The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 11:48:46

Searching for community

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 30, 2014

One of my ongoing mental preoccupations is the problem of community. How do we establish it without getting it wrong? What are the sound principles of "intentional" communal living? By "intentional" I mean a kind of communal life that is deliberately adopted and cultivated, as opposed to what occurs spontaneously just from the fact of our living in society.

I've been pondering it since my undergraduate days, when my discovery of philosophy coincided with the imploding of the covenant communities that had been a major influence, for both good and bad, in the spirituality at my alma mater.  

At Steubenville I had learned "how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity." Never before or since have I experienced such wealth and warmth and joy and blessing in committed Christian companionship. I still pine for it and feel bereft without it. But I also learned there how easily it goes awry—how abusive dynamics creep in, even when everyone involved means well. And when it goes awry, people get injured—sometimes irreparably.

In the years since, two things have been constant in me: a longing for true community and an acute sensitivity to bad group dynamics, which makes me recoil from anything that smacks of "community."

I talk about this issue often with friends. Some don't understand the longing. Don't you have a husband and children and friends? Shouldn't we just concentrate on rebuilding the "little platoons" of traditional American society?—the Knights of Columbus, the Ladies Sodality, the Rotary Club, the PTA, the parish? Some friends who have had bad experiences with covenant communities, the Legion of Christ or the like have come to the conclusion that the effort to deliberately "form community" is in itself dysfunctional—it's trying to substitute the organic with the artificial. Forget community! Focus on your family.

I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. 

A priest friend likes to tease me for my grass-is-always-greener coveting of monasticism. "What, your own Sacrament isn't enough for you?" He helps me see that the stability, serenity and regularity of monastic life has quite a lot to do with the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that undergird it. The lay vocation has a different function, different needs and different accompanying graces and consolations.

I take his point. And it helps me understand better one of the ways "intentional communities" typically go wrong. It's role confusion—a collapsing of the lay vocation into the religious.

I also see plainly how the longing for community can become a substitute for and an avoidance of the effort and vulnerability involved in genuine intimacy. We feel the gaps in ourselves and our actual relationships, and, instead of working to fill those, we start fantasizing about something else—something less challenging and more rewarding. Or else we try to substitute natural bonds with arbitrary bonds, written down and agreed to in advance.

So, "Yes, true" to all that.

And yet, and yet... I can't help myself. Deep down, I'm persuaded that the fractured, dispersed way we live today is not okay. I'm sure it's the prime cause of the epidemic levels of stress and depression and mental illness and general misery we're experiencing. I note that Karol Wojtyla, before he became John Paul II, visited the United States and was alarmed by the rootlessness and alienation he sensed here. And that was in the 70's, before things got much, much worse.

The human person urgently needs to belong to a wider community—one where he's truly known and loved and appreciated for who he is and what he has to offer, and one where his defects are supplied by the gifts of others. The nuclear family is the foundation, but it's not sufficient in itself. We need more. We need extended family; we need neighbors and colleagues who know us and care for us; we need familiarity with a wide mix of types and generations and aptitudes; we need a distinctive local culture incarnating real values, where we feel at home with others. We need rituals and traditions; we need to recreate with the people we also work and worship with; we need a polity.

The kind of superficial, piecemeal, practically random dealings-with-others most of us make do with today doesn't cut it.

I keep thinking there must be a solution. It can't be so that there's no way to do intentional community without instituting dysfunction. I'm encouraged by the fact that my yearnings are shared by many.

In my conversation with John Crosby (recorded last week and available on the member page) we ended by agreeing that personalists have more to offer and do in the way of helping think through and articulate the principles of true communion. Anyway, I mean to try. Someday soon, I'll post about good models of true community.