Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Common Life

Community is a fact of Benedictine life. We are a defined group, choosing to live according to the Rule of Benedict, with a common purpose of seeking God. Do I feel that it works, that it helps me in my search for God? Yes. Do I find it easy? Sometimes, not always.

I had lived alone for a number of years before I entered the monastery, and I loved it. It's often said that women who enter are seeking community, but that wasn't really true for me. I felt called to to this place and this way of life, and the community kind of came with it. I don't think I'd ever thought about community, whether I wanted it or not, before I entered. I've been fortunate throughout my life to have mutually supportive relationships and I was very satisfied with what I had in that respect. I also loved having my own home and being able to spend time on my own.

I feel I ought to say now that coming to live in a large community (our motherhouse, where I live, houses about 140) was a huge adjustment, but it wasn't. I guess I just plunged in, and I felt accepted. I haven't always got everything right and I've discovered that the place is full of human beings! This means that we sometimes irritate one another, occasionally hurt one another or misjudge another's motives or actions; we don't always think the same way about things. Amazingly, however, we seem to live in a fair degree of harmony. I put this down to our common purpose of seeking God. Essentially, it seems that this common purpose is what marks out a monastic community from other types of community: the common endeavor focused on seeking God, the common life of prayer, the common table. We are cenobitic monastics, meaning we seek God together in the sense that our common life provides the framework for our seeking of God.

The rub of community life and of trying to understand the other (because you are going to have to keep on living with her - you can't go home and close the door on her) is a seminal part how monastic life can transform us. However, if living in community provides challenges, it also provides gifts. There is always someone to turn to for help and support, who can understand what you're experiencing and, because our life is directed essentially towards seeking God, we are able together to create a framework which helps each individual woman deepen her search. A phrase from the monk, Thomas Merton, has stayed with me. It's to the effect that Community is not about forced togetherness. At its best, I see it as an intentional gathering of like-minded people who, in the externals of background and interests, may be very different, but manage to channel their diversity so that each can contribute to the building of a unity of purpose: seeking God.

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