The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Being community is tough!

Diversity in Christianity1Rev Suzanne Cooke shares her thoughts on the challenges of living in a community.

Being in a community can indeed be tough. Being community means that we have to try to get along with one another, even though we might not be family and, let’s face it, we might not even like each other very much.   But it is nonetheless the case that living together as a group of people devoted to the same goal is an ancient way to organise ourselves and one which has a clear biblical foundation.
It is this difficult situation that Paul writes about time and time again in the New Testament.  In fact he wrote what became whole books of the bible, out of the need to help those early Christians live together as communities of Christian believers.  It was never easy!
As some of you will know I have an interest in the monastic life, in the lives and traditions of those people who we call monks and nuns. Those who have chosen and feel called to give up their families, their friends, careers, even their homes, and join communities of other believers dedicated, in varying ways, entirely to the love and service of God. 
People often question me when I suggest that living in community can be an intensely difficult and stressful life choice.   A few people are even angry at the thought that some ‘Religious’ folk, as we call them, feel called to life almost entirely spent in prayer and contemplation – that is almost devoid of ‘normal’ productive work; and where they are shielded from life outside their community by a small army of dedicated people who ensure they never have to encounter the ‘outside world’.  I have often spoken to people who are confused and perplexed by my suggestion that living in monastic communities is actually far from the easy way out, far from the easy option many might imagine it to be.
I must admit that I find it difficult to try and explain, in the short time I normally have at my disposal, just why I believe this to be the case.   Because, of course, it can appear that in retreating from the ‘world’, monks and nuns retreat from all that is difficult and troublesome in life, and replace it with a straightforward existence of prayer, worship and the simple tasks associated with day to day living.
There is, of course, one main problem with this view of monastic life: that is the simple fact that whether we retreat from the world or chose to live in it, one element remains constant – we take ourselves with us!
The one thing that makes living in community just so very difficult is the simple fact that most often WE are our own worst enemy. This is true whether we live in the midst of twenty-first century modern Britain or in an enclosed monastic order in rural Spain. It was true when Paul wrote his letters and it is still true today.  
Jesus tells us that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves.   It can sometime feel that loving our neighbour is the most impossible thing in the world – but my experience is that loving ourselves is an equally difficult task.  In community we encounter ourselves in the most uncomfortable of ways, revealed as we are by others’ experience of us.
Our monastic brothers and sisters take vows that include a commitment to humility – they are compelled by these promises to return again and again to the hard truth of their own frailty and brokenness.  This relentless call to vulnerability could never be an easy option and is one which, in my own journey of faith, I find consistently inspiring.

Suzanne CookeRev Suzanne Cooke is the priest-in-charge of the Upper Tas Benefice in South Norfolk and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force.  You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk

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