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American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 2

Community Life

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

In the history of the Church, community life has existed from apostolic times. The community of Christians living at Jerusalem after the Lord’s Ascension set the pattern for the future, and no community since then can afford to ignore this biblical paradigm. St. Luke, disciple of the peregrinating St. Paul, has left us a cameo description of how this first community lived.

They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life, to break bread and to pray. A sense of awe was everywhere, and many marvels and signs were brought about through the apostles.
All those whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common. They would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required.
With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and breaking bread in private houses, shared their meal with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day-by-day the Lord added to their number those whom He was saving. [1]

This passage from the Acts of the Apostles occurs right after the account of Peter’s first homily on Pentecost Sunday. It is, therefore, an integral part of the Petrine catechesis and is intended to describe the first thing that happened as soon as the infant Church was born: it became a Christian community.

Without dwelling on the concept, certain features stand out immediately. This pristine community was what its name signified, a group of like-inspired persons who shared just about everything they could. They sold their belongings and shared the proceeds; they listened together to the apostles’ preaching; they ate together; they prayed together; they worshipped together. In one Lucan phrase, “they met constantly to share the common life.” (Acts 2:42)

By implication it seems they had different duties in different places, which kept them periodically apart. But they made up for this by agreeing on a common place of meeting and living, as far as possible, in each other’s company.

As the Church grew in numbers and complexity, this concept of community had to be adjusted to the times---and many times over---but the cardinal principle was never lost sight of. Always the Christians tended to cluster together in a community, out of which, in fact, soon developed the now familiar parishes, dioceses and metropolitan sees.

Those who sought to follow the example and counsels of Christ more closely, in a life of poverty and celibacy, began to form their own special communities. One of the myths that should be dissolved is the belief that the development of communal (cenobitic) religious life was a slow and drawn-out process in the Church’s history, that anchorites and solitaries were the only form of monasticism in the early days, and that communities were formed only out of a practical need for efficiency.

Historical Beginning and Development

As far back as Anthony of Egypt, who lived in the third century, those whom he trained in the anchoritic way of life were required to go through a period of discipleship under their master. Together with others, they were schooled in the discipline of the ancients and were never allowed to forget the basic laws of Christian charity.

St. Pachomius (288-346) is usually regarded as the father of the common life. What is not usually known is that Pachomius remained an anchorite only until the Edict of Constantine at which time, after almost three hundred years of persecution, the Church was able to emerge from the catacombs and breathe freely. In 315 Pachomius believed himself divinely inspired to found a community of religious who lived and worked together. Recruits, we are told, came in floods, and when he died he was the father of a chain of monasteries that housed upwards of five thousand monks.

All these are salient facts because they point up an essential feature of the religious life the moment it was able freely to operate without hindrance from outside alien forces: this life was communal. The Rule of Pachomius organized every detail of a great institution. There was a church for the exclusive use of the religious, a dining room where they ate, an assembly room for conversation, and grounds reserved for the members of the community owed obedience and through whom they would be united with one another.

The link between Pachomius and Western monasticism to which practically all religious life in Europe and America owes its origin was St. Basil the Great. Though he wrote no rule of his own, no doubt because he felt nothing could be added to that of Pachomius, his conferences and replies to questions were considered normative. They were regularly quoted by St. Benedict and appear, at times verbatim, in the constitutions of existing religious orders.

What Basil said about community life is a valuable witness to the Church’s mind on the subject in the patristic age. And if the Fathers of the Church are valid guides in matters of faith and morals, this includes their idea of community life.

After going through half a dozen other reasons why communal life is better than living alone, Basil appealed to the example of Christ and the theology of St. Paul. “Religious,” he said, “are true imitators of the Savior and of the form of life He led while He dwelt among us. They pattern their observance on the way Christ gave all things and Himself common to the disciples. When they live in obedience to a superior, they follow the manner of life that the apostles and the Lord Himself lived together as a group.” [2]

If Christ gave the pattern of what a religious community should be---a sharing of personalities---St. Paul set down the conditions of unity within a community. Basil’s interpretation of Paul I is as valid today as it was in the fourth century: “Whenever a group of persons aim at the same goal of salvation and decide to adopt a common life, one principle above all must prevail among them. They must be in all of one heart, one will, one desire, so that the whole community may be, as the apostle enjoins, one body that has many members.” [3]

We are touching on the heart strings of religious life when we say that a community must be composed of members who are of one will and one desire; that they must be united interiorly by the bonds of affection. If this is true, then a community is weakened by every discordant member and, as discord grows apace, the community weakens and gradually dies.

