Community Is the Place Where Our Limitations Are Revealed To Us

I'm reading Jean Vanier's book Community and Growth. Vanier is the founder of the L'Arche community. Many will recall that Henri Nouwen famously joined a L'Arche community.

Reading Vanier's book I was struck by the following passage on what makes community so difficult yet so important. Though Vanier is speaking to communities living under the same roof, I believe his insights apply to all faith-based communities. Think, in reading this, about your church:
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears and our egotism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get on with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realise how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are.
I think the reason I found this quote to be so powerful is that I've encountered many Christians who love people in the abstract. That is, they believe they love everyone. But when it comes time to loving flesh and blood people they remove themselves from the daily grind of simply getting along with others. (The classic illustration of this is liberal Christians talking a great deal about loving the poor but never getting around to being friends with any poor people.)

I used to think this was a failure of effort, of not wanting to put in the time and effort to be in concrete relationships with others. But in light of Vanier's quote I wonder how much of this might be driven by ego. The disciplines of community expose our selfishness, vanity, impatience, entitlement and our brokenness. Rather than face this exposure it's easier to withdraw and live with the illusion that we're awesome loving people.

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21 thoughts on “Community Is the Place Where Our Limitations Are Revealed To Us”

  1. On Father's Day, our senior pastor's father -- a retired minister himself -- preached the sermon.  He spoke about fathers and families, but also about community.  As a community of faith, we are authentic (become real, Velveteen Rabbit-like) when we know one another -- faults, weaknesses, and all -- and continue on in love for one another.  It's not a phony niceness or mere tolerance of differences.  More an embracing of the wonderful diversity among a group of individuals committed to a common cause (loving one another, and the world, Jesus-style.)

    Some churches, whether because of doctrine, tradition, or social dynamic (demographics and whatnot) implicitly hinder one's ability to open up and be transparent and vulnerable.  I felt this in most (all?) of the very conservative, evangelical churches with which I've been involved over my lifetime.

    For me, authentic community is one which allows all who are a part of it to question, grow, fail, fall, rise, grow some more, and understands that this is the way life and faith go.  We accept, welcome, love, and help (be a friend) to one another through the struggle to "become."  We laugh, cry, rejoice, mourn, eat, pray, love together.  We learn from each other.  Maybe we learn to live with ourselves, even as we give grace to those with whom we've experienced friction?

    I love Henri Nouwen.  Such a gentle and wise man.  His book The Return of the Prodigal Son is probably my favorite.  ~Peace~

  2. Yeah. And I'd like to put myself forward as Exhibit A in this regard. I'm excellent at loving that abstraction known as "humanity."

  3. When I read the quote all I could think of was Genesis where Adam and Eve partook of the fruit.  Before, they were in union with God.  After, they became self-involved, shamed, looking for something to cover their nakedness.

    Could that be the "original" sin?  Our dawning egoism that places the needs of the self over the other thus undermining community which is relational and of God?

  4. The "love in the abstract" reminds of The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan (was it Ivan? I don't remember) talks about loving people but being unable to love a person - like you say: "humanity"

    Also, I really like this post because, it mixes well with your series on "Alone, Suburban, and Sorted".  Perhaps our faith communities especially have become so self-sorted and stratified out of our own choice simply because a community that is not sufficiently similar to ourselves exposes all these things in us.  Do you think this quote has a decent explanatory power as to how faith communities have polarized in such ways?

  5. Maybe Hell (or purgatory) for me will be God coaxing me towards authentic community and away from my ivory tower, my safe suburban comfort, my abstract love of "humanity", and my utter contempt, disdain, disgust and fear of many, if not most, of the people that make up humanity.

    I feel so much love for humanity, and I get so torn up with stories of sickness, abuse, violence and horror. I have moved to universal reconciliation because I can't stand the idea of anyone not being rescued and reconciled and ending up annihilated or tortured forever. But I know that it's people in the abstract that I love. People on the other side of the TV screen or on the pages of a newspaper or book. People safely separated from me by the internet (like anyone reading this). All my actual actions and activities, when looked at honestly, show that mostly I just don't want to be bothered.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Have mercy on me a sinner.

