not as a measuring stick to compare myself to an impossible ideal (which would be to create yet another symbol of self-fulfillment), but as the North Star pointing away from self-concern to the face of Christ who meets me in every person, every encounter, in the sacrament of this very moment. This, as I see it, is the way of Christian community, or any mature form of intentional community: a way that is not for “me.” And for those of us who are followers of Christ, we tread this way not because we choose it but because we first experience ourselves as chosen for it; not because we love but because we first experience ourselves as loved, with a love that increases in our hearts the more that we give it away.
*For those of you who may be cringing at this point or have cringed while reading this part of the Rule, what made the ladder of humility come alive for me as a vivid description of the path of spiritual liberation was a simple insight a teacher once shared with me. The humility being asked of us—for instance, believing in our hearts that we are the lowest among human beings—is not first a psychological reality but theological: we are made humble because of the growing appropriation of the insight of our “nothingness” before God. This living, transforming insight in turn radically reconfigures our relationships with other people, along the lines that Benedict and his sources such as John Cassian outline. It is intimacy with God, and the dethronement of self-centeredness that this entails, that underlies and permeates the ladder of humility, not self-loathing. Obviously, a pathological conviction that one is literally the lowest among all humanity is a gross inflation of self-preoccupation. Rather, to my mind, to believe in your heart that you are the lowest kind of human being is to see in yourself the potential to be what you most despise in others—that at heart you are no better than the rapist, the murderer, etc. And furthermore, God does not love you or anyone else the less for it. To see oneself as “good” leads to arrogance, hard-heartedness, and self-delusion. To see and accept oneself as in solidarity with the lowest of the low not only liberates from comparison but yields compassion, forgiveness, and creative action; or as Benedict assures us, yields the spontaneous love of God that is its own reward, uncompelled by fear or self-concern.