the Real World of Community Life
Douglas-Adam Greer, OP
St. Albert Province
THING THAT attracted me most to religious life was community.
Common life gives us the opportunity to live with a
group of intensely committed Christians, who will support,
encourage, and love us, and expect the same in return
as we serve others. Now that I've lived in community
for several years, I thought I'd share with you just
what that experience is like because it might help you
make a decision about whether you are called to religious
Let's start with a definition. What is a community?
What does common life look like? I like this definition
from my fellow Dominican Philip Neri Powell, O.P.: "A
religious community is a group of women or men who have
been called together by the Holy Spirit to give their
lives to one another and pledge to live a religious
life of freedom in obedience, poverty in simplicity,
and chastity in celibate intimacy, as they serve the
The biblical foundation of this definition comes from
the Acts of the Apostles. Let's look at the first few
chapters to see what community life was like in first-century
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching
and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers
. . . . All who believed were together and had all things
in common; they would sell their possessions and goods
and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need"
(Acts 2: 42; 44-45).
Our Christian ancestors were very transparent to the
Holy Spirit! To remain supple to the Spirit is a great
blessing for common life. For centuries women and men
religious have turned to Acts for our ideal of what
it really means to live well in community.
We have learned through experience that there is a close
connection between the quality of our life in common
and the quality of our Christian witness to the world.
When we are living community life well, it shows in
the integrity of our personal and communal testimony
to Jesus. When we are not living community life well,
that shows too.
Despite the rosy picture painted in the section of Acts
I just quoted, all was not milk and honey in Jerusalem's
good ol' days. Consider Ananias and Sapphira. Most of
the Jewish-Christians were "of one heart and soul."
They shared all their property and gave anything extra
to the poor. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property
but turned in a fraction of the money. They lied to
the apostles, to their community, and to the Holy Spirit
about it. The two were not living community life well.
They were holding back because they didn't trust the
community. The deception caused all of them horrible
You see, common life isn't a given, it's a goal--a Christian
task to be accomplished in mutual pardon and in patience.
The ideal of community holds us close in charity if
and only if we keep focused, value diversity, and welcome
gifts that differ. When things go wrong, we experience
the passion of Christ Jesus. When things go well, we
experience the risen Jesus. Whatever we experience,
we experience together in Christ. We are fragile vessels,
but beyond are many sufferings in community is the promise
of Easter Sunday. Still, there are several skills that
we practice to thrive as members of a religious community.
I'd like to speak briefly about three.
Get over it!
my early time with the community, the novitiate, I learned
to love and respect my fellow novices and the professed
friars (full-fledged members). In the novitiate I learned
that being forged into a community happens in the give
and take of daily life, in the kiln of human relationships.
A potter is always careful to maintain the proper balance
of opposites in her work--wet and dry, hot and cold.
If the harmony of all the elements is off by just the
slightest amount, then it affects the quality of the
entire work. It might turn out better than originally
intended, or it might be destroyed. Some days in the
novitiate I felt like a clay pot that had exploded into
a thousand fragments by the extreme heat of the kiln!
There were eight of us in the novitiate. After the honeymoon
of the first few weeks we had to come to grips with
the fact that among us there were eight "right"
ways to answer the phone, chant the psalms, mow the
yard, or fry potatoes and onions. A few remedial courses
during the pre-novitiate might have made things go smoother,
because men don't do community well if left to their
own devices. We definitely needed to take, "Introduction
to Common Household Objects: The Mop and Sponge."
I think a course called, "The Gas Gauge in the
Car: Empty MEANS Empty," might have helped, too.
Novitiate wasn't a walk in the park because we all had
to change, to adjust, to become more like Jesus Christ,
and less like ourselves.
When things got a little rough and I realized that I
was being called to change for the good of the community's
life, the change wasn't as hard. Living the ideal is
really about the nuts and bolts of day-to-day living.
God has all of us in an embrace so strong and mysterious
that God will not turn away. How can we refuse the offer
of relationship to one another in community? God asks
for the passionate response of our whole selves. The
skill of keeping our eyes focused on the ideal, especially
during rough patches, helps us to thrive when the honeymoon's
It's not the gift, it's the giving that counts
It's easy to get really worked up about "my life"
when you live in a religious community if things aren't
going "my" way. When you first enter religious
life you may not realize that you are giving your self
to the community, your whole being. This requires giving
up a lot of control, but that doesn't mean that you
won't be happy. You'll compromise more than you ever
thought possible, but as you allow yourself to become
more and more identified with "us" instead
of "me," as your clay is sculpted into fine
art, you'll find that both you and the community will
flourish like young green kudzu in a Blue Ridge Mountain
The gift you give is yourself. Give generously. Give
often. If you start holding back, especially in the
little things, you'll never feel the real freedom of
what common life is all about. You have to give, give,
and give. The gift comes back pressed down and flowing
over when all humbly welcome the gift that we can be
to each other in common life. Giving and receiving,
receiving and giving, again, again, and again, is at
the very heart of common life.
Mistakes are made. You give too little or take too much.
One day I missed morning prayer and Eucharist. I was
extremely busy and had let some things go. I stayed
awake all night writing a paper that was due the next
day. Instead of gathering with the friars for morning
prayer and Eucharist, I stayed in my room madly pounding
out an assignment before the deadline.
Then I had to explain myself to the student master,
not because he's an authoritarian control freak, but
because I had failed in my prior commitment to pray
with the friars. I could have tried to let it slip.
In a chapel of 40 men wearing the same white habit,
there's a good chance he wouldn't have noticed my absence.
"Besides," my little voice said, "I am
a grown man who can make prudent judgments about how
I spend 'my' time." This was definitely not a community
way of thinking. So, I told him. And, he said, "Well,
I hope you did a good job on the paper. Go to class
and then get some rest. We'll see you at evening prayer."
Trusting the community and holding yourself personally
accountable for the quality of common life draws us
all closer together. It is our life, after all.
The House of Mirrors
Community is a place where we can experience the
sacrament of healing like no other. If you fail, your
mistakes can be redeemed. If you're wounded by life,
your sisters and brothers can be there for you. These
are extremely reassuring thoughts in an uncertain world.
Perhaps it sounds odd, but a good image of the reconciliation
and healing that continually happens in any good community
is the house of mirrors. A house of mirrors distorts
our image of reality. "Are my ears really that
Community can be like a house of mirrors if we are not
loving and courageous. If we don't tell a brother that
his temper hurts our common life and is self-destructive,
then we're not living in community, we're living at
the county fair. Likewise, if we don't thank a sister
for her extravagant generosity, or congratulate her
on something well done, then we're not living in community,
we're living in a house of mirrors. Common life requires
that we hold up an accurate mirror for a sister or brother,
and that we have the courage to gaze unflinchingly into
the mirrors that our sisters and brothers hold for us.
This is the only way that we learn who we really are.
The skills I've suggested can be summed up in three
short sentences. Look to the future. Persevere in the
present. Tell the truth. They could also be called hope,
faith, and love, the theological virtues which improve
the way we relate to God, ourselves, and our sisters
and brothers. They are absolutely indispensable in common
So, if you hope to enter a religious community and to
share in the joys, hopes, pains, and sorrows of vowed
life, start practicing. You'll find what you give in
community comes back to you a thousand fold.