A community is a group of people living together. There might be many reasons why people might live together. Humans are moderately social animals. There are advantages in living together, but there are also problems. A group living together can have a much smaller ecological footprint than the same number of people living independently. The economies of specialisation mean that work can be shared and be pleasanter. We recently had a visitor who then went on to her own house. In her own house she has to do much the same work as we do here at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis) but she has to do it alone, In a group of people there are usually a range of talents. If people do what they are good at then one has the benefit of all those talents. Again, if people try new things they learn and grow.
On the other hand, people living together find each other irritating. Things are not done the way one would choose. Lunch is served at a fixed time, not just when one chooses. Different people have different standards of hygiene. There are different ideas about what work to do and how to do it. These problems are either tackled democratically in which case there are endless meetings or there is a hierarchy and people often find hierarchies irksome whether they are carrying responsibility or are subordinate.
What are called intentional or alternative communities have a long history. They have been inspired by different motives - some political or ideological, some ecological, some practical or economic, some religious or spiritual. Generally speaking, the religious ones are most successful in the long run. Why is this?
In a religious community there is an adherence to something that transcends individual desire. If we all practise or worship together, then the worldly aspects of the community, both the advantageous ones and the irritating ones, are relatively less important. In fact, they tend to be subsumed into the religious purpose. The washing up becomes another form of worship and so is no longer a chore. The construction of a new building is not just a convenience or a money making venture, but an extension of the holy work. Cutting the grass is part of creating a reflection of paradise for the enjoyment of all who come.
This being so, even though the amount of work and organised activity in a religious community is no less and may often be quite a bit more than in a secular one. the whole pattern of motivation and the way that it is perceived become quite different. The tasks and responsibilities become part of religious training, practice and service to the sacred.
Being a Member
Being a member of a religious community also has a dynamic and a sense of progression. One is learning. One learns in the conventional sense by attending lectures, sermons and talks and by reading and encountering new ideas. One learns in the practical sense of taking on new roles and being entrusted with new responsibilities. Above all, however, one is learning to be closer to the holy. One is in a process of turning one’s life around. This gives one a sense that what one is doing is deeply meaningful, not simply personally profitable or convenient. A person who takes to this kind of life will learn to think of the common good ahead of personal desire and will enjoy doing so.
Having a Teacher
Generally a religious community forms around a teacher. There needs to be somebody who is carrying within him or herself the charism of the spiritual path. This person is not necessarily the greatest saint on Earth. They are likely to be a person who is practical as well as spiritual and who has had a range of experience and made a fair number of mistakes in life before finding some stability on the particular spiritual path that inspires the community. The people who join such a community will include some disciples of the teacher. These will form the core and backbone of the community. Other people may come and stay for a while and are likely to form a more transient, peripheral population. From time to time, some people who come as such visitors may decide to join the main community. If they do so it will be because they have been inspired by the example that they have seen and temporarily participated in.
A reason why a religious community is more likely to thrive is that the members are training themselves and see it as part of their mission to overcome self-centredness. This means that all the little situations that arise can be viewed as aspects of training. The leader of the community should have the welfare of every member at heart and may well use the circumstances of the community life to challenge or provide opportunities for members to stretch themselves. By gradually taking on more responsibility, a person may mature both in a general sense and in relation to the faith.
Religion Is Community
There is a sense in which religion is community. the word religion means to link back together. The contemporary trends toward secularism and toward the every greater privitisation of life in which an ever greater proportion of the population live in one-person households are not unrelated to one another. There are spiritual values in living alone too, but shared faith generally does tend to bring people together and most of the things that one learns through religious life are learnt more intensively in a community setting. Again, even the hermit generally considers himself to be an extended part of some community or other. So religion is community, at least in the sense of sangha - a bringing of people together in a spirit of love, compassion, joy and peace..
Primacy of Spiritual Purpose
Spiritual communities can take many forms, but in general we can say that they are places where people live in proximity in order to share practice or worship in one way or another and/or in order to be close to a person who is considered to be a spiritual inspiration. As soon as a group are living together all manner of practical considerations come up and these then need to be managed in a way that ensures that the spiritual purpose remains uppermost and does not get submerged in the practical considerations. This means that such a community is not necessarily highly efficient nor does it always do only what is most economical. Worldly considerations have their place, but it is secondary and, within that auxilliary role, they are then regarded as expressions of the religious life.
A Seed Pod
Being in such a community, therefore, is a continuous education in learning to see the world in this way, such that even when one is not physically in the community, one still thinks of each ordinary task as a sacred duty, considers the needs of others, and keeps oneself in relation to the divine in all one’s dealings with the world as well as in one’s more overtly religious acts. A religious community, therefore, is not only a vibrant entity in itself, it is also like a seed pod from which seeds go out that affect the larger society, and this is also part of its raison d’etre. there will be some who live within the community indefinitely, but there will also be many others who come, learn, change, grow and then go on to take something of great value out into the world.
Community as Part of Society
Again, the religious community as a whole is a part of society. Although it may serve the purposes of the community for it to be located in a tranquil and even remote location, “beyond the world” and members may think of themselves as having “left the world” the fact is that any such community continues to affect the world and may do so in ways that are of great importance in the long run. In the Dark Ages of Europe, when there was much social breakdown, it was the monasteries that were one of the main places that kept learning and culture alive.
A Reflection of Paradise
A religious community should be, in a certain way, a human attempt to reflect paradise. The purpose of religion is to make a bridge between the mundane and the sublime, the actual and the ideal, the mortal and the divine. The light shines and we become its reflection. So we are in the business of trying to create a small snippet of paradise on earth. The modern person perhaps thinks that paradise is a place of over-indulgence, but the religious vision is not like that. In this kind of paradise there are people of good heart who are full of gratitude and therefore generosity, who value being fed by manna from heaven.