Community and Growth
by Jean Vanier
Sympathies and Antipathies
The two great dangers of community are ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. People very quickly get together with those who are like themselves; we all like to be with someone who pleases us, who shares our ideas, ways of looking at life and sense of humour. We nourish each other, we flatter each other: ‘You are marvellous’ – ‘So are you’ – ‘We are marvellous because we are intelligent and clever.’ Human friendships can very quickly become a club of mediocrities, enclosed in mutual flattery and approval, preventing people from seeing their inner poverty and wounds. Friendship is then no longer a spur to grow, to go further, to be of greater service to our brothers and sisters, to be more faithful to the gifts we have been given, more attentive to the Spirit, and to continue walking across the desert to the land of liberation. Friendship then becomes stifling, a barrier between ourselves and others and their needs. It becomes an emotional dependence which is a form of slavery.
There are also ‘antipathies’ in community. There are always people with whom we don’t agree, who block us, who contradict us and who stifle the treasure of our life and our freedom. Their presence seems to awaken our own poverty, guilt feelings and inner wounds; it seems menacing and brings out in us either aggression or a sort of fear and servile regression. We seem incapable of expressing ourselves or even of living peacefully when we are with them. Others bring out our envy and jealousy; they are everything we wish we were ourselves. Their presence reminds us of what we are not; their radiance and their intelligence underline our own poverty. Others ask too much of us; we cannot respond to their incessant emotional demands and we have to push them away. These are the ‘enemies’. They endanger us, and, even if we dare not admit it, we hate them. Certainly, this is only a psychological hatred – it isn’t yet a moral hatred, because it is not deliberate. But even so, we just wish these people didn’t exist! If they disappeared or died, it would seem like a liberation.
These blocks, as well as affinity between different personalities, are natural. They come from an emotional immaturity and from many elements from our childhood over which we have no control. It would be foolish to deny them.
But if we let ourselves be guided by our emotional reactions, cliques will form within the community. It will become no longer a community, a place of communion, but a collection of people more or less shut into different groups cut off one from another.
When you go into some communities, you can quickly sense these tensions and underground battles. People don’t look each other in the face. They pass each other in the corridors like ships in the night. A community is only a community when most of its members have consciously decided to break these barriers and come out of their cocoons of ‘friendship’ to stretch out their hand to their enemies.
But the journey is a long one. A community isn’t built in a day. In fact, it is never completely finished! It is always either growing towards greater love or else regressing, as people accept or refuse to descend into the tunnel of pain to be reborn in the spirit.
The barriers and walls around communities, as they lock themselves up in fear or elitism, are the mirrors of those barriers and walls that people put around their own wounded hearts.
There is a very significant passage in the letter to the Ephesians where Paul says that Jesus came to break down the dividing walls of hostility between two groups of people to make them both one (cf. Eph. 2:14).
Bill gave as an example of the pain of living in community, where two people live in the same room and one always carefully presses his or her tube of toothpaste from the bottom while the other person borrows the same tube but presses it from the middle!
Scott Peck talks of pseudo-communities. These are where people pretend to live community. Everybody is polite and obeys the rules and regulations. They speak in platitudes and generalities. But underlying it all is an immense fear of conflict, a fear of letting out the monsters. If people start truly to listen to each other and to get involved, speaking from their guts, their anger and fears may rise up and they might start hitting each other over the head with frying pans. There are so many pent-up emotions contained in their hearts that if these were to start surfacing, God knows what might happen! It would be chaos. But from that chaos, healing could come. They realize what a terrible mess the community is in, what horrible fears inhabit them. Then they feel lost and empty. What to do; what road to take? They discover that they have all been living in a state of falsehood. And it is then that the miracle of community can happen! Feeling lost, but together, they start to share their pain, their disillusionment and their love, and then discover their brotherhood and sisterhood; they start praying to God for light and for healing, and they discover forgiveness. They discover community.7
Our enemies frighten us. We are incapable of hearing their cries, of responding to their needs. Their aggression or domination stifles us. We flee from them – or wish that they would disappear.
