(This blog post starts a short series on community. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more on this treasured and challenging component of religious life.)
“What are our hopes for this year of community together? What are our expectations?” These are the two questions that led the first real housemeeting for my new housemate and me this past week. Discussed in the context of prayer we worked to define together what this community journey might look like. Two things I have learned in living community are: the community is new every time a new person moves in–even if it is one new person moving in with four people who have been living together already, the community is new and ought to be treated as such; and hopes and expectations ought to be spoken and shared.
It’s great when people’s understanding of community, their hopes, and their expectations are relatively similar. It makes things easy and allows for a quick sense of comfortable routine and gratitude. And while it is more difficult when people’s understanding of day-to-day community expectations are different, if explored, negotiated, and renegotiated, the learning and gratitude may be even that much deeper in the end.
I remember being very young in religious life and moving into a house where they didn’t regularly have house meetings or Sharing of the Heart (a personally treasured part of our community prayer). I shared this with one of my sisters in leadership, “Well, call a house meeting,” she said. I had just moved in and was forty years younger than the rest of my sisters. How could I call them to anything?! But I did. That year we called each other to lots of things. It was a community experience that demanded lots of honest conversation. It wasn’t an easy community experience, but it was definitely one through which I learned a lot about myself and through which I really learned to love and value the sisters with whom I lived.
I think this year will be one of those easier ones. In our prayer this past week, we voiced pretty similar hopes and expectations. It is the first time in my experience of religious life that I am the “senior sister” in the house (at 35, a rarity). That being said, I am the only sister in the house. I have the honor and blessings of living in a discernment house–living with women in supportive community as they figure out the next step to which God is calling them, and through community, always actively exploring that myself as well.
If I were to summarize our community conversation, I would say we value and expect time together as a community to pray, to work, to play, and we will call each other to that time. We want and will work at a depth of sharing that is real and vulnerable. We want a community space that is free of judgment as people explore the things that touch and tug at their hearts. We are committed to living simply and evaluating our impact on the earth. And we want to explore more deeply and commit ourselves more deeply to what it means to live in community–our local community, our neighborhood, our religious community, our city, our world community.
And of course, no community conversation is complete without a practical conversation about cleaning house, paying bills, taking care of the lawn, etc. While these things seem much smaller on the scale of importance relative to matters of the heart, it is often in the nitty-gritty details where communities experience the most conflict. Many community conversations have been had about the proper location of the dishrag when it is not in use.
For me, community is about all of these things–creating a space together where everyone feels cherished and invited to grow, where conversations are honest and deep and sometimes hard to initiate but always blessed, where God is present in the beautiful, amazing things that we share and the dishrag conversations. I can see how it would be easy and sometimes necessary to choose to live singly rather than in community with others. But without people to bump up against in daily living, my edges would be sharper, my prayer shallower, my conversation and conflict management skills less honed. When community is ideal, I am so grateful for all I am receiving that I can’t not give back just as generously. In that ideal, every member of community feels as if she is receiving more than she is giving. I am grateful, though our community is just starting, to be in that life-giving, ideal community right now. I’m sure the dishrag conversation will come up eventually, but hopefully we will remain true to our shared hopes and expectations, to honest conversations, and, as a result, the tough conversations will make community that much stronger and more beautiful.