When a man is discerning a call to the monastic way of life, one question that we pose to him at the very beginning of the process is: “How well do you handle conflict, either one-on-one or within a communal structure?” While some men take this question in stride, there are others who seem a little surprised at the notion that monks in a monastery occasionally lock horns. I’ll admit that when I was an inquirer, the idea of conflict was not on my radar. There is often a romantic notion that monks abide together in a state of peaceful bliss, upheld by a common love of Jesus that diminishes strong wills, competitiveness, and ego.
But if we’re honest, there are no communities of love – whether they be familial, fraternal, or spiritual – that are not touched by the reality of conflict. At first, breakdowns in communication, misunderstandings, differences in needs, or opposing perspectives can all seem like failures. In reality, however, communities of belonging are often ones that give assent to the same ideals that we aspire to and help to provide us with what we cannot provide for ourselves on our own. The SSJE Rule of Life teaches, “Christ in his wisdom draws each disciple into that particular expression of community which will be the best means for his or her conversion.”
We do not enter this world ready-made. As soon as we experience light, and our lungs are cleared, our first instinct is to cry for help as loudly as we can. The warm, dark, safe world that we have known in the womb has passed, and we are now confronted with a new reality. Every stage of our life from birth to death has elements of learning, changing, and at times dependence on others.
Community life is no different. From when we arrive at the Monastery as a postulant (a word that means “one who asks questions”) until the day we die, we are continually growing into the person that God created us to be. The tools God gives us to grow into that identity are often acquired by our engagement with others in community. “The first challenge of community life is to accept wholeheartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Our community is not formed by the natural attraction of like-minded people.” While we may have some gifts that overlap, each of us has other tools that are unique to our own skill set.
Saint Paul speaks to this: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He goes on to compare Christian community to a body with many parts with different functions: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Very few of us can walk on our hands or write with our feet. I may have a gift for music and singing, but I’m not adept in composing music like my Brother Sean or an eloquent poet like my Brother Nicholas. While I enjoy taking photographs that have an iconic feel, I’m not gifted at iconography like my Brothers James and Keith. Each of us has our own unique gifts which we share with one another in community. That’s where we grow in our ability to see that each member of a community is a gift. “We are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are.”
I also depend on my Brothers in areas where I am inadequate, either to teach me what I do not know, or to carry the burden of areas for which I am ill-equipped. It is a lesson in humility to acknowledge what I am unable to do, and to encourage my Brother to guide me when I am unable to see clearly. “We are also called to accept with compassion and humility the particular fragility, complexity, and incompleteness of each Brother. Our diversity and our brokenness mean that tensions and friction are inevitable woven into the fabric of everyday life. They are not to be regarded as signs of failure. Christ uses them for our conversion as we grow in mutual forbearance and learn to let go of the pride that drives us to control and reform our Brother on our own terms.”
Life in community teaches us about the love and grace of God as it helps us to grow into the fullness of our place in the Body of Christ: accepting our limitations, giving freely of ourselves when we see a need, and recognizing that we belong to one another through our Baptism, as we continue to journey with Jesus toward the hope of glory.