In this continued conversation, I want to discuss having the right intention when undertaking the work of building up the Body of Christ and over-romanticizing community life. The two are closely related, and when our intentions are misplaced, we can be on dangerous building ground.
Humans are unique in our ability to dream, as we do. We do not merely toil daily for shelter and food, we dream of beauty, we build castles in our minds of how life can be, and we set those ideas in motion. And this is where we can fall terribly due to disappointment. To quote C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters, “In every department of life it [disappointment] marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”
In the second chapter of The Screwtape Letters, Wormwood, the demon in training, is taking a lesson from Screwtape, his mentor, on the many ways he can use a new Christian’s ideas to tempt him away from the faith. Screwtape explains to Wormwood that the neophyte he is responsible for bringing to ruin has ideas about what “real” Christians ought to be–even down to the clothes they wear. He further explains that the new Christian will be continually disappointed and the more he knows of the ordinary sinfulness of the folks in the pew, the better.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something that only plagues new Christians. We may outgrow our initial, more shallow ideas of what a Christian is, but there is a good chance we will continue battling our own ideas about what holiness looks like. And the longer we know our fellow Christians, the easier it is to see what we believe to be their sins and faults.
It’s easy to have romantic ideas about Christian community, to think it is the answer to our problems. The reality is, it’s absolutely necessary for Christians but not a cure-all. Community is the place we need to work out our salvation and help others do the same.
The work of building a community of any kind–a parish, a monastery, a marriage, a family–will mean we are in the trenches of sin. We will encounter the reality of fallen mankind but not just in others; we’ll be confronted with our own sins…whether we are ready to deal with them or not. Nothing makes the false images we have of ourselves come crashing down like close relationships. It is easy to love others from afar, not so easy up close!
Thinking back on the many ideas I had before moving close to the monastery where we attend Sunday liturgy is amusing to me now. When we lived in California, we were almost an hour and a half away. Having the monastery in walking distance was a dream we had for many years and are now finally living it in Wisconsin. However, that dream didn’t become a reality without many hitches and quite a few surprises.
I had my own romantic ideas of community life, some which I laugh at now. The move we made across country did not change who any of us are. We all ended up in a new village, and new homes but our relationships did not change. We still had to face issues we ignored before; we still had the same communication issues we always had, we still got on each other’s nerves in the same ways except it was intensified because now we saw each other far more often. Geographic location did not save us from our sinfulness.
Thankfully, we have enough respect and love for one another to put forth the effort of working through those issues. We also have a long history of struggling along the same path together. We are still finding ways to not only live with one another but also thrive and grow together. The love has only deepened.
In seeing some of my dreams about our community crumble, I learned that even though my hopes were good, I was not allowing God to be in charge. I was not open to His will in all things. I could’ve saved myself a lot of frustration in the first couple of years of living by the monastery if I hadn’t built up my own ideas of how things should be and if I hadn’t envisioned all kinds of wonderful plans.
The funny thing is, God has been in charge all along and “surprise, surprise,” His plans have turned out to be far greater than my own. I know this from my life experience: when our stained glass images start to shatter to reveal reality, we tend to get angry and feel we’ve been cheated. If we don’t get over this feeling of entitlement, we will miss the true beauty before us. It may be flawed, but at least it’s real. Too often we want to throw in the towel and walk away from people. If love for Christ and love for others is not our foundation then we will walk away from when things get hard.
We can’t build communities out of fear, vain glory, or selfish motives, neither for high ideals. Those foundations will not stand the tests of time. We also have to stop thinking like consumers.
Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option explains, “American Christians have a bad habit of treating church like a consumer experience. If a congregation doesn’t meet our felt needs, we are quick to find another one that we believe will.” He is right. Consumerism is a part of the Culture of Death. If we are no longer happy with our spouse, don’t want a child who will not be “perfect,” want to end life before it’s time, we will discard life–our own or others. We will consume what we want and walk away from what doesn’t make us happy. The Culture of Death has influenced our lives, even among those of us who are against it. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How has the consumer mentality affected my community, and what can I do to remedy that?’
We need to reflect on the intention behind our relationships and interactions with others. Are we seeking to serve or be served? Are we looking where we can encourage others or nit-pick their faults? Are we seeking to listen and understand or only desire to be heard and have our way? Is love of God and neighbor the foundation of our community and if not how can that be changed?
Over the past 20 years of being part of the small community I belong to, I have seen many people come and go. People who have ideas of what a monk should be, ideas of how Christians should behave, thoughts about families and their place in the church. Unfortunately, some of these people have allowed their ideas to keep them from entering into the life we all share. They’ve missed out on a place of love. It’s a community that is nowhere near perfect and doesn’t claim to be; it is a community built with the right intention, a community built on Christ.