unknown title“Community” is a big word these days. (Just do a search on Technorati for “community” and count the blog hits.) We talk about our church communities, our faith communities, our local communities, and more abstract “communities” of people who are, we think, like-minded souls that all share the same or similar value systems, like “evangelical community” or “Orthodox Jewish community”. We also speak of “communities” of others to whom we do not belong, either ideologically or geographically (such as a “German community” in a city). Preachers and teachers routinely speak of the “early Christian community” when referring to whatever was going on in the New Testament and the first few decades of the spread of the nascent Jesus movement(s). Recently, we are being treated to many gifted writers who write about the significance and values of “community” in a contemporary “global community,” not least of whom is, of course, Wendell Berry.

But what is it, really? “Community” is so ubiquitous now that the word is losing meaning. What do we mean when we use it?

Community can, of course, refer to a specific collective of people living in a specific place, and this is probably the most common usage for it. In various jobs I’ve had, simply by virtue of working for a company I was part of “the University Community” or “the Hospital Community,” so designated by the various publications that regularly found their way into my mailboxes. I found myself regularly wondering what it was that made me part of it; the fact that every single paycheck was signed in the corporation was signed by the same person didn’t seem to be a sufficient reason. I can’t say that I have ever felt that I have ever really felt like an emotional part of the places I worked, although perhaps I simply haven’t put in enough time (or paid enough dues) in them to develop a sense of oneness with the institutional memory or identity. Simply existing in a particular geographic place with other people doesn’t seem to me to be enough to invoke communitas.

Community, perhaps, is better described than it is defined. One element that should be in any description of “community” would be the ability of all of its members (another important word!) to at least know what a speaker or writer means when that person says something. It is an intuitive knowing, one that cannot be simply defined for someone who is not yet a member, but who can only begin trying to understand from experience and from the heart the language that members of a community speak. The poet Adrienne Rich refers to this kind of community membership as a “dream of a common language,” whereby all words and actions, spoken and done, written and felt, are imbued with such intense meaning for members that it seems ludicrous that these words or actions could have any other meaning anywhere else. This language is “The drive to connect,” a drive to become part of the place we find ourselves in, often times by accident but sometimes by choice, and one where we desire “to wake from sleep into the neighborhood / of one neither strange nor familiar / whom we have chosen to trust. Trusting, untrusting, / we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves / downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered / over the unsearched” (Adrienne Rich, “Origins and History of Consciousness”). Almost by definition, if our words or our actions have no meaning to each other, or completely different meanings from one person to the next, we can’t speak to each other where we are. There can be no community when we cannot speak the same language, or if we tragically have no interest in a “drive to connect.”

But at the same time, we find ourselves ultimately and inescapably part of a place, where there are memories, languages, and life-histories whether we would seek to become one with them or not. To be part of a community is to become rooted in a place and to allow our own roots to delve into the soils of memory and the common language spoken there and to let those memories, languages, and bios seep into us and nourish our identity in that place. The vocation of the religious monk or nun has always understood this, and not even the desert hermits of Egypt or Syria could escape their inherent connectedness to where they were, regardless of how much company they had in their attempted solitude. Bound to their cloisters or their caves, monks and ascetics knew that with out the connection to their place they would be utterly lost. Monks and nuns, however, also know that there is a dependency on their membership to their community and to each other. But this, of course does not mean that all are able to speak the same language, to share in the same memories, and certainly not that all members would always agree with each other.

To live in community, as membership in a memory and in a common language, is to attempt to live in faithful relation to each other, both our fellow members and to the “resident aliens” among us. To be a community is to share common patterns of thinking and doing, even if (when) we do not think and do to the same results. It is to live united in friendship, in work, in memory, and loyalty to one another. Living as a member in a community is to take responsibility for each other and not just for our individual selves, and to take responsibility for the physical land of our place.

In the modern world this seems herculean, and perhaps even impossible. I would venture to say that the last two of those qualities are the most insensitive to our modern individualistic conception of our world. We have been so long enculturated to the idea of the individual as opposed to the value of living together that we no longer even see when we’re being selfish. This is true in our everyday life with one another, as well as in our marriages and in our churches. The “global economy” and the professionalization of our vocations, whatever they are, place no premium on “life together,” as Bonhoeffer would put it, but in the relativist catch-phrase “This is what’s right for me.” And we have no loyalty to our place; as Berry never tires of reminding us, without that loyalty, it is likely impossible to exist in community.

The western religious tradition, particularly Christianity in its modern (and postmodern) forms, doesn’t strike me as being any better or worse with this than anything else. Our Christianity today is unrooted; despite the talk of “our church community,” we all know that few of us wouldn’t move to another church if we found one that is more “right for me.” Protestantism prides itself in its individualist approach to faith, and evangelicalism in particular has made an entire industry (and even brand) out of Christ’s death for me so that I can be saved from my sins. The paradox is that this kind of language is indeed community-style common language; unless we are a member of the evangelical faith, we’re simply not able to understand the common language (or the type of social-cultural action) of evangelical faith. Yet there is no loyalty to place, and little to our brothers and sisters and neighbors; we can always find another church.

Community isn’t something we can take for granted. Father Nicholas, of Glastonbury Abbey in Massachusetts, once remarked to me that monks (and nuns) don’t live “in community.” It’s a miraculous event, one to be celebrated, when it does happen. Instead of living in community, “what we live here is a common life. From time to time, we achieve community.” The ability to identify with a place, to speak a common language and share memories and lives, to learn from our community, to love it, care for it, and fight for it… that, indeed, would be a miracle today.