When St. Benedict introduced communal religious life in the West, he left intact all that his predecessors had done to insure unity among the members of a religious family. But he added two provisions that he considered necessary. He introduced the idea of holding periodic councils, a general gathering of all the brethren on matters of grave common interest and a smaller council of seniors to advise the abbot on matters of lesser importance. He also prescribed the vow of stability by which a monk bound himself to life-long residence in the monastery of his profession.

Both provisions were aimed at establishing and maintaining communal unity. The council idea was to provide against arbitrary action on the part of the abbot--even though the final decision was left up to him. And the stability vow was to protect the Church from roaming religious who would become a nuisance to themselves and a scandal to the laity.

It is worth dwelling a bit on St. Benedict’s prescription for a periodic get-together of the whole community. It should lay to rest, once and for all, the ghost of an autocratic attitude in the exercise of religious authority. I quote from the original Rule of Benedict:

As often as any important matters have to be transacted in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community, and himself declare what is the question to be settled. Having heard the counsel of the brethren, let him weigh it within himself and then do what he shall judge is most expedient. We have said that all should be called to council, because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is best. [3]
But let the brethren give their advice with all subjection of humility, and not presume stubbornly to defend their own opinion. Rather let the matter rest with the Abbot’s discretion, that all may submit to whatever he shall consider best.
Yet, even as it becomes disciples to obey their master, so does it behoove him to order all things prudently and with justice. [4]

Benedict had some shrewd advice to give both sides. He knew that one of the worst sources of friction in a community was between the old and the young. So he insisted that the young be not excluded from community deliberations, and elsewhere he reminded the elders that God chose a Samuel and a David to teach men His ways.

But he also understood the weakness of youth, its impetuosity. If it is true that God often uses the young to channel His will, it is also true that the young religious would at once lose the grace of this divine enlightenment if he or she failed in moderation, courtesy, or humility.

This was the verdict of Benedict, and it might almost be called a prophecy as the story of numerous religious orders and congregations in the past thousand years exemplifies.

Older and more experienced religious should recognize that God is no respecter of persons, or of ages; that He can as well give the light of His wisdom to a Therese of Lisieux as to the Teresa of Avila. So the counsel of the young should be included in the running of a community. At the same time, the young must be on their guard against pride, at the risk of following only their own fancies, because God withdraws His grace from those who lack humility.

The Benedict concept of community has not basically changed in what is still the monastic form of religious life. Indeed, its essence remained the same even as other kinds of religious groups came into being.

I have examined perhaps thirty constitutions of as many modern religious communities, including some whose constitutions have been revised and approved by Rome since the Second Vatican Council. Each one reflects the same Pauline dictum of what constitutes the essence of a community. It is internal agreement of wills, the desire to follow Christ in living the counsels, agreement on the basic purpose and means which this religious family has in the following of Christ, and obedience to a superior in whom all the members are united because they respect in him (or her) the divine person of their Leader.

One feature, however, has entered the concept of a community with the rise of formally apostolic orders of men and women since the time of Benedict.

The more active their apostolate, the more adjustments have had to be made in the meaning of togetherness for maintaining a community.

Assuming that common life requires internal union of will to even come into existence, it also demands some external means of expressing this agreement and of keeping it alive. In religious groups of a monastic character, these external means were (and are) easily defined by the sheer geography of a common residence and the limitations of a local apostolate.

But as apostolic work became more extensive, the external means of manifesting and maintaining a community underwent a change. More and more it was the apostolate which became the focus of communal attention, and it was there that religious increasingly lived out their character as a community.

Present Situation and Future Possibilities

This brings us face to face with the first challenge to the religious life in modern times. I call it the challenge of loneliness. It affects everyone in today’s organized, automated society. Religious are not excluded, although they have in their life of community---if rightly conceived---all the means necessary to meet this challenge and to help others successfully do the same.

