Thoughts on Community and Growth

Possibly my favorite memory of living at Flatlanders is that of Thanksgiving 2015, only a few weeks after I had moved in. Most of us were sticking around for the day, and there was a general sense of anticipation as we baked the pies, made the perogies, cleaned the dining room, and immersed ourselves in preparing our home to welcome others and celebrate together. The food was delicious, laughter uplifting, and post-meal walk peaceful. In my mind, at least, it was practically perfect. I knew I was part of a community.

Other events or situations are not remembered with the same feelings of fondness. I have hurt others and been hurt. I have struggled with finding a balance between being present to the community and respecting my need for personal space.  I have felt frustrated and irritated with fellow Flatlanders and with myself. I have become more aware of some of my own short-comings and how they play out in communal living. Just as celebration, friendship and mutual encouragement are a part of our community life, so are struggles, tension, and pain.

A few months ago, I read Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. This collection of thoughts and insights, written by the founder of the l’Arche community, is one that moved me and challenged me, inspiring in me both a sense of hope and realism. And while this book stirred up enough reflections that I could probably fill half our newsletter with them, for both our sakes, I will not. I would, however, like to share with you some of the thoughts and insights that I found especially meaningful.  

“Perhaps the essential quality for anyone who lives in community is patience: a recognition that we, others, and the whole community take time to grow. Nothing is achieved in a day. If we are to live in community, we have to be friends of time”. Friends of time… I love the poetic sound to it. But as I reflect on the actual meaning and the implications behind it, I am less enthused. As someone who focuses a lot what can be changed and improved, being patient and comfortable with slow growth is a challenge. And from the challenge is birthed an invitation to not only tolerate slow growth but to embrace it, knowing that the slowness is the very thing that makes it real and lasting.

The importance of both diversity and unity, and of recognizing each individual’s value Flats folks on coucheswithin a community, is reflected throughout the book. “Everyone,” writes Vanier, “is called to manifest a particle of the glory of God in communion with others”.  I see God’s glory shown in so many ways at Flatlanders, when I take the time to look. I see it in one community member’s generosity – in the way he shares his food with others, among other things. I see it in another member’s ability to speak difficult truths in a way that is both straightforward and loving. I see it in our three year-old member’s curiosity and wonder. In another member’s attitude of delight in both the big and small things. These are only a few examples of many. Each of us, all twenty-four people that make up Flatlanders – as well as the people who have been here before, the people who will live here in the future, and our larger community of friends – reflects a particle of God’s glory.

I would like to end this reflection on community writing about love. Because, although it may come across as cliché (or at least unimaginative) to finish off on this note, to end on a different note would feel incomplete. The most important and foundational element would be missing.

Words about and of love are weaved throughout the book. No one quote can summarize them all, but this definition describes love in one of its most basic and true forms: “(Love) is the recognition of a covenant, of a mutual belonging. It is listening to others, being concerned for them and feeling empathy with them. It is to see their beauty and reveal it to them.”.

Mutual belonging. Listening. Revealing beauty to one another. May God help us all to love in this way.

Erin O’Neill is an intern who has lived at Flats for nearly two years.

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