What is a Religious Community?

(This is Neil.) Remember to keep Todd in your prayers. I’m not sure if I will be able to increase the frequency of my posting, or, to be honest, if that would be a good thing. But today I have a snow day, so, instead of teaching Western Civilization, I would like to put up a short post about religious communities. Hopefully, this can supplement your reading of Perfectae Caritatis, Vatican II’s Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, which Todd is excerpting.

What is a religious community? Why would anyone want to join them? I do not live in a religious community, so I would like to answer these questions by drawing on a 2005 article in Studies in Spirituality by Kees Waaijman, a Carmelite Friar who directs research at the Titus Brandsma Institute. Fr Waaijman organizes his examination of religious communities according to “two polarities”:

The one polarity is introversion/extroversion. Some communities are inward looking; others are directed to the outside world. The other polarity is person/community. Some communities are organized around the personal spiritual journeys of their individual members, whereas others constitute a collective to which members conform as best they can. Together the two polarities offer scope for any number of interesting variants.

The first variant to look at is eremitic communities, which are very much organized around introversion and personal spiritual journeys. These communities still exist among the Camaldolese and Carthusians, but have roots in the third century, when Christians went into the Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian deserts. Why? Classical culture respected asceticism. The dramatic witness of martyrdom was no longer possible. Christianity had lost its radical quality. Or perhaps these men and women were developing models that had always existed – itinerant evangelists, celibates for the sake of the kingdom.

They lived in solitude, confronting demons as Jesus did during his forty days in the wilderness. They purified themselves and tried to open up to God. They did so, mainly, by sitting still. Abba Rufus tells us, “Interior peace [hesuchia] means to remain sitting in one’s cell with fear and knowledge of God.” Why, then, do we speak of them in a discussion of religious communities?

First, even solitude needs guidance from an abba, for this way of life – like any other – is vulnerable to fantasies and delusions. Second, the monks would regularly gather to share their experiences and practice discernment. Third, they would come together to obtain provisions and to celebrate the Eucharist. Fourth, practically speaking, they would need to collectively support themselves, usually by selling baskets and carpets. Eventually, eremitic cells would often be found together in a laura, under the spiritual guidance of an abba.

I can imagine a likely critique of eremitic communities: are human beings really meant for solitude? I will not try to answer that question here. But St Basil had serious doubts, writing, “Nothing, indeed, is so compatible with our nature as living in society and in dependence upon one another and as loving our own kind.” And, thus, our second variant: coenobitic communities, which are still introverted but focus on a communal search for God.

The point of a communal search for God is recognizable when we take note of the constant danger of a personal search for God – such a quest can easily remain imprisoned within the confines of the ego. And, it was thought, as Waaijman writes, “The presence of others – and this applied especially to the abba – was the most appropriate way to break down self-involvement and bend the will outwards.” This “breaking down” occurred through obedience to superiors, and simply by, as Basil said, constantly living “in dependence upon one another.” If everything, including property, was put at the disposal of the community, there was no opportunity for self-absorption. The coenobitic monks would then find God together. St Augustine: “In God we are growing from multitude into unity. The fire of love may bring us together, so that with one heart we may follow the One.”

Kees Waaijman reminds us that the Rule of St Benedict is an attempt to balance eremitic and coenobitic types of community. The first chapters are more eremitic, being drawn from the Regula Magistri. The later chapters draw on St Augustine and St Basil.

A third variant is found in apostolic communities, which emphasize community and extroversion, since their purpose is a goal outside the community itself. There are patristic precedents for this sort of thing, but we can see more formal roots in the mendicant orders of the middle Ages, who imitated Jesus’ itinerant ministry with a special focus on the proclamation of the Gospel. We can see the Jesuits, with a spirituality of universal availability, as an apostolic community.

Perhaps the most recognizable form, however, exists in Vincentian life. When we look at the General Rules of the Sisters of Charity, we see that St Vincent de Paul spends a good deal of time on the structure of the community, but sharply distinguishes it from a monastic order. While those orders’ spiritualities meant seclusion in a convent, the Sisters of Charity would, as Waaijman writes, “devote themselves to the sick and the poor in their situation” (emphasis his). Vincent de Paul describes a Vincentian convent: the cell is a rented room, the chapel is the parish church, the quadrangle might be a hospital world. The center is not within the community, but outside in “their situation”

Waaijman writes:

Vincent de Paul designed a religious community life that was wholly intent on the outside world, on the alterity. His concern was with the transforming power of love. Love makes it possible that we cannot see anybody suffering without suffering with them. Love opens one person’s heart to another and makes her sense what the other is experiencing. And this love is God. According to Vincent, in serving the poor with kindness, gentleness and respect, one makes God’s presence palpable: “Doing what God has done is to be God yourself.”

There is one more possible variant: extroversion with a person-centered spirituality. Waaijman calls this variant the community of solidarity. There are Jesuit precedents for this, but we might also think of the fellowship of secular institutes, which are comprised of people living the same lives as ordinary people.

This might seem rather difficult. But Waaijman sees three spiritual values in this sort of community. First, these Christians encounter Christ as the hidden Christ of Emmaus, or the Christ who announces himself suddenly to Mary Magdalene: this is a Christ who is sought and found in the culture, in the moment. Second, they cultivate a distinct spirituality of presence, of simply being there as God is, without special qualities or customs. Finally, their inevitable loneliness permits a radical openness. Waaijman writes, “The loneliness of a hidden life that merely asks to be present entails giving up the joys of a home and a certain spiritual loneliness, which, however, offers an opportunity for greater openness towards others, a more universal love and a freer endeavor to be of service to other people.”

Hopefully, we have learned about the potential riches of religious community. Perhaps we have also learned about the variety of religious community. As Waaijman writes about his own religious community, “The Carmelites started out as full-fledged eremites, then joined together in an introverted coenobitic community; in a subsequent phase, having been driven from Israel and returned to Europe, they joined the mendicant brothers, thus becoming an extroverted community; finally, in modern times, they occasionally emerge as communities of solidarity.”

One might be drawn to introversion, or, for that matter, extroversion – but one should not make a fetish of it.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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