Part Two B
SHARING LIFE IN COMMUNITY
As we move into the next section of the Ratio (19-21), Chapter II of our Constitutions on Communion of life provides a good place to begin:
25. Love comes from God and unites us with God, and through this unifying process it transforms us, so that overcoming all divisions, we are made one, until finally God is all in all (see 1Cor15,28). This communion of life which Augustine proposes to us in imitation of the primitive apostolic community (see Acts 2:42-47), is an anticipation of complete and definitive union in God and the way to achieve it. While it is true that this “holy sharing of life” among the brothers is a gift of God, still each of us must make an intense effort at perfecting it until unity in love is achieved...
This project of love has the characteristics of a work of art or of the beauty of nature. Think for a moment of a work of art or a monument of architecture which moves your heart as an eminent sign of beauty. You could also think of a place of natural beauty, the sea, a mountain peak or a county lane. My example is a Tuscan landscape of vineyards and olive groves. What is it about art or nature that can hold our gaze so that it is difficult to turn away, or which can calm our spirit so we remain in its grasp? Is it not because what we gaze upon is a powerful example of the harmony that can exist between God’s work and creative abilities of the human person? That is, the harmony that is created through the use and expression of human giftedness (painting, sculptor, designing, farming, hard work) when the heart is aligned to the plan of God and cooperates with his creation (the earth, stone, wood, imagination, intelligence). The fruit of that collaboration between the creator and one of his own is a beauty which delights the heart and the harmony it produces is what captivates our soul.
For our Holy Father Augustine, such harmony is also the fruit of life in common.
For Augustine, harmony consists in achieving the ‘one heart’ alone. He says that the love of God is first in the order of the commandments, but love of neighbor is first in the order of action. Therefore, the way of holiness is a way shared with our brothers and sisters.
In his book, Carisma: Comunità (Charism: Community), Fr. Van Bavel comments that at the beginnings of monasticism the great fathers took their inspiration from the primitive community of Jerusalem: The community of believers were of one heart and one mind … and everything was held in common (Acts 4, 32). Van Bavel goes on to insist that Augustine over time arrived at an interpretation of this charism in which life in community was not primarily a way to carry out well some activity or mission, but rather community was a value in itself. This, then, gives an answer to the question of many as to why we say community is our charism when most other religious also live in community. The purpose of our life is not to form community to facilitate some activity, but for the value of community in itself. How challenging this interpretation! How often have we felt the pull of the work waiting for us in our room or office while the community is together at recreation?
When we commit ourselves to fraternal love, a transformation takes place. It is a transformation required to battle against the reality of sin; that is, when our weaknesses lead us to place ourselves in the center of everything else or to wish to possess the other. In our day, this tendency is recognized as individualism and it was among the areas of discussion in our last General Chapter, precisely around a wider discussion of the challenges to our way of life. The document mentioned earlier, Fraternal life in Community addresses this challenge in a very engaging manner building upon Augustine’s vision.
While respect for the human person is a value to be respected, individualism has emerged as a most unhealthy outgrowth in many of the world’s societies. A balance must be sought, “not always easy to achieve, between the common good and the respect for the human person…”(39). There is a powerful and beautiful symmetry between the principles expressed in the Constitutions and the stance proposed by Fraternal Life in Community. From the Constitutions:
26. Community is the axis around which Augustinian religious life turns: a community of brothers who live harmoniously in their house, united by a single soul and a single heart, seeking God together and open to the service of the Church.
And from Fraternal life:
Religious life is the place where the daily and patient passage from “me” to “us” takes place, from my commitment to a commitment entrusted to the community, from seeking “my things” to seeking “the things of Christ”(39).
The challenge before us is clear: how can we translate our vocation to fraternal love into concrete actions and a way of life? An attitude that can assist us in this is wisely suggested through this charming account.
A Catholic service group of youth counselors with a priest chaplain accompanied a number of children with Downs syndrome on an outing in the mountains. One of the young boys, somewhat overly enthusiastic, began to climb a tree. The chaplain, fortunately seeing him before he climbed too dangerously high, called to him asking him to come down. “No, Father, I want to go to the top”. Calmly, the priest explained to the boy: “That’s fine, but if you want to go up, you must do it like a tree; you have to plant yourself firmly on the ground, down here, and then raise your hands very high toward the sky. Do you understand”? “I’m not sure, Father, but I’m coming down”.
The priest’s counsel should be taken to heart by all those who aspire to community life. Planting ourselves firmly on the ground may well describe our day to day life as brothers or sisters to one another. It begins simply with the choice to spend time with one another; a preference to share the table with my brothers rather than look for any chance to get away; placing community activities and events before my own; valuing the opportunity to honor my brother or sister on anniversaries and birthdays. Furthermore, Fr. Van Bavel alerts us to the danger of idealizing community life. He says that we frequently ‘overvalue’ the concept of community life. It can become an ideal that we wish to impose. Hence, impulsively deciding to climb a tree. He explains that the danger comes when we do not achieve the ideal we seek. We end up ‘undervaluing’ community life; we may begin to believe it is unattainable. Consequently, we need to live the mystical component of communion of life alongside the practical. That is, remembering that communion is first and foremost a gift of the Spirit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor of the last century, offers a similar reflection in his book Life Together: “it is not a question of making community, because Christ has already called us together, we are already community”. The same sentiments are expressed in Fraternal life in Community, “Before being a human construction, religious community is a gift of the Spirit. It is the love of God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, from which religious community takes its origin and is built as a true family gathered together in the Lord’s name”(8).
The chaplain’s advice to the young boy “then raise your hands very high towards the sky” can translate into the place of prayer and sacrament in our common life. Fraternal life expresses it in this way:
Prayer in common, which has always been considered the foundation of all community life, starts with contemplation of God’s great and sublime mystery, from wonder for his presence, which is at work in the most significant moments of the life of our religious families as well as in the humble and ordinary realities of our communities (12).
But, again, our feet need to remain planted on the ground; we have already received the gift of communion. We are brothers and sisters because of what Christ has done for us and in us. We need to be clear: Christian fraternity is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Before becoming a task of human construction, religious community is a gift of the Spirit.
READING FOR ENRICHMENT
Plan of Augustinian Formation nn. 19 - 22, 29.
Constitutions OSA, nn. 25 - 29.
Fraternal Life in Community Part I and Part II, nn. 39 - 42; 54 - 57.
"Augustinian Community and the Apostolate" by V.Rev. Fr. Theodore Tack, OSA. Living in Freedom under Grace, Curia Generalizia Agostiniana, 1979.
Carisma: Comunidad by T. Van Bavel. Chapter 4 (Spanish).
What community experiences have you had which seemed to you a true example of fraternal harmony? What made it so?
How do you understand Bonhoeffer’s statement: “it is not a question of making community, because Christ has already called us together, we are already community”? How is community first a gift of the Spirit?
What examples can you think of which express the daily and patient passage from “me” to “us” from Fraternal Life # 39?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION AND DIALOGUE
Personal: reflect on your reading with a brief written response (1 – 2 pages) using these three questions, if you find them helpful.
Communal: Read and discuss some of these selections with your students in formation.
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Harper and Row Publishers: New York, 1954.