I recently started reading Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche community for the mentally handicapped and their helpers shares a number of reflections on aspects of life in community.
While still in the first chapter, One Heart, One Soul, One Spirit, I saw several applications to missionaries, relationships and personal growth. While we have chosen to affiliate with our sending organization, we have not necessarily chosen to be with the specific individuals on our team. Indeed, we may come from very different cultures, countries, theological perspectives.
Quite possibly, we would not have become “friends”with our coworkers if we met them in different settings. Yet because of our circumstances, we need to become community. As Vanier states, If we enter community because of our own choice, we will stay there only if we become more aware that it was in fact God who chose us for this community. It is only then that we will find the inner strength to live through times of turmoil. (p. 44, emphasis mine)
Community is the breaking down of barriers that close us off from one another and an embracing of others different from us while growing in love, compassion and humility.We bring our own history of being accepted or rejected, our own past histories and inner pain. Each of us is different, but in each one there is a yearning for communion and belonging, but at the same time a fear of it. Love is what we most want, yet it is what we fear the most. (p. 14)
A healthy community cares not just for the “whole” but for the individuals, the people within the community. It is within this structure that we see personal growth. People in healthy community can be vulnerable and humble, growing in love because they are listening to one another and to God. I appreciated that he pointed out that even in a context of transparency and vulnerability it is still possible (and wise, in some cases) to keep our deepest personal secrets and experience the ongoing work of God in our individual lives.
Community reveals where we are weak, difficult to get along with others, have emotional and mental blocks, appetites for things not good, and our frustrations, jealousies, hatred. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are. (p.26) The wounds we carry inside of us can become the place of meeting with God and with our brothers and sisters. Community life with all its difficulties is a special place of growth.
Vanier talks about there always being people within communities with whom we won’t agree, who block us, who contradict us, who stifle us. There will be people who always seem to bring out the worst behavior in us. But in community we are called to discover that the ‘enemy’ is a person in pain and that through the ‘enemy’ we are being asked to become aware of our own weakness, lack of maturity and inner poverty. Perhaps it is this we refuse to look at. The faults we criticize in others are often the ones we refuse to face in ourselves. (p. 34, emphasis mine) With “interpersonal relationship issues” being a major factor in missionary attrition, I look forward to reading more in the book for his suggestions on how to work through this.
Along with community revealing the enemy inside us, we also see that when we accept our own weaknesses and receive the forgiveness of God and are growing in our inner selves, we can accept the weaknesses and flaws of others. They are also forgiven by God and are growing in their journey. Life in community implies a cross, a constant effort, an acceptance which is daily, and mutual forgiveness. … To forgive is also to understand the cry behind the behavior. (p. 37)
Community is not about perfect people. It is a people who are committed to one another , each of whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate. It is a place where each one can grow as they experience forgiveness, and that doesn’t happen unless they are free to be who they actually are. I love this quote from Therese of Lisieux:
perfect love means putting up with other people’s short comings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them. (quoted on p. 43)
Vanier strongly stated we should stop looking for the ideal community. Instead we should give ourselves where we are. Ask how you can better love your brothers an sisters. Then you will find peace…Stop seeing flaws and thank God there are some! Look rather at your own defects and know you are forgiven and can, in your turn, forgive others and today enter into the conversion of love, and remember, pray always. (p. 46, 47)
Community is a living body. We have read the Apostle Paul’s teaching on us being many members in one body, having different roles to play, and different gifts to use (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). Vanier says that if we are not faithful to use our gifts, we are harming the community. He states that communities that try to make their members look all alike deform them. Instead, as each person grows in the gifts they’ve been given to build the community, they make it more beautiful, more radiant, a clearer sign of the Kingdom. (p. 51)
As Vanier closes the first chapter, he reminds us that Jesus prayed that his people be one as he and his Father are one. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23 Each community should be working towards this union. But it can only reach it in and through the Holy Spirit. As long as we live, all we can do is walk humbly towards it. (p. 57, emphasis mine)
This has been a good reminder of the grace and mercy of God as expressed in the lives of his people who are growing to reflect him through the process of living in community together. As a Member Care provider, I hope I encourage others to look at widely at where God has placed them and see where he is showing them his great love in the middle of challenges of life.
I especially appreciated that in the midst of all this talk of loving others and accepting them for who they are, Vanier included this great description of the importance of self-care!
But to be good instruments of God’s love we must avoid being over-tired, burnt-out, stressed, aggressive, fragmented or closed up. We need to be rested, centered, peaceful, aware of the needs of our body, our heart and our spirit. Jesus says that there is no greater love than to give our lives, but let us not give over-tired, stressed and aggressive lives. Let us, rather, give joyful ones! (p. 47)
(c) 2013. Faith De La Cour