Last year I wrote an article about what it means to be a missionary, and I really appreciated St. John Paul II’s definition of “missionary attitude,” or missionary zeal: to be aware of who a person is before we preach to and teach him a new, or better, way of living – as a Christian. This awareness invites us to consider what modern missionary work looks like now. Of course, most of us are not called to uproot our lives and move overseas to found a mission or join one, though some of us are.
When we see this “missionary attitude” as one that beckons us toward community, away from the narcissism of social media and toward the plight of those who are suffering, we understand that cultivating community is everyone’s responsibility. It’s not just about volunteering at your parish or opening up your home on occasion for friends to join you for dinner. These all help us work toward fostering a sense of non-biological family, but there must be more for you and me to do if we are to fulfill the missionary call.
There must be a radical shift in our attitudes and lifestyles in order for genuine communities to flourish. (When I use the word “community,” I mean its definition as a feeling of fellowship with others, rather than mere neighbors who live in close proximity to each other.) So our hearts must be thrust open to changes, new possibilities, and yes, stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable areas of our lives.
God often nudges us to grow in the space outside of our comfort zones. We cannot remain as we were, or have been, and expect to create positive, holy change in our pockets of influence. Instilling a sense of camaraderie begins in our homes, first and foremost among the people with whom we share a living space. (Even if you live alone, you can extend this to include your immediate family members.) As our families become more closely united in a common purpose – to grow in holiness and allow God to nurture our spiritual gifts – then we, as a group, end up being incredibly powerful witnesses to everyone we encounter.
I think of the families I know whose lives are such inspirations. The husbands are faithful and involved, always concerned with the needs of their wives and children. Their sacrifices are evident, yet they don’t complain. And the wives, though often harried and overwhelmed, patiently parent their children during irritating and repetitive episodes of cattiness and whining. Sometimes the children, too, are helping out younger siblings or attentively listening to what mom and dad are saying.
Although no one’s family is perfect, the simple ways that families love each other and make a concerted effort every day to strive for holiness is a profound statement, especially in the society of today. When we focus first on our families, God will call us out into the mission field, and the change that ensues in the lives of others will be authentic.
The most beautiful and life-changing way we can foster a deeper sense of community is by living a life of authenticity, a life that mirrors the face of Jesus, a life that speaks the language of the human heart. So, even if you and I are not called to be literal missionaries, we are called to cultivate that sense of belonging, that sense of fellowship, among the people whom we encounter every day – the convenience store attendant, the clerk at the big box retailer, the emo teen who walks past our house each day, the grumpy retiree who never smiles, the pastor who is always too busy to return our phone calls, the whining child, the overworked spouse, and pretty much everyone, whether a brief encounter or long-term relationship.
I say this, not because nurturing our relationships is simple or easy, but precisely because it is so tough in our Information Age where acedia and apathy run rampant. We are always connected through our digital devices, but we seldom feel a true, deep, fulfilling sense of connectedness with others.
This year, we can make a concerted effort to instill some discipline in our lives when it comes to the convenient ways we may use as cop-outs for communicating with others – quick email responses (or choosing not to respond out of convenience), text messaging, and constantly getting involved in those endless debates on social media. That’s not to say we exclude these from our lives entirely, only that we limit how much and how often we use them as means to exclusively propel or suspend our relationships with others.
Ultimately, authenticity in how we reach other people, however brief or simple it may be, must be based on a solid contemplative life, in which we immerse ourselves regularly in that interior classroom, that cell of the heart, where God resides. When we listen first and spend time pondering God – whether it’s a theological truth or appreciating the wonder, beauty, and complexity of His creation – we will understand that community begins with communication.
And purposeful, meaningful, transformative communication begins with listening, then encouraging, and finally, being present to the other in a way that they know you genuinely love who they are rather than what they do.
People will begin to notice when you pause long enough to make eye contact, ask sincere questions about their lives, and respond with validation and encouragement. That’s how we cultivate community – through the heart language, which essentially builds Christian charity by way of mutual trust, emotional sharing, and faithfulness. (Others need to know that we will be present and available to them when they are in need.)
Though everyone’s life is full of activity, it behooves us all to slow down long enough to become truly and deeply aware of other people’s struggles and triumphs, so that we can share with them in the celebrations and periods of bereavement. The greatest gift of community we can give is of our time, spent with a person perhaps in shared silence or maybe over laughter and a cup of tea. The power of community is when we do not rush our relationships, but instead gently nurture them from seed to flower.