Why are there so many lonely people today? They are lonely because there are so many of us. It is difficult for most of us to know more than a small number even by name, and impossible to know them intimately. They are lonely because we are so busy about the work we are doing that we don’t have time to listen and to share. They are lonely because there are so many other attractive, possibly seductive, things to draw our attention: magazines, books and newspapers, television, radio and the movies.

People are lonely because we are made oppressively conscious of so many facts, so many events, and so many things---thanks to our communication media---that our feelings are dulled into insensitivity for the feelings of others. Some people are so glutted from the outside with impressions of things that are strange, sensational or shocking that they have no taste for a quiet conversation about the “little things” that matter so much in cultivating a friendship.

One more source of loneliness is so subtle; I hesitate bringing it up for fear of confusing the issue rather than shedding more light. It has to do with the loneliness that comes from living so much in the present that effective (and affectionate) contact with the men and women of the past is almost non-existent. After all, part of our sense of belonging is being conscious of our solidarity with those who lived before us and with whom we feel a kinship of spirit which transcends the limits of space and time.

After a lifetime of clinical practice, the psychologist Carl Jung concluded that this was the besetting cross of modern man---his solitary loneliness. Jung’s analysis is not easy to follow, but is worth the effort because it touches deeply on this problem of loneliness. It may also suggest new approaches to the concept of a religious community as both vertical and horizontal; that a community is not only living with kindred persons here and now or cooperating with them in a common endeavor, but also means living in spirit with kindred persons from my own religious family who are waiting for me in the city on high.

According to Jung, “the man whom we can with justice call ‘modern’ is solitary. He is so of necessity and at all times…. Only the man who is modern in our meaning of the term really lives in the present. He alone has a present-day consciousness, and he alone finds that the ways of life which correspond to earlier levels pall upon him. The values and strivings of those past worlds no longer interest him save from the historical standpoint. Thus he has become ‘unhistorical’ in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition. Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledges that he stands before a void out of which all things may grow.” [5]

Is this a familiar picture? Does it describe with uncanny accuracy the state of some religious whose loneliness is at least partly explainable by the fact that they have cut themselves off from the past of their community? Living in the solitary splendor of the present, they are out of spiritual contact with their fellow religious whose sense of solidarity spans the whole of their community---going back to the first founders and including, perforce, the youngest as well as the oldest living members of their society.

Practical Recommendations

The single most practical way of growing socially as a member of religious community is to reflect prayerfully on the value of a strong community life. When this life flourishes, religious life is sound. Obedience is the palpable expression of our desire to cooperate with others toward common goals, and it grows in perfection as superiors and subjects are joined together in mutual confidence and service. Chastity is more surely preserved when there is a true friendly love in community life between the members. Poverty mean that we voluntarily became poor by sharing with others what we might legitimately have kept for ourselves. The more we share, the stronger become the bonds that unite us to our fellow religious.

But there are also tried and proven concrete ways of developing a community personality:

  1. Exchange of information in the community, by which all the members learn about common works and plans, and offer advice by drawing on their own experience.

  2. Regular consultation among the members of the community with a view to actively engaging everyone in the process of coordinating and promoting the apostolate.

  3. Delegation by which the superior freely gives the members greater responsibility for special missions and projects. He (or she) should make use of the principle of subsidiarity. As responsibility of this kind grows, a common burden is carried by many, and the sense of community is increased.

  4. Every kind of collaboration is to be fostered. This may call for careful planning and ingenuity. It also means that by preference, those apostolates are favored which, ex hypothesi, engage several religious working together. It may mean a frank reassessment of allowing religious who are naturally individualistic to nurse their individualism in projects or places of their own making where the cooperative spirit can hardly mature and may not even survive.

  5. A certain daily order, determined by the form of life and work proper to each house in a community, is indispensable. Experience has shown that this is a very effective means for improving both individual and community work, for making mutual interchange among members more easily, and for creating those conditions of silence, recollection and peace of mind which are necessary to live a prayerful and industrious religious life.


Chapter 2: Community Life

  1. Acts 2: 42-47

  2. St. Basil, Commentary on I Cor. 12.

  3. “An Ascetical Discourse” in St. Basil: Ascetical Works, (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), p. 217.

  4. St. Benedict’s Original Rule, Chapter 3.

  5. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1934), pp. 227-28.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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