The other live-in and I were well matched: both in our mid-twenties, both single, both intent on God. As the week progressed, we spent time apart, and we spent time together, often taking long walks and talking. We were both in a state of heightened intensity that suffused everything. Sometimes tears would seep from our eyes as we talked. Really. Seeped. Not flowed, that’s too strong a term. They would simply slip out, without our really noticing.
What did we do during that week?
For one, we attended Bible Study with two young sisters who had made their first profession. It was a very gentle study. No reference books were involved, nor was there deep theological analysis. There was a light review of the story, almost a recounting of it. Very little more. And yet, a language was being spoken that I didn’t know very well. Over the course of one session, one sister said to the other, “Sister, your collar is crooked.” She said it nicely. Helpfully. But in a tone that expected to see a correction. The other smiled and straightened her collar. A little while later, the first said, “Sister, your sleeve is dragging in your water glass.” Still later, “Sister, your veil is slipping.” Each time, the sister so addressed smiled and corrected the problem.
I asked her later if it bothered her to be corrected so much. She gave her reply with a smile of genuine sweetness: “Oh, I just think to myself, ‘You must really love me to want to help me with these things.’”
I hope her mood of generous acceptance persisted. I could imagine having such a reaction, briefly, after making a life-altering commitment to community life. But my mood of forbearance could not have lasted. Sooner or later those corrections would have grated on my nerves, and I wouldn’t have been able to conceal it.
In the seemingly trivial interactions between those two young nuns is one of the immovable realities of life in community: you must be able to get along. Someone is going to behave, innocently, in a way that will drive you around the bend. Can you manage your emotions? You can’t ever go home to get away from the person who annoys you: you already are at home. You can’t switch jobs: this is your job. There are no mountains to climb, no impressive titles, no awards or bonuses to impress or distract anyone else, or you. This dailiness, in community, without cease: This is it. There is nowhere else to go.
Not only must you struggle with your emotions, you also must live with the knowledge that everyone around you is aware of your struggle. Because everyone is. An intentional community resonates with mutual awareness. You must allow yourself to be known in your smallness, fragility, and pettiness as well as in your best qualities. Can your ego take it?
I can’t imagine a more emotionally demanding way of life. I thought then, and think now, that I was not up to it. Profound humility, self-knowledge, and mutual compassion are required. I have the greatest admiration for the people who can live together like that.
September 12, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths