The Idea of Community

Probably most of my adult life I have valued the idea of community.  I am not sure where or how that valuation happened.  I do know the idea of community is generally important within Quaker spirituality.  However, I think that would give me more credit than I deserve to suggest I got this at an early age! 

Oddly enough, I suspect part of my attraction of the idea of community is related to sports.  I played team sports and liked that aspect of the athletic life.  I liked “being in it together” with other guys.  When I was older, I played on mixed softball teams so enjoyed being in it together with other guys and gals.  I found it much more fun to win when I was with others.  And it certainly is easy to experience losing when you are in it with others.  Nobody talks about this as community---but I think it is a form of community. 

So for fifty years, I have valued the idea of community.  I have actually been aware of and appreciative of this idea of community for quite some time---probably forty of those fifty years.  I have read about it, talked about it, tried to form and nurture community.  Sometimes, the experience of community was effective and other times it only seemed to be malformed. 

I am sure part of my attraction to the monks and the monastic life---Christian and otherwise---is the focus on community.  The Buddhists have a term for it, Sangha.  Buddhism has three key elements: the Buddha, the teaching, and Sangha (community).  I don’t think it is far-fetched to see a comparable trio of elements in Christianity: Jesus, the teaching, and community. 

At some point, however, community becomes “the Church.”  I have never been quite comfortable with the idea of Church.  The word tends to suggest an institution, rules, etc.  It is no wonder younger people either have little interest or are wary of “the Church.”  I have always looked for ways to put the two together: community and Church. 

And then yesterday, I ran into a great quotation by Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of the 20th century.  In a journal entry from 1963 Merton writes these words: “How can the idea of ‘Church’ make any sense without this trust in man as capable of grace, capable of cooperation?  Here’s the real beginning of the idea of community.”  Merton puts the two together: community and Church.  Furthermore, he points to a key building block of community (and the Church). 

It is obvious that human beings are the building blocks of community.  But more needs to be said than that.  Essentially, Merton says community begins and is sustained by trusting humans as capable of grace.  That is so insightful.  Without grace community will not form and without grace, community certainly cannot grow and be sustained over time.

And when humans lose the capability of being graceful, the community is doomed.  It may take a while to die, but community is doomed. So we can work on community by encouraging and cultivating the graciousness of human beings.   

The other key element Merton identifies is trusting that humans are capable of cooperation.  So true!  People who refuse to cooperate are communal cancers.  Any coach knows that fact.  Can folks be taught to cooperate?  I think so.  Can they be forced?  Probably for a while, but with resentment.  And resentment infects any possibility for authentic community. 

I still love the idea of community.  But I now know the role grace and cooperation play in the formation of community. 

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