There came a moment during this past year when the luster of novitiate began to fade, and community life became more of a burden than it did a joy. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I looked around at the inane and constantly occurring conflicts in the friary, the unbearable idiosyncrasies of some of the strangest people you will ever meet, and the dysfunction of leadership that still struggles to understand and live the charism of our founder after 800 years of fighting, and just screamed, “This is not what I signed up for!” I signed up to be a part of a group of men that live, work, and pray together to bring about the kingdom of God; a group of men that are identified with and work for the poor and marginalized of society; a group of men that recognize the wonder of creation, the power of the incarnation, and the joy of experiencing it all. That’s what I signed up for.
That same week, I found a letter written by Fr. Jose Carballo, the former minister general of the Order of Friars Minor and the current secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, to the Poor Clares on their 800th year anniversary. Fr. Carballo writes,
If there is anything that destroys our fraternities it is the pretension of being above others, becoming judges of our brothers and sisters. This is due to our projecting onto them our dreams, and we demand of God and others that they fulfill them. Loving our dream of fraternity more than real fraternity, we turn into destroyers of fraternity. We begin to be accusers of our brothers, and then we accuse God, and finally we become desperate accusers of ourselves. We must remembers that there will never exist the ideal fraternity that can accept our dreams of pretentious pride, and that the fraternity is built on the basis of pardon and reconciliation, since it has so much to do with our own limitations and those of others.
Obviously I knew that there would always be conflicts when it came to differing levels of cleanliness and work distribution, as I’ve written about before, but when I searched further, I found that many of the things that frustrated me the most were not other people; they were the result of things that I brought to community life. Of the most notable was that I brought with me unfair expectations of others, exactly has Br. Carballo writes. Both consciously and subconsciously, I had determined how they should act, what they should believe in, what they should and shouldn’t need. Because I was unable to be flexible with my expectations, they quickly turned into judgments, which turned into condemnations, eventually ending in resentment, something that did not leave me open to new experiences of love.
It was then that I found a book by Jean Vanier that described every feeling, thought, doubt, hope, and situation that I had experienced so far in novitiate. Entitled Community and Growth: Our Pilgrimage, Vanier offers insights and wisdom from his many years of founding communities that are both practical and spiritual. Here’s how he opens the book:
Community is a terrible place. [Good start, right?] It is the place where our limitations and our egoism are revealed to us. When we begin to live full-time with others, we discover our poverty and out weaknesses, our inability to get on with people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we were alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny life to others. And if we become incapable of loving, what is left? There is nothing but blackness, despair and anguish. Love seems an illusion. We seem to be condemned to solitude and death.
So community brings a painful revelation of our limitations, weaknesses and darkness; the unexpected discovery of the monsters within us is hard to accept. The immediate reaction is to try to destroy the monsters or to hide them away again, pretending they don’t exist, or to flee from community life and relationship with others, or to find that the monsters are theirs, not ours. But if we accept that monsters are there, we can let them out and learn to tame them. This is growth towards liberation.
If that’s not powerfully wise first page, I don’t know what is. The best part? It only gets better. Throughout the entirety of the text, he simply has an eloquent way of weaving together his own experiences of success and failure, insights he’s learned along the way, prophetic condemnations of unhealthy communities, spiritual nourishment, and his own hopes for the future, while maintaining a humble tone throughout.
These two texts were tremendously helpful in my formation this year, and I strongly recommend them to anyone entering community life. For me, they made me realize that what I was getting out of community life was in fact exactly what I signed up for. I signed up to be a penitent with men who recognize their limitations and sinfulness; men who bring with them brokenness and imperfection; men who realize that love is messy; men who know that it’s worth getting on each others’ nerves and letting each other down every once in a way if it means going through life together. I did not sign up to be in a group of perfect men without any need for God, nor did I sign up to be in a group of men exactly like me! Sure, there is a burden to community life some days, but in the end, even those burdens can be entirely grace-filled if you let them. Community life can definitely be a struggle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.