The following is an excerpt from my book Taking Off My Comfortable Clothes. The chapter is called Living together alone (Community)
Living with twenty or so people on three hundred acres of land in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas can actually feel more crowded than living in Southern California.
While California may seem crowded with its 37 million people, like many populous areas it can also be a lonely place to live. A multitude of neighbors does not mean there are plenty of intimate relationships taking place. I may wave at my neighbors when I seen them, but that does not necessarily mean I know them much beyond their first name.
However, living in a small monastic community means I cannot just wave at my brothers and sisters as I go about my assigned duties; I also eat, pray, work, travel, study, minister and worship with the same twenty people every day. Furthermore, just when I thought I could hide something from my fellow community members, I recall that the chapel service on Friday morning will include a time for confession. Great. Not only did someone see me chuck the uncooperative weed-eater twenty feet out the garage door, now I get to recount the scene and ask forgiveness before the entire community (more on that in a later chapter).
Living in a community is a bit like being part of a large family; you may get to run to your bedroom (or cell or hermitage) for a little time of peace and quiet, but eventually you must come out and, for better or worse, face the rest of the family. But this is a two way street-they must eventually come out and face you.
When you live alone in your hermitage-or house, apartment, loft or even Malibu summer home-it is easy to tell yourself that you are nice person with an abundance of redeeming qualities. You can sit alone, recall all your fine attributes and conclude that you are a good and righteous person, easy to get along with and full of patience, love and joy in the Holy Spirit. But the moment you step out your door and encounter another person, you soon discover whether your own press releases regarding your advanced spiritual maturity are real or imagined. For me, they were mostly imagined.
Monks At The Movies
One time a majority of the community was on a ministry trip to Des Moines (which means, appropriately, “Of The Monks”). We were staying in the home of one of the domestic members, spreading ourselves out all over the home just to find places to sleep. For some reason, the brothers mostly found themselves sleeping in the open places like the living room-this is where Brother Tim and I found ourselves-while the sisters had a more private quarters in the basement. I preferred the living room.
One of the carnal joys of a ministry trip was the opportunity to watch television. Although the Little Portion had a television, we didn’t get any channels and could only watch videos. But when we went to somebody’s home, we got to see what was REALLY going on in the world. We might even watch up to an hour or two of television a day!
One evening, four of us were up stairs watching television. A movie came on that only Sister B. had seen. Sister M. C. wanted to know what it was about, and Sister Betsy gave away the entire plot, including the ending. I HATE it when people do that. Filmmakers (usually) produce a movie intending it to be watched as a whole, telling a story that is deliberately trying to lead you somewhere. I believe the journey is part of the joy of watching a movie. With this attitude in mind, I quite naturally, in my most patient, humble and gently monastic way, went ballistic, telling Sister Betsy just what I thought of her. Sister Betsy’s reaction, quite naturally, was to leave the room in tears.
This was not my finest moment.
However, apologies are offered quickly in a community where people are intentional about making Jesus the Lord of every part of their lives-even over their movie watching habits and preferences. Forgiveness comes quickly also, because we know we are on the same team, with the same vision, goals and desires. We know that we cannot function as a part of Christ’s body if bitterness, anger and unforgiveness continue to haunt our relationships.
Like anybody else, we were quick to show our selfish sides, but we were also quick to apologize and let forgiveness reign. We knew if there were any tension between members of the ministry team, everyone else on the team would notice it, even if we tried to hide it. Therefore, we were quick to confront the issues that bothered us, honest about our apologies, and practiced letting an offending word or action quickly receive our forgiveness. It is a wonderful thing to walk in the lightness and freedom of a community of believers where love, acceptance and forgiveness reign free and true. Unfortunately, I’ve never found this level of intense love and forgiveness in any local church or parachurch organization I’ve been associated with. That is not to say it doesn’t exist, but that I haven’t seen it. I feel privileged to have been a part of a community like this, for it showed me how the body of Christ could be when Christ is truly at the head.