Communities of Transformation
Who is your community of transformation: the people alongside whom you are called to grow, undergo conversion, and bear fruit?
How have you experienced the transformation that community can bring: its tensions and challenges, as well as its joys and rewards?
Are there people with whom you find yourself at odds, or who challenge your worldview? How do they offer an opportunity for you to reflect on your own responses, reframe your own patterns, and consider new ways of engaging?
How do others in your community carry the burden of areas for which you are ill-equipped? What gifts do you bring to community, which assist others to grow and thrive?
Identity & Belonging
Do you identify as a Christian? What does that identity mean to you?
When have you known the contentment of belonging to God?
What was your own journey to the Font and to the Table of God?
How do the Sacraments inform and shape your sense of identity and belonging?
What do you think about the proposal of the “Open Table”: allowing people to receive the Eucharist before Baptism? Do your think the Eucharist should have a function on both sides of the Font?
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18:20
“If I want to be a follower of Jesus, do I have to identify as a Christian?” I was asked this question recently by a friend of mine (a member of the Millennial generation) who’s been exploring the teachings of Jesus. The question startled me. It startled me because it caused me to consider two concepts that are closely related to belief and the ways God engages with humanity: identity and belonging. It never occurred to me that someone on the verge of faith might have reservations about identifying with or belonging to the large, diverse population we call “Christian.” Her question led me to ponder: How actually does one belong to a faith community of so many denominations, each with its particular, nuanced take on what being a Christian means? What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to claim this identity?
When a new man joins our community, the first few months can be quite bewildering for him. There are so many new things to learn, and so many new Brothers to get to know. “Where do you keep the spoons?” “What do you do on the Sabbath?” But after a while there comes this happy moment when instead of saying “you” he says “we”! He no longer feels like an outsider looking in, but has begun to put down roots and begins to feel at last that he belongs. And with belonging comes a deep contentment.
In order to thrive we all need to belong. I used to travel a lot in the Middle East and North Africa, and whenever I began chatting with a local, the first thing they would do is take out photos of their family. They expected me to do the same. They wanted to get to know me, so the first question was “show me your family.” “Who do you belong to?” Our fundamental identity has to do with belonging.
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.”
At Ascensiontide in 1922, just after she had fully committed to being a part of the Church of England after many years on the margins, the writer Evelyn Underhill went on retreat for the first time at Pleshey in Essex. The others there at the same time were schoolteachers from the East End of London, whom she did not know. After the experience, she wrote:
“The intense silence seemed to slow down one’s far too quick mental time and give one’s soul a chance. To my surprise a regime of daily Communion and four services a day with silence between, was the most easy, unstrained and natural life I had ever lived. One sank down into it, and doing it always with the same people, all meaning it intensely, and the general atmosphere of deep devotion – for the whole house seemed soaked in love and prayer – cured solitude and gave me at last really the feeling of belonging to the Christian family and not counting except as that” (Evelyn Underhill, Fragments from an Inner Life (Morehouse, 1993) 112-113).
Belonging can be beautiful. As I’ve reflected on my own journey of vocation, the question in my twenties seemed primarily to be: Who am I? But as I approached thirty, it was replaced by the question: Whose am I? The latter is a question about community: Who are the people alongside of whom I am meant to work, grow, undergo real conversion, and bear the fruit that God intends? How beautiful it felt when God drew me, in response to that question, to belong to this Society. There are surely parallel experiences in your own life.
But belonging can also be complicated. In pursuit of belonging, one risk may be that the complexity, dynamism, and mystery of an individual person becomes flattened, distorted, or worse. One facet of a person may be made to stand for the person herself. In search of belonging, as our Rule cautions, individuals may unwittingly “seek refuge in passivity and conformity,” or succumb to false messages from the group’s members or authority figures. A deadening or unquestioning uniformity may be the cost.