In a culture where individual rights and autonomy have become our gods, the concepts of community and freedom seem to contradict each other. Your needs and wants interfere with my needs and wants. More for you means less for me. I have the right to live in a world where no one else says or does anything to offend me. So we walk on eggshells to avoid offending. If frustrated enough, we blast each other – from a safe distance – via social media.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagined Hell as an endless, dreary wasteland. Over eons, all of its inhabitants settle farther and farther away from every other inhabitant. After a century repeated moves, Napoleon’s house ends up 3000 miles from his nearest neighbor. Thus those in Hell avoid the irritation that other people cause them.
Like the inhabitants of Hell, the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre saw the very existence of other people as limiting his freedom. The “gaze” of others – their evaluation of me and their implicit demands – controls my choices. To make sure that his mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, recognized his absolute freedom, he repeatedly wrote her detailed accounts of his continuing sexual liaisons with other women. Sartre’s play, No Exit, ends with the famous and chilling line, “Hell is other people.”
The Christian vision couldn’t be more different. To the Christian, Heaven is other people. Hell is endless alienation from God and from all others. Heaven is endless, ever deeper communion with the Lord and with all those others who are in communion with Him. We will spend all eternity rejoicing in the goodness of God Himself. But we will also rejoice in His amazing love, radiating through all of those united to the Lord.
Here on Earth, we are between Heaven and Hell. Community here is neither one blissful ecstasy of self-giving love, nor crushing slavery to others’ expectations. It is actually a kind of Purgatory. Community has the power to heal wounds, break chains, and free us to be the best-version-of-ourselves that God has called us to be. Community and freedom really do go together.
Commitment is essential to genuine community. I need to hang in there even when things get painful and sticky. John Eldredge, in Waking the Dead, describes Christian community as camping – in the desert – for a month – without tents. Community means being exposed, uncomfortable, closer to others than I would have chosen on my own. The strong temptation is to run.
The ideal size for a community is around 8-12 people. Jesus knew this in choosing the 12 apostles. Any larger community needs to be a community of smaller communities. The small size of the ideal community ensures that I can’t avoid any member without its being obvious. It also means I can realistically get to know and be known quite well by every other member.
Having moved often for professional or faith-based reasons, I have experienced many small, faith-based communities over the years. The variety of personalities present in even the smallest communities – for example, marriage – never fails to amaze me. In each community, there have been several people with whom I connected very well. But there are others, too. We step on each other’s toes and rub each other the wrong way.
Both experiences are essential. We enter communities in order to belong and to feel supported by people with whom we share a common vision. But also, “iron sharpens iron, as one person sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). We often grow most through those we find most difficult. We rub off each other’s rough edges. We “trigger” each other’s wounds. You bring out my impatience or arrogance or selfishness or laziness or difficulty listening. I bring out yours. Once these surface, perhaps we can talk it through. Or I can bring it to prayer – “Lord, I know I’m overreacting. I find ___ so hard to love. Show me what’s going on. Show me what You love in him or her.”
Before my post-college stint in the Franciscan seminary community, I (incredibly) saw myself as a pretty easygoing, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Living with a dozen other seminarians and the priests who mentored us, my illusion died quickly. For example, I discovered how angry I could get when another seminarian pushed the envelope of orthodox Catholic teaching. This, though I was aware that my anger and harshness was a very poor advertisement for Catholic orthodoxy. With others, I realized how powerless and confused I felt when dealing with their sarcastic, gossipy dishonesty. As Fr. Leslie, one of the priests, commented, “Only massive denial can protect someone going through this program from some degree of self-knowledge.”
One principle underlying group therapy is that every group experience triggers issues from my family of origin. If I felt excluded by my family of origin, I may feel excluded in other groups. If I used intellectualism to stay emotionally safe in my family of origin, I may be excessively “heady” in a group setting. If I felt shut down by an overbearing family member, I may check out emotionally in the presence of dominating group members. Or I may feel and express the anger that I couldn’t when I was a child. The good news is that the group can provide a safe place to address these issues. The members can work through them in a supportive environment with a trained therapist.
A similar dynamic underlies small Christian community. The “bull in the china shop” to my right reminds me of my younger sister. The incessant talker to my left monopolizes the conversation – just like my dad, grrr! Like group therapy, but in an explicitly Christian context, a solid small community can be a safe place to work on these issues. Difficult feelings can be expressed, either in the group or one-on-one, amidst love and acceptance .
In one community I was involved in, a member had the guts to express his anger during a faith sharing. A couple of people speaking at length had unwittingly deprived others of a chance to speak. This made the group run overtime. Those confronted, although initially surprised and hurt, were able to respond graciously. We adjusted the group format to safeguard against this problem and moved on.
Offering a space to feel and deal with my difficult emotions is just one way that community and freedom can go together. I’ll look at others in next week’s post.