Pain and the gift of community


While away from the parish recently, I was able to take time reflecting on what community is about.  I was helped with this by the wonderful little book Welcome as a Way of Life by Benjamin S. Wall.  The book reflects on the reality of community as it has been lived and reflected on by Jean Vanier.

Vanier is the French-Canadian founder of the communities called L’Arche, where people of normal capacities and people with intellectual disabilities live together in community as friends searching together for human fulfillment.  Jean Vanier is truly one of the spiritual giants of our age.

There is one significant point that Wall makes as he reflects on Vanier’s experience that really strikes me and challenges me.  Vanier insists that we often look to community as the place to heal our pain, our loneliness, and to free us from our sense that our lives don’t matter. In fact, however, “community accentuates these realities.  Although community can be life-giving, ‘it is also a place of pain because it is a place of truth and of growth’” (p. 30).  Community confronts us with the truth about ourselves as well as the other.   “While we are alone,” Vanier says, “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. 31).

How often I encounter this in parish life.  People come to a parish to find God, to experience God’s love and to love others in the name of God.  People come to find others who know God and can help them grow closer to God.  Me, too, I would say.

Instead, what we often discover in the parish community are people who know less about God than we think we do, people whose lives do not match up so well with Jesus’ kingdom way, people who are hypocritical, controlling, judgmental and mean-spirited.

This, in turn, makes us angry, touching deep sources of anger within us.  We begin to find ourselves judging and talking negatively about the others.  Our own need to control comes out, as we in frustration realize we cannot control all the others in this parish.

Ironically, and painfully, this is the very place of encounter with reality, with what is true.  It is the encounter with the truth of our and others broken humanity.  This encounter is what has potential to lead us to the greatest truth:  that is, the truth of our need for and discovery of a savior who loves us not despite our brokenness, but with our brokenness.

As Vanier so powerfully reveals, in the painful encounter of community, we discover the truth that, “We must cry out to Jesus, the Saviour, who will send us his Spirit and guide us, and forgive us.  Only then can the truth make us free” (p. 28).

Community frees us from the illusion of being self-reliant and self-sufficient.  Community reveals to us our need for a Savior who loves us and who possess the healing balm that our broken self so desperately needs.  This is precisely the role of Christian community, to unmask our broken humanity and to turn our hearts to the God who is the source of authentic life.

And yet, make no mistake about it, this is a painful process.  It is why so many leave our parishes, deciding I suppose that it is much easier to live with the illusion that somewhere I will find and be part in the making of the perfect community, because I am good enough, rather than embracing the truth of my, and others, terrible vulnerability and need for constant mercy and healing generated by God.

Father Anthony Oelrich currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

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