  6. Hard words to fully internalize, yet so very true. "Community" in another one of those words, like "eternal" that we as Christians tend to use far too easily. "Community" has become such a popular term in a lot of churches these days, yet how many of them actually live in community on a day to day basis?  Easy enough to get along once or twice a week for a few hours at a time, but longer periods of time on a daily basis tend to reveal our own deficiencies as we become irritated with those same deficiencies in our fellows. 

    I'm coming to think that the eremitic lifestyle is better for me, and much easier on my friends. ;)

  7. This is a good (and difficult to hear) point. I am reading The Brothers Karamazov at the moment, and a monastic elder says a similar thing in that (he is quoting what someone once told him):

    "The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity."So perhaps it is better to have a dim view of humanity, but love the members of our community...?

  8. Or, instead of ego, radical purity of some kind -- whether related to doctrine, ethics, class, race, style of living, personal preference, sheer dress, whatever. Sometimes lines need to be drawn, but too often a refusal to be part of this or that community (say, because it is unacceptably imperfect on orthodoxy or orthopraxy) is a refusal to encounter and be challenged by particular persons different from oneself.

  9. That quotation is very powerful. Yeah, it's so much harder to actually love others than to think or wish that you do.

  10. Ah! I hadn't noticed your comment before, but glad to be of service... It's nice to know others make the same links, too.

  11. Guys. This is awesome. I just started reading Jean Vanier's "From Brokenness to Community." Divine connection! You can get it for about $6 from Amazon.  It's just a two chapter chronicle of some Harvard speeches from year's past with a foreword by Henri Nouwen. It's a fantastic read.

    But seriously, I love the quote Dr. Beck has highlighted. I'll have to read some more of Vanier after reading this book and getting a taste of what he says in "Community and Growth." 

  12. Dr. Beck I really like the quote you included in this blog from Jean Vanier's book.  It really hits home for me and I am constantly working on being more kind and loving to my friends and family but especially to those acquaintances and and strangers that I encounter. It is, of course, easy to be angry and mean to people when we don't know them but I dislike myself when I am that way so I am always working to improve in this area; plus you are correct that it is certainly not Christian like. One question that always lingers in my mind is regarding the homeless, or at least the definitely impoverished persons who stand on the side of the road asking for money.  I am never quite sure how to handle these situations.  I don't like to give out money, not even necessarily because I don't trust these women and men to spend the money how I see fit and not how they might see fit, but mostly because I don't like opening my wallet with people who might be looking in to it closely (I had a bad experience of someone telling me that they saw more money in my wallet than I was planning to give so I have been very cautious about this ever since). I try to keep imperishable food in my car to give out to people but sometimes I forget to replenish and have nothing.  In these situations when I have nothing to give I try to smile and and make eye contact so the person knows that I know he or she is there and that he or she is deserving a smile no matter what their condition.  Still I don't always feel good about that either so I am not sure what to do and this is honestly something I would love thoughts and feedback on.  Thank you.  

  13. In almost every church people value that give intellectual assent to some doctrines, more that your human story.
    Some churches have clear dogmas and doctrines. Others claim to only follow the bible alone. My experience is that Christian will be genuinely loving and compassionate, until they discover you hold a heretical interpretation of the bible, compared to them. Then they just get a distaste for you, an aversion, that is probably not even conscious mostly. Just human nature to avoid arguments. But It is not christ like.

  14. i'm disabled and i do work in community with other people with disabilities (mostly in a secular context). i only recently learned of the existence of l'arche communities, and reading posts like this has made me really curious!

    one of the issues that has come up in my own experience is the issue of individualism and interdependence. i think one of the barriers we face in loving each other in concrete, real ways in community is that we live in a society that is built on the myth of individualism. disability makes visible the ways that we need each other and are interdependent. it's not that able-bodied people don't need each other...but able-bodied people (along with people who aren't poor), frankly, are much better at ignoring, hiding, shaming, and pretending that need doesn't exist. when need is acknowledged, it's usually in the model of dependence - able-bodied and wealthy people doing FOR the disabled and/or poor - rather than reciprocity. you can't grow a community on the top-down charity model, unfortunately.

    actually living in community with people who are disabled and/or poor requires opening up to the reality of need in all of our lives - as something that strengthens and beautifies our relationships, not as something that is terrible, awful, and should be hidden.

  15. As an old friend used to say "To live above with saints we love is full of hope and glory, but to live below with saints we know? Well, that's a different story!"

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