Community in religious (n) style

Dr. Lea Verstricht

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

Community in religious (n) style

Dr. Lea Verstricht

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

People have always gathered, for example, to support each other – we are simply born helpless and left to others – or to protect ourselves and each other, against forces that put pressure on humanity. Both motives assume a certain responsibility of people for people and their environment.

The biblical story takes place on the one hand between the creation stories, of which in this lecture we mainly remember the sentences: ‘male and female He created them’, and ‘it is not good for man to remain alone’, and on the other hand in the book of Revelation the city where God comes to live among his people. In between, God enters into a covenant with a people, sends His Son who chooses a group of disciples who will develop the Church, and so on.

It is this natural and religious basis that has also inspired religious life in the past millennia, up to now, to accommodate and organize life in more or less closed and / or open communities.

The term and concept of community are under pressure today. Or are due for a reinterpretation. Through the emphasis on the autonomy and individuality of man, through the mobility and size of the living environment of contemporary people, through developments that give us the impression that we are no longer dependent on each other, through a complex mixture of evolutions, people know ever less which community they belong to. Our world is getting bigger, our world is getting smaller at the same time. Today I want to contribute to the reflection on community in our contemporary Western society.

1. Communities arise in the tension of time and space.

Communities exist before people are born individually. A shared past, a shared history binds people together. Communities also exist because they see a shared future. We live together, whether we know each other from before or not. So it has a tension in time. Certainly in large cities there is something like what I call ‘anonymous connection’ in which we know that we share the same public space and are jointly responsible for it, without knowing each other. This anonymous connection, which now extends all over society, does not only have to be interpreted negatively. It also makes us aware of our interdependence

A Christian community is also aware of this tension in time: they existed before people joined them, and their tradition has molded itself into a historical form in that earlier time. The danger is always that these forms will quickly become the core of the community.
A Christian community is characterized not so much by that common past or that particular historical form, but by a common starting point, a centre around which the community is built.

  • The common starting point is the passage of Jesus on this earth, his life, death and resurrection. That relationship to Christ and his Father, God, is the source of every Christian community. That core also determines the mutual and the external relationships.
  • These communities have taken on all kinds of historical forms over time. They wanted to answer to the desires of people (spiritual, social, etc.) and / or be a contrarian testimony because of the expectation of the Kingdom of God in which Christians have placed their hope.
  • A Christian community grafts itself on the idea of incarnation and the promise in the Apocalypse that God will come to dwell among his people. That belief makes Christianity a religion that inculturates itself and thus places itself in the middle of the wider time and space in which it finds itself.

The tension of time and space became very clear for religious communities, which have often existed for centuries, in the appeal of the Vatican II documents. On the one hand, the focus on Christ and the community around it was kept as the central point. On the other hand, the call to come out sounded clearer than ever before. The reversal of the existing communities through ‘small’ adjustments such as clothing, the cloister, the order of the day, and so on, also turned out to be a rethinking of the relationship to the source Christ, and thus of the community as it so far had been formed. Perhaps the outward adjustments requested by Vatican II are more the cause of the departure of many religious in the post-Vatican period than of the openness to the world. The familiarity of the community as it was known, or rather, of the historical form in which faith had been cast, had disappeared. People were suddenly asked to start living together more, whereby the mutual relationships became more penetrating so that the attention to the core of the matter, the imitatio Christi, sometimes seemed to fade into the background. Community or communion had never been a theme in itself, and in a few years’ time it had become a matter of fact that had to be actively lived and maintained. People at the mercy of one another instead of Christ. That is how it could be felt.

2. Concentration on the community itself.

Community is never static. If it does, it threatens to spoil or go moldy, to use the words of Pope Francis. But it is a constitutive factor for religious life, also in the broad sense of the word. And for centuries many religious experienced a fixed form of religious life. Sandra Schneider noted in her trilogy on religious life (end of the 1990s) that, as a result of the reforms of Vatican II, women religious underwent in thirty years an evolution that took the world 400 years to complete. Community life as such was rarely or never contemplated, it was seen as evident and self-evident. As long as that jar remained closed, there was no question whether this was normal or not, there was no problem. However, once community life was thematized, it became apparent how frailly and inexperienced and perhaps even immaturely it had been dealt with.

