Some fruits of a recent retreat on our pillar of Community
Where does community lead us? Where does it lead me? Thomas Merton said that “We are fighting death; and involved in a struggle between love and death, and this struggle takes place in each of us. Our Lord’s victory over death, the victory of love over death on the cross, seeks to be manifested in a very concrete form on earth in the creation of community.” But death of what; of who? An esoteric death perhaps, one where we fall into a life of solitude—or ambiguous solitude. The world of today provides many paths to this form of solitude. How many of us are connected to our “friends” on Facebook but not really connected to these same people in “real life”? The world we inhabit is seemingly becoming more and more interconnected, and yet at the same moment, we appear more and more isolated. False communities have taken our commitment away from each other and given it to a nonliving entity. Our bonds are not connections of community but rather connections with networks, televisions, and objects. And when we lose this sense of connection to our living, breathing brother or sister, we contradict our humanity.
JVC, being the countercultural agency it purports to be, motivates us to acknowledge this disconnect between digital reality and concrete reality and then asks us to push against it. But what exactly does this pillar of community look like for us? Community can take many forms—compare the monastic community of Thomas Merton to the revolving door at the House of Hospitality where Dorothy Day spent a large chunk of her life. At first glance these two communities are seemingly opposites. But where their actions differ, their motivations share a foundation; that being the message of the Gospel. “Who does Christ pick to build community? He picks us, just ordinary people with ordinary weaknesses” (Merton). That’s where we come in. Our job, mission, and desire of and for community is born of a greater desire to grow beyond what each of us is individually capable. We seek change, whether it is personal, spiritual, or structural. We seek growth. We seek an understanding not readily available in our world today. Through our home JV communities we are growing in our capacity to bear the love of Christ in such a way that we are fortified to live in love with our work sites, our new friends, and our families…all of which are simply other forms of community.
“Very often we think that the only people we have to love are our neighbors. Perhaps we never see anyone else to love. But no, we do have to love others and we want to love others and community must extend beyond our own community” (Merton). The balance in JVC of home community versus neighborhood community versus work community versus friends from the host culture can get tricky. We have seen this in Andahuaylillas over the last year. But I believe it is paramount to remember that our commitment to one another within the four walls of our house cannot and must not preclude the commitment we have to be in community with those whom we seek to serve. We cannot live isolated and apart from our neighborhood. Andahuaylillas is a town of roughly 5,000 people, and our work sites are in the local high school and the parish, two of the social centers of the town. So as we walk down the street, buy our groceries, and use the Internet, we are surrounded by people who know us, who stop us to say hello, and who gossip about us behind our backs should we fail any number of social norms on the brief walk between home and our destination. It is a place where the balance between home and outside is precariously calibrated and the boundaries are frequently muddled.
So what holds it all together?
“Community is not built by man; it is built by God. It is God’s work, and the basis of community is not just sociability, but faith…there is more to community than just personal fulfillment and sociability” (Merton). Our faith is what binds us together in authentic community. “A real community,” writes Martin Buber, “is one which in every point of its being possesses, potentially at least, the whole character of community” (quoted by Dorothy Day). While in our community we may be divided on what exactly this faith means, we can agree that it is our faith in something greater than ourselves that pulls us together and draws us into community. Speaking in terms of my own faith, our goal in community is an attempt to overcome death with love in the same way Christ did. It is a push to draw out the humanity in each of us, to push us to excel beyond our human weaknesses, and to overcome the boundaries that divide us. In the end, we are one body, one blood, and one brotherhood of humanity called to love and serve our fellow brethren because our salvation is tied up in theirs.
**Thomas Merton quotes from a talk given on Eberhard Arnold’s “Why we live in Community” available free online from Plough Publishing House. And the Dorothy Day quote of Martin Buber comes from “On Pilgrimage – October 1950” also available free online from http://www.catholicworker.org.