The Importance of Community

00000402421032046K051JMV(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

What are the worst things in the world? What are the things that run directly contrary to what we are made for? Peter Kreeft has a suggestion: boredom and loneliness (from his talk Lost in the Cosmos). This makes sense, because at the heart of all reality – at the heart of everything we are made for – is the Trinity: unending, ecstatic love, which is anything but boring and lonely.

Now, look out your window or into your own home or into your own soul – do you see any boredom and loneliness…? Sadly, like a wet, hot dumpster, our world (and, we must admit, our own hearts) reek with the ‘worst of things.’ Why? For this post, only one reason will be explored; a paramount problem that is one of the biggest challenges of our times: a lack of community.

PointCounterpointDan, times change and so does the nature of relationships…

So quipped Jane Curtin in the legendary SNL skit, Point/Counterpoint. She was referencing mostly romantic relationships, but let’s expand it to a broader view of basic human-human relationships. Does the nature of human relationships change? It would seem just the opposite of Jane’s claim is true: the more ‘times change’ the more things stay the same. We are not titans – individuals fit to conquer and thrive if left to ourselves.

We are, by our very nature, interiorly impoverished; ever in need of a labyrinthine webbing of others to bring us out of the curvatus in se (curving inward on oneself) that St. Augustine and Dante showed to be the very essence of Hell. For this reason, no man (if he is to remain a man) can be an island. We are made for love and “love can be kept only by being given away” (No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton.)

Yet in our society today it is a fact as cold as steel that this webbing of others – this sense of community – is increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps this is true especially for the young adult demographic. In the recently published article, “Alone in the New America” (well worth a read), authors David and Amber Lapp chronicle “the alienation of young working people.” In the midst of heavy debt and beleaguering, widespread, epidemic family fragmentation, most Millenials have embraced a “go-it-alone ethic” in which “there is no sense of ‘we.’” Instead:

“They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust… thinking of themselves as strangers to each other in their struggles… They just come to work and just cope.”

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” said Anthony. “And that’s kind of the American way – this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”

Preeminent scholars, Charles Murray, who has been called “arguably the most consequential social scientist alive,” and Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, have painted this rather sobering picture in their books Coming Apart and Bowling Alone, respectively.  The long and short of it is this: on a national level (and most strikingly in particular populations) “the raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much… that the situation may be beyond retrieval.” Blame the media, blame technology, blame work – whatever the reason: our “social capital” has plummeted, deeply affecting our ability to form and join into vibrant communities.

One would venture to guess that this is all anecdotally confirmed by our own experiences. When was the last time you saw hoards of kids playing with each other in a neighborhood? When was the last time you interrupted someone’s family dinner? When was the last time you saw two total strangers interact with each other on the street? And just think of how many inventions of the past decades have replaced regular opportunities for human-human interaction, right down to buying groceries and cooking food (charmingly depicted recently by the season opener of Downton Abbey).

This may sound like a caricatured, nostalgic response but it is a) empirically verifiable and b) hard to deny that it’s ‘easy’ nowadays for people to live without sharing common experiences, memories, activities and life with a consistent group of people. This is the very essence of community and it is rupturing. To drive it home, consider this chilling remark from a priest at an ordinary parish in southeastern Michigan:

I don’t know where everybody is. I don’t see anybody anymore and I don’t know where to find them.

Yes, that’s heavy stuff.

It gives “subject to futility” (Rom 8:20) a whole new look. If you’ve read this far, it can seem like the darkness is getting darker. But the light is getting lighter!

Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people; and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song! (Pope John Paul II)

Set firmly in the beating heart of Christ, we can be confident and without fear. He reigns supreme over any problem that might seem insurmountable. And, what’s more, he wants us to live in this world – not out of it. He has a way for us to witness to the world of the gift that is freely given: His Mercy, His Love… Himself. How will He have us witness to the world while living in the world? No doubt: in the context of Christian community.

It is not good that the man should be alone… (Gen 2:18)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20)

…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

When did the Lord ever ask anyone to go-it-alone? When has He moved in history if not in a group that had a sense of ‘we?’ Even Abraham had Lot, Moses had Aaron, Mary had Joseph, Paul had Timothy, etc. God gathers to Himself a people, which is very different from merely calling a bunch of individual persons. As deeply affected by our environment as we are, we need the constant contact, support and inspiration of a people if we are to thrive, grow in holiness and succeed in mission.