A Christian religious community, with Christ at its core, does not really have a model to focus on. A community of religious has nothing to do with blood ties, think of Jesus’ question: “Who is my mother, who are my brothers and sisters?” (Mc 3,33-35) or the statement Lc 14,26): “He who comes to me must detest his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, even his own life; otherwise he cannot be a pupil of mine. ” You also do not join a religious community for the sake of anyone else in that community, nor is it a necessity for your salvation. Yet Catholic religious communities are one of the most stable and long-lasting forms of voluntary communion in the history of the Western world. But although it is not evident, it can be learned. Points for attention in this regard are to engage in a Christian tradition, liturgy and sacraments, mission or mission, leadership and membership. It will turn out that community life is accompanied by all kinds of imperfections that are typical of people, but also with a promise of new or eternal life.

How to characterize mutual relationships? Community as friendship

We take the term “friendship” from the fourth Gospel of John. Mutual relationships are central to him and they are often dismissed as complicated. A relationship therefore takes place on different levels and it is always about more than just you and me. It is about God, about Jesus, his disciples, all over the world, and about the Spirit, and that is where the mutual relationships are situated. I outline a few examples.

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son (John 3,16); That son is compared to the Logos in the prologue of the fourth gospel (John 1,1-18). The Son has a special relationship with the people and the Father and as a result people are also connected with the Father, think of the vine metaphor (John 15,1-11). That son also instructs people to love one another, and to give  their life for the friends (John 15,12-16), after which He also says that his disciples are his friends and asks them to bring forth fruits that will remain. Even when he is no longer there, he will send the other Helper, who is anchored in Him, the Spirit of truth who will guide his disciples, but for which the world is not waiting (John 14-16-17; 16,13 -15)

Jesus is sometimes compared to the Wisdom of God from the OT, as the highest development of the Logos, as the word of God. That wisdom, as creative love, seeks a place to dwell among people and make them friends of God. (Wisdom 7.27)

How can we interpret those relationships and that friendship? We have all become children of God through the shared Father. It connects us as brothers and sisters. Those siblings have a spiritual bond, and never stand alone. It is a common fact. To know ourselves as children of God means to form fellowship with others. That is the basis for the friendship as Jesus explained it to his disciples. The evangelical friendship has several characteristics:

  • Equality and reciprocity: friends serve each other and every inequality is eliminated, think of the washing of the feet (John 13,1-20)
  • It exists only in shared free love, which continues to develop. In religious life this is reflected in the sharing of life, of poverty, of chastity and obedience towards each other; complete dependence on each other.
  • Every friendship also points at individuals, friendship is between people and is highly dependent on the people in question. Where we can feel a love for humanity or the world, friendship goes to the individual person.

This means that religious communities, who dare to be guided by friendship as Jesus prescribed them, presuppose a life that can be shared with each other, where structures of dominance and hierarchy are reversed or undermined. And that from the lived friendship from Jesus, His Father and His Helper, the Spirit of truth, a mission to the world is requested that has a love for the whole earth.

Also with regard to mission we notice a big difference between, for example, the missionary story of Matthew: ‘going to the ends of the earth and making all nations Mine’, and the missionary story with John: “Peace be to you: as the Father has sent me so I will send you, and he breathed on them them, saying, Take up, the breath of the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive will be forgiven, those whom you hold fast, they have been held. ” (John 20: 21-23)

Living in a community of friendship and equality is primary. If that is right, the inspiration works in such a way that it can awaken in others a desire of peace, of friendship. An ecological commitment and a prophetic mission are logical consequences that flow from it.

The friendship that is typical of a Christian religious community aims to inspire many. In this way, fellowship becomes a sign and testimony in a world that sometimes seems to be confused about faith, hope, or love.

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About the author

Dr. Lea Verstricht

Dr. Lea Verstricht is a theologian and researcher at KU Leuven on Monastic Pastoral Care and in the diocese in Antwerp on Religion in the City. She has coached several religious orders.