Thursday, November 18, 2010


We use the word all the time, but what does ‘community’ mean and what does it entail?

For Saint Paul, a Christian Community held everything in common. All property was sold and the money was dealt out according to each one’s need. In doing this, the community ensured that each was looked after. The system provided a type of social security for the poor and those in difficult circumstances. This way of living also ensured - or was meant to ensure - that those of status recognised that they were as dependant on themselves as they were of the others in the community and were even more dependant on God. There was a unity within the Christian Community that was so opposite to what the rest of society was used to that it was counter-cultural.

The same applies today.
People talk about ‘our local community’ and that we lack the infrastructure for real community. That is absolute codswallop. Community does not need infrastructure, it needs people and the desire for unity. Modern communities do not have to share their property in common, as the early Christians did, but a true community will not hesitate to give of their time, money, resources and their vary selves for the Other. Moreover, it is totally acceptable for each member to expect that others within the community will help them, when in need. Communities are welcoming places.

Henri Nouwen speaks of this welcoming as hospitality. For Nouwen, hospitality requires a withdrawal into the self. However, this withdrawal is not to be self focused in the sense that the withdrawal is to be for  and about the Other in a way that gives them room to grow. God is the perfect welcomer and the hospitable host par excellence. Through God, everything flourishes for there cannot be life without God. Consider this example, paraphrased from the one that Nouwen gives in The Wounded Healer:

God is, and has been since the infinite; God is omnipresent and, before creating not-God, filled the whole. To create the not-God, then, God had to contract, to compress or to withdraw into Godself. This allowed space for the not-God to exist and to flourish. Still present with and in the Creation, God is nonetheless not sand, not tree, not building, not vehicle. These exist in the space that God once filled.

We are called to imitate God. Just as God, by self compressing, allowed space for the not-God to come into being in Their presence, we too are called to create space for the Other. In the same way that a good, welcoming host does not force themselves on the guest, but becomes servant to them, a welcoming community becomes servant to its members; each flourishing community supports and aids each member in flourishing, doing the same for new or potential members as it does for long standing ones, and this involves giving space for the Other to grow.

Communities set boundaries. Welcoming the Other is allowing them to develop an understanding of how the community operates and why they do so. Similarly, it is not making excuses for them but expecting them to live as a member of that community. To do this,  it is imperative that new and potential members are told the rules of the community and of the expectation that the rules will be followed. The flourishing community will also remind all its members, on a regular basis, of the expectations of the community. The rules of a good Community, while being strict, will be fair and pastorally sensitive.

Community, then, is a group of people that show hospitality to one another with a unity that is born of a communion and of expectations that are followed.


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