Original Calling and Community

The first time I had to present my defense, there was not a single witness to support me. Every one of them deserted me—may they not be held accountable for it. But the Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

2 Timothy 4: 16-18

In the reading from 2 Timothy which we are given on this Feast of St. Luke, we hear described the experience of Paul as he is abandoned in the face of persecution by many of those who were with him. He says that it is only the Lord who stands by him, rescues him, and gives him power to continue in his call. Likewise in the gospel from Luke in which Jesus sends out the disciples two by two, we understand that although they go out together, they are first called as individuals. True human community and communion is created through an ever-present tension between the demands of being together and the inviolable unique call of each member. It is this tension that is the life and energy of community, but it is also this tension which makes sustaining life in community so difficult.

The very structure of the Fundamental Principles draws us into this creative tension. The first section tells each of us that we have been uniquely called to a life of discipleship and that first of all we must choose to respond to that call. It is this call and response that is the source of all we are and do in the world. The second section speaks of how we are to ever deepen our presence and response to this call in solitude and prayer. As we attempt to live our call, we shall experience over and over again our failure to live it faithfully. We at times painfully experience the truth that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. It is this experience that will draw us and even thrust us into the arms of God in prayer, where we may still ourselves enough to become better listeners to God’s ways and thoughts for us, where we grasp more fully the truth of our own call.

It is this communion with the living God 
which is at the heart of your life
as a child of God, 
disciple of Jesus, 
witness of God’s spirit,
enlivened member of God’s Body,
and brother or sister to the world.

It is only in light of a realization of our call and a dedication to live together in such a way that we increasingly attune to that call that we are drawn together into community. The community consists of those whose love of and relationship to each other is based on each person’s primary relationship to God.

Your life with your brothers and sisters, 
centered on the word and worship of God,
is a sharing
in the memory of Christ.

As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman true worship is worship in spirit and in truth. The worship on which our communion and community is based is a worship that is committed to a living out in all the dimensions of our lives of the truth of who we are. In this understanding the community is as strong as the honesty and fidelity of each member to his or her unique calling. It is by sharing together in honesty and trust the depth of our calls that community comes into being.

You are called then by your Founder 
to enter into a true mutual sharing 
with your brothers and sisters. 
This sharing will demand of you
an opening and a giving of yourself to them
at many levels,
and a ready acceptance of each of them
in all their sinful and graced humanity.

It is this way of being together that distinguishes community from crowd and collectivity. When  the values of community begin to change from the fostering of what is most unique and original in each member to values of security, efficiency, practicality, or productivity, then the gathering is no longer community. In other words, there is no such thing as a sustainable and life enhancing community that is not grounded in the life of the spirit. Brother Ryken tells his confreres that they are “little diamonds” who only shine in their fullness when they are inserted “in the ring of the brothers.” A community is healthy and life-giving only when each member can be more him or herself by belonging to it than being outside of it.

What makes community so difficult is the difficulty we all have in living our lives out of the level of spirit. We know how difficult it is to maintain a real “spiritual life” on our own, and, in some ways, it becomes even more difficult in a “group dynamic.” How often what is called religious community, or church, or even family distances its members from their true original call rather than bring them closer to it. How often a group becomes enclosed in a smaller and smaller world of it’s own making. How often just getting along rather than coming to life becomes the prime value. As what can become the entropy of everyday life sets in, we can lose contact with the dynamism of community which is the energy in its inherent tension between what Adrian van Kaam calls “compatibility and congeniality,” that is, between the necessary compromises of a shared life and the powerful spiritual energy of our own emergent call.

In today’s reading from 2 Timothy, we are told of Paul’s standing alone at the moment of his defense. He needs and desires the presence and help of his companions, and yet, there is a moment “of judgment”, as for all of us, when he finds himself alone. This is the true tension that is the life of community. We ourselves are responsible for our call, yet, it is possible to share that call and to be supported in our responsibility for it by “a true mutual sharing.” In The Asian Journal, Thomas Merton writes of an experience of a young monk, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who was faced with leaving his country and was absent from his monastery. He wrote to an abbot friend asking him what to do, and the abbot replied:  “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” True community is only possible for those who are capable of standing on their own feet, but who do not need to be isolates to do so.

The mystery of community lies in the mystery of the being of each of us. At the very place in us where we are most unique and original is the very place where we know our communion with all else that exists. Every dimension of us short of this depth is, on the contrary, an experience of separateness and distinction. In every way that we commonly attempt to give ourselves an identity, we do so in contrast and even competition with others. It is these dynamics of contrast and competition that make community so difficult.

In most human society, it is the will to power, striving, achievement, ambition, that is the driving principle. This will to power manifests in community in multiple ways: from the ambition to be superior to  and to dominate others, on the one hand, to the manipulative power to force others to take care of one, on the other. The danger of communal life is that it becomes a place where one loses oneself in an attempt to become someone in the eyes of the other.

This is why, in one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, that community is dependent on a capacity for solitude, reflection, and honest prayer and worship before the Lord. There must be continual connection with the source of our true identity, if we are to become able to be together and to share life with others in community. The community of disciples is a community that is based on the discipleship of each member. This is why, before saying a word about community, the Fundamental Principles enjoin: “you must be willing to spend time each day in solitude and prayer, opening yourself to God’s living word.” This openness to the word is openness to our own truth.

It is difficult to live in tension. So, unconsciously, we shall always be trying to dissolve tensions by opting for one pole or another. We can think that one way to live authentically our own originality is to live it in isolation. Yet, while doing so may diminish in us the tendency to compromise our own uniqueness to the demands of others, it risks creating an illusory self of our own imagination. On the other hand, we can join together in a collective with others that is really just a means of avoiding responsibility for our own call, that allows the crowd to constitute our identity. It is work to live the tensions of life, including the tension between “congeniality and compatibility.” Community life is possible, in its deepest and truest sense, only among those who commit themselves to an opening and a giving of themselves at many levels and, not only a ready acceptance of the others, but also a willingness to serve their unique and original unfolding. A community is as strong as the fidelity to his or her unique call of each of its members. While each are called to stand on his or her own feet, it is possible also to serve and support, not to take over responsibility for, that standing of each other.

Our togetherness is threatened constantly by the oblivion of the spirit. We have to be called back from absorption in the crowd and collectivity dimensions of all communal behavior. This calling back can take place only in the individual. The appeals of the Spirit are heard not by the mass but by the person in his or her uniqueness. This is why each person needs to return form time to time to him or herself in solitude.

I need to distance myself periodically from the emotional and organizational aspects of my life with family, church, or organization. Solitude restores the spiritual dimension of my life with others and helps our everyday togetherness to remain human and spiritual. Prayerful recollection in silence and solitude is the best way to regain the spiritual Origin of our shared life with others.

Adrian van Kaam, On Being Yourself, p. 46

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