“Community” usually means “church”, but there’s a big problem with that. By changing the one term to the other, we’re already accepting the secularist proposition that discipleship is something to be done on Sunday mornings, rather than a 24/7, lifelong commitment. In a lot of ways, I’m just not interested in going to church if that’s all it is! Are we going to pray together on Monday, too? Are we going to talk about how God wants us to run the school, or the gas station, or the newspaper, or the website, or whatever it is that we spend the rest of our time on? If not, then we’re not really a community of disciples, are we? We’re more like undercover Christians in a secular world.
So what are we? Undercover Christians? Is this China?
For centuries, Christians dissatisfied with Sunday morning religion have sought deeper ways to respond to the Gospel. The most successful of these efforts began with a dedication to living the Gospel, progressed with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately attracted additional disciples who gathered together into religious communities, two major examples being the Benedictines and the Franciscans.
In the years following the collapse of the Roman empire, St. Benedict left his upper class Italian home in his early twenties and initially became a hermit, living for three years in a cave about forty miles from Rome. A spring provided him water, and a sympathizer lowered him food in a basket and visited him occasionally. Word spread, however, and he developed a reputation for holiness. Eventually, he was asked to lead first one monastic community, then another, ultimately founding the Benedictine order and writing the rule by which it is governed to this day.
Contrast this with how many Christian leaders operate today. Benedict did not decide to establish a monastery, then go around soliciting donations to make it happen. Nor did he remain in Rome, working a job until he had saved enough to make a pilgrimage to the cave. He didn’t even join an established monastery until he was asked to become abbot! Instead, he gave up all of his worldly attachments (Luke 12) and followed where the Holy Spirit led him, even though it must have seemed impossible that retreating to a cave was the route to lead a community! Today, he’d just be called lazy.
How, then, do Benedictines live? What is it about this lifestyle that continues to attract people?
The Benedictine motto is “ora et labora” – prayer and work, and Benedict’s own example shows that the prayer comes first. Modern Benedictine communities typically pray together five times a day, starting with morning prayer around dawn, followed by Mass just before the beginning of the work day, a brief noon prayer, a longer Vespers service before dinner, and Compline just before the monks retire for the night. Each service has its own flavor. Morning prayer is typically dominated by psalms, Mass is a slightly shortened version of your typical Sunday service, and Compline is quiet and meditative.
What about work? Most Benedictine abbeys have some kind of major work that most of the community engages in, such as running a school or a retreat center, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the community has to engage in that work. A Benedictine friend of mine runs a small theological research institute in a wing of the abbey, even though the community runs a high school as its primary occupation.
Hundreds of years later, St. Francis embarked on a journey similar to St. Benedict’s. After dabbling in a variety of pursuits, he turned decisively to God, making a pilgrimage to Rome and spending more and more of his time in solitude. A crucial turning point came during a prayer vigil in the small church at San Damiano, when the crucifix spoke to him in a vision and told him to ‘rebuild the church’.
After some confused first steps, he ultimately settled onto a path that led him to found the Franciscan order. If the hallmark of Benedictines is their hospitality (they are to “receive strangers as Christ”), then the Franciscans are renowned for poverty. Like the Benedictines, they divest themselves of their worldly possessions, but instead of working at a monastery to support themselves, they go around begging for food! They base themselves out of a friary, but spend most of their time out among the everyday people of the surrounding community, receiving no money for any work they do, and counting on charity to provide for their needs.
Of course, the Franciscans have received so many sizable donations over the centuries that they no longer have to beg for anything. A good modern example was the late Bruce Ritter, who after living for a year in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York City, operating a “ministry of availability”, began taking in homeless teenagers and ultimately founded Covenant House.
Notice some common threads between the Benedictines and the Franciscans. Both were established by saints who founded their orders only after a long prayer interaction with God. Both insist that disciples must obey Luke 12 and sell all of their worldly possessions. Both pray at least five times a day.
People who take the Gospel seriously, commit to living the life of a disciple, depend on God through prayer, and support each other even with a seemingly goofy idea like a ministry of availability because they trust that we’re all on the same team, and it’s God’s team.
That’s what I’m talking about! That’s Christian community!
Unfortunately, we’ve spend so much time and energy fighting amonst ourselves over our bitter little theological disputes while ignoring Christianity’s overall slide into hypocrisy and irrelevance that there isn’t much Christian community left.
Remember John Martin? The last time I saw him he was taking up the slack left by the temporary closure of a major Anchorage soup kitchen. He obtains food from the Food Bank, cooks up a pot of soup, puts it in a wagon, rolls it up to the corner of City Hall at noon and scoops it out to anyone who asks. A local church provides kitchen and storage facilities.
If he was selling hot dogs out of a cart, all he’d need is enough cash to make the health inspector happy. Instead, he’s been cited three times for operating an illegal food establishment. This is also the man who was once called the “scum of the Earth” by one of our opponents, walking by the protest site in a suit and tie.
Those opponents will be quick to point out that the Food Bank provides the food and the church provides the kitchen. Yet John is still homeless, camping discretely where the city cops haven’t found him. It just isn’t my idea of a community, or a society, that I want to live in. It’s a pagan nation that treats disciples this way.
I want to live in a country where there are religious communities everywhere! A country where a monastery is as easy to find as a health club, where disciples are respected, not persecuted, for foregoing wealth and worldly posessions, where basic living accommodations are available to them (and everyone else), and the churches are vibrant social centers of discipleship.