I was a lone wolf until college. I prided myself on not having a group of friends but many distinctive, particular friendships. I hated following the crowd and I thought of myself as something of an artist. Maybe it was becoming Catholic as a senior in high school that changed me, but by my roaring twenties, I had become a community junkie.
I opted into several intentional communities after the college years at Notre Dame, including a Catholic orphanage run by volunteers in Honduras and a Catholic Worker House back in the U.S. upon my return. I discerned several religious communities seriously, but ultimately married an equally community-oriented man, and we’re now raising our children in a semi-intentional communal neighborhood.
Having spent a number of years involved in various communities, I’ve realized that I’m interested in how to keep communities healthy and united, how to draw the appropriate boundaries and how to make things last in a sustainable, ongoing way.
Short-term service in community is great. Long-lasting, deep, real community rooted in faith that takes a lifetime is better.
What I would like to share from my experience of Christian community is something I think applies to every person in every relationship under the sun. I think human beings are made for community by virtue of our creatureliness and our need for relationship, and as such, this will apply to everyone. Of course we are all in varying degrees of intimate or less intimate communities. But as I said, all of us need other human beings to survive this mortal coil.
What I have learned, or rather, what I am continuing to learn is this: the more good there is, the more good there is. This sounds cryptic, but let me explain. I think one of the deepest and most insidious lies that can tear communities of any kind apart is that if someone else has or is something good, then I have or am less good as a result. We operate out of a first principle of competition and rivalry rather than an assumption that someone else’s good actually is my good too.
Every community I’ve ever been a part of struggles with this. Every relationship I’ve ever been a part of struggles with this. There is the temptation to see someone else, particularly someone close to me, as a threat to my flourishing if any seed of jealousy or disunity is planted, whether purposefully or accidentally, and is not weeded out with intentionality and magnanimity. I no longer rejoice with his rejoicing and weep with her weeping (cf. Rom 12:15). Instead I begin to rejoice with her weeping and weep with his rejoicing.
Think about it. This is the story of Satan’s fall from heaven. An angel stops believing that God’s goodness enriches and raises up every other being in the universe. This angel becomes a rival to the very God who created and sustains all life, including this angel. This angel hates the very goodness needed to live and flourish, and soon there is no goodness left in this angel. A dark, cold chasm opens up between this fallen angel of light and God who is light.
This narrative has played itself out in my own life and relationships to the degree that I’ve allowed these seeds of competitive bitterness to grow and choke out the generosity and charity necessary for communal flourishing. The more similar a friend or community member is to me, the more tempting it is to see his or her goodness as a threat to my own. It becomes a zero-sum game. They like her? Well that means they don’t like me. He’s happy and successful and things are going so well for him? That makes me sad and feel like a failure. They have a beautiful and joyful family? That means that we’re unhappy and raising our children terribly.
Why do we do this? It’s almost comical how much we can compete for what in reality is an infinite and inexhaustible fountain of goodness. Not only that, but the opposite becomes true when you turn the lie inside out. When you are flourishing, that actually can allow me to flourish more when I unite myself to you. When you’re happy, that can actually multiply my happiness when I open myself up to seeing us as a part of one another. Your goodness really can become mine and vice versa.
There is such freedom in stamping out the lie of human rivalry and embracing the joyful community that is ultimately Christ’s Mystical Body. Uniting ourselves to the very Source of Love and Goodness means that we really are all better when one of us is better and we really are all suffering when one of us is suffering. As St. Paul reminds us: “If [one] part [of the body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).
One of the greatest assets in overcoming this very human tendency is commitment. Marriage is a prime example of this. When you are in it for life, you recognize how deeply your happiness and flourishing depends on the other. You both are all in and “rejoice with her rejoicing and weep with his weeping” becomes incredibly practical.
This is a little trickier in less permanent communities, but I would like to offer that in every friendship, in every neighborhood, in every workplace, there is an opportunity for real, ongoing, nourishing friendship that says “You are good, and I am good. Let’s be even better together.”
Grace helps, so stay close to the Source. There is no more joyful experience on this earth than Christ present in two or three gathered together (cf. Mt 18:20), living the life—that full abundant life—in a way that makes it easier to be good.
Featured Photo: The Catholic Worker community of South Bend, Indiana; courtesy of the author.