Most Catholics in this country (like most people in this country in general) need to be more intentional about this. We don’t need people only to ‘chillax’ with as a means of getting our ‘fix’ of human contact. We need brothers and sisters – fellow disciples we can sharpen and be sharpen by, count on, lean into and love. (Note: recall the verse above: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” – true community requires presence, going far and above just ‘connecting’ through the Internet.) We need to be accountable to others; we need others to point out our weaknesses and strengths; we need intertwined threads if we are to levee the cold. As a rather wise Karol Wojtyla once noted, it is only the vibrancy of solidarity “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others” (pg. 285, Person and Act).

band-of-brothers-12729So, in short, we all need to find and mature in this kind of community. The walk of a disciple (both in terms of holiness and mission) is just about impossible without it. And it is equally as unlikely for any standard pagan walking the streets about you to ‘hear’ the Gospel if they don’t first ‘see’ how we love and are loved by one another (John 13:35). As the authors of “Alone in The New America” once again note:

And it becomes apparent that these young adults need opportunities for communion: to share their stories in supportive communities, to name and to share their suffering, and to receive healing. The remedy for their alienation is the experience of solidarity, of being with others, of forging ties. (Emphasis added.)

In the Christian life, we are never meant to walk alone.

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Contra Comfort – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For


A traveler walks in snow in Chicago


 If you live in the Midwest of the United States, over the past week or so you have been somewhat uncomfortable. The snow has made ordinary tasks just a bit too difficult, the cold has made leaving your house catastrophic and the omnipresent clouds have chased any inspiration into hibernation.

The common response to these kinds of storms, at least in the Western world, is to maintain a certain level of convenience and comfort. We must keep everything in order so that we can still eat and drink what we want, watch what we want, and spend time with those we want to be with. On a certain level, that seems a proper response to a storm. Surely, life must go on. But it also exposes the over-inflated comfort level in our culture.

As clever human beings, we have invented and crafted a myriad of tools, toys and techniques to make our lives easier—more convenient and comfortable. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But in a postmodern culture where the atheistic and nihilistic anthems of Nietzsche and Sartre contaminate our water, comfort becomes our bitter Master, quick to turn its subjects into slaves. Without the horizon of the eternal and transcendent, our only purpose in life is to maintain this baseline comfort level. We bow down to it like starved minions. If there is no meaning to life, what is our life’s aim except the daily toil of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure? Perhaps this is a slice of the carrion comfort that disgusted Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Too often these toxins can contaminate us as disciples and we backslide into living for our physical, emotional and situational comfort. We want just enough of this and that, avoiding pain and suffering at all costs and increasing pleasure to give us a serene, prosperous, tranquil, fun, enjoyable life. Isn’t this basically “the American dream” that assaults us through the media at every turn? Isn’t that what the West now offers the rest of the world? But is this dutiful preservation of perpetual comfort and convenience a healthy state?

This should give us pause:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25)

Does that sound comfortable? To deny yourself, lose your life, and take up your cross sounds like the antithesis of “comfortable”, yet it is the job description of a disciple of Jesus Christ. Moreover, look at Jesus’ very life! What about it – down to his very occupation – was comfortable? And century after century His closest friends, whom the Church honors and reveres, without exception lived lives in which comfort wasn’t the rudder guiding their ship, but the chain they deliberately severed, because it kept them moored to the dock.

One could go so far as declaring the tagline for a Christian disciple to be “Jesus of Nazareth – making people uncomfortable since the year zero”.

But, here is the paradox: that tagline is actually really, really, really Good News.

Peter Kreeft has said that the two worst things in the world, that humans can’t help but resist, are loneliness and boredom. Well, if living for comfort rings with a dark dissonance, it’s because it is boring – and we aren’t meant to live in boredom. So says Benedict XVI:

“This world will offer you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Comfort tries to make a home out of our temporal lives here on Earth. And that simply doesn’t cut it for us! We want more. We want glory (Romans 8). We want radiant, unmitigated joy (John 15:11). We want all things made new (Rev. 21:5). We want to be heroes in a great story – in The Great Story – and what heroes that you know of surrounded themselves with comfort? We want, as two different Irishmen put it, to go “further up and further in” “where the streets have no name”. So we should live like missionary pilgrims “seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:14) who “still haven’t found what [they’re] looking for”, not fearfully and fancifully settle for less – for mere comfort amidst a storm.For this reason we are told to “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (James 1:2), and, taking our guidance from the Lord and our cue from the weather around us this winter, to resist our culture’s comfort fetish and “rage, rage against the dying of the light” in our souls and in our society.

Motherinez

I know a woman who hasn’t had a real night’s sleep in decades. She is an 86 year old, hunched-over nun who runs an orphanage in Mexico City. She began her vocation teaching in a prosperous school in the city. Yet when she encountered abandoned, suffering children on the street, she relinquished her own comfort to be Christ to those who literally had no one else to love and care for them. She set up a tarp for shelter and “took in” the forgotten, unwanted children. Today, housed in a simple building, she almost single-handedly cares for more than 230 children. Most are mentally handicapped and some are quite young, disabled and in such a fragile state that they often need critical help at any moment. So, during the night, as these infants sleep in their cribs, Madre Inez dozes intermittently in a nearby broken down chair so that she can respond to their needs.

This is a woman who has purposely chosen the life of a disciple: a life of love.

Does it sound comfortable? Absolutely not. But, my Word, is it great.