The Essence of Community
Many times when one thinks of the Franciscan Charism one will light on a point such as poverty or joy as being the bedrock of the Spirit of Saint Francis. These two points are indeed vital to the life but a third charism is very strong in the Franciscan bond and that is the Spirit of Fraternity. The spirit of living a life in common.
Not common as in all doing the same thing at the same time with the same expression in the same way. Now we will stand. Now we will sit. Now we will pray.
To live in community is not something that molds, confines and conforms but rather something that builds, ennobles, enlarges, expands, and allows growth and a measure of some freedom. I should perhaps emphasize that point, “some freedom,” not total freedom, “some” freedom. Community will give you “some” freedom, never, ever, in a blue moon, “Total Freedom.” If you want “total freedom” you are better off staying out of monastic life.
At any rate, community lived in the right sense means when one is down, someone steps up to take up the slack, when one is excited someone is there to share the joy, when one is confused someone is there to talk things out with. Community means that you are eager to walk the same road with others, to pray together, to help when you can and to be helped when you need it.
Are you able to live in community? This is one of the keystones for being able to live the life of a Poor Clare. But what does it mean? Does it mean that you are always agreeable, always smiling, always cheerful, always a saint? It would be nice but most of us certainly don’t start out that way!
To live in community we can’t say, “Hey, this is me, take it or leave it!” To live in community means to be open to who “we” are but also to be flexible enough to live with others as “they” are – even if it means that at certain times I will have to bend and give a little. To live in community, means being open to growth, to change, to surprises, to accepting one another. To live in community means to reach beyond the world of “me” to let “you” in my life. And the bigger the community the more “you” there is to allow room for.
When I came to the monastery in Spokane, I was twenty five years old; I had spent four years in the military living overseas in Iceland and Germany for three years and then a year in San Diego. Each move meant new people, new rules and regulations to live with. It might have been the same. U.S. Navy but each base, and unit had its own “military charism” to bend and adapt to. So I was not unaccustomed to change. This was good. In fact I think I could safely say, if you are not open to change and being changed than entering religious life is not meant for you.
But the changes are not going to be as huge as you might expect. In fact, they might be little teeny, tiny changes. They might be little changes like I experienced upon entering the dining room for breakfast that very first morning and finding that oatmeal was the bill of fare. Oatmeal. Hmmm. How yummy! Well, not exactly. You see, I had grown up on oatmeal and truthfully it was not high on my list of the best way to start the day. But there we are, that’s the menu and the cook didn’t seem to be offering to cook me a special meal of ham and eggs, or pancakes, or french toast. It was like oatmeal. There it is.
Okay. So that is fine. I mean I’m twenty five years old, I have some adaptability under my belt, I can handle this. So I go up to the counter and I dish myself up a bowl of oatmeal. See, I’m open and flexible and accommodating, I’m going with the program, right? I look around for the sugar bowl. Guess what? There is no sugar bowl. I mean, can you believe this, these nuns are eating oatmeal without SUGAR! Hell-o? Is this the planet earth? Did I make a mistake and end up on Mars or something? For Pete’s sake where is the sugar bowl?
See, its things like that, you’ve got to be ready for. The little teeny, tiny things that the “nuns” don’t even think about anymore The nuns just take these things as the natural course, but I’m warning you, they are going to knock you for a loop if you are not ready.
When you come into community you will find that the way “you” always did things is not the way “they” always do things. But here is the good news. The “nuns” are actually much more open to adapting to going with you, than you probably are going along with them! It’s true. You may not see it at first, you have to have a few years of history behind you to see just how much “bending and accepting and changing” they are doing to let you into their world. But believe me; they will be working as hard as “they” can to bring you into their world as you are to come into theirs.
Just as every baby changes the life of every family, so every new person entering religious life brings “new life” into the community. The nuns know this. They are open to it. They know that they will be required to be as open and flexible to “you” coming to be with “them,” as you will have to be, to let them into your world. It’s definitely a two way street. They’ve experienced change and growth, each and every time someone “new” comes to join them. It’s part of the joy and life of being a Poor Clare.
That’s what community is all about. It’s about letting you into my world.