But in community we are called to discover that the ‘enemy’ is a person in pain and that through the ‘enemy’ we are being asked to become aware of our own weakness, lack of maturity and inner poverty. Perhaps it is this which we refuse to look at. The faults we criticize in others are often those we refuse to face in ourselves. Those who criticize others and the community, and seek an ideal one, are often in flight from their own flaws and weaknesses. They see the piece of straw in the eye of the other, but seem completely unaware of the log in their own. They refuse to accept their own feeling of dissatisfaction, their own wound.
Scott Peck writes that one of the things we know about evil is
the tendency of the evil to project their evil onto others. Unable or unwilling to face their own sinfulness, they must explain it away by accusing others of defects . . . .8
I know that the first task of love is self-purification. When one has purified oneself, by the grace of God, to the point at which one can truly love one’s enemies, a beautiful thing happens. It is as if the boundaries of the soul become so clean as to be transparent, and a unique light then shines forth from the individual.9
The message of Jesus is clear:
But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. . . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. (Luke 6:27-29, 32)
Of course you don’t meet enemies in Carmel, but when all is said and done you do have your sympathies. One sister attracts you; another sister – well, you’d go a good long way round to avoid meeting her. Without knowing it, she is your persecutress. Good; then Jesus tells me this is the sister I’ve got to love, the sister I’ve got to pray for. Her behavior to be sure, suggests that she isn’t too fond of me; yes but ‘What credit is it to you if you love those you love you? Even sinners love those who love them.’ And just loving her isn’t enough; you’ve got to prove it.10
The enemy in the community reveals to us the enemy inside us.
Community as forgiveness
As long as we refuse to accept that we are a mixture of light and darkness, of positive qualities and failings, of love and hate, of altruism and egocentricity, of maturity and immaturity, and that we are all children of the same Father, we will continue to divide the world into enemies (the ‘baddies’) and friends (the ‘goodies’). We will go on throwing up barriers around ourselves and our communities, spreading prejudice.
When we accept that we have weaknesses and flaws, that we have sinned against God and against our brothers and sisters, but that we are forgiven and can grow towards inner freedom and truer love, then we can accept the weaknesses and flaws of others. They too are forgiven by God and are growing towards the freedom of love. We can look at all men and women with realism and love. We can begin to see in them the wound of pain that brings up fear, but also their gift which we can love and admire. We are all mortal and fragile, but we are all unique and precious. There is hope; we can all grow towards greater freedom. We are learning to forgive.
In community it is so easy to judge and then condemn others. We lock people up in a category: ‘He or she is like this or like that.’ When we do that we refuse them the possibility of growing. Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. This is the sin of community life. If we judge, it is often because there is something inside us that we feel guilty about and which we do not want to look at or allow others to see. When we judge, we are pushing people away; we are creating a wall, a barrier. When we forgive we are destroying barriers; we come closer to others.
Sometimes I can judge people too quickly, their acts or the way they exercise their authority, not knowing or having assimilated all the facts or circumstances. It is so easy to speak from our wounds rather than from our center where Jesus is present. It is so easy to see the flaws in others instead of affirming all that is positive in them.
When we speak from our wound, frequently we are trying to prove that we are someone; we are frightened of disappearing and of not being recognized; we are frightened of loss. There can be an unconscious anger or need to dominate and control others in the tone of our voice; there can be also an urgency or compulsion coming from an inner disturbance or anguish. We must not be surprised if we speak from our wound and defense mechanisms and judge others too quickly. That is our broken humanity. Each one of us carries within us wounds and fragilities; we can be quickly frightened by other people and their ideas; we all have difficulty truly listening to others and appreciating them.
However, we must all work on our emotional life and deepen our spiritual life in order to be more centered in truth in love, in God, and in order to speak and act out of that center and not to judge others.
We can only truly accept others as they are, and forgive them, when we discover that we are truly accepted by God as we are and forgiven by him. It is a deep experience, knowing that we are loved and held by God in all our brokenness and littleness. For me it has been such a grace and a gift over these years in community to verbalize my sins and to ask for forgiveness of a priest who listens and says ‘I forgive you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ To accept responsibility for our sinfulness and hardness of heart, and to know that we are forgiven is a real liberation. I don’t have to hide my guilt anymore.
We can only really love our enemies and all that is broken in them if we begin to love all that is broken in our own beings. The prodigal son, after the discovery that he was loved in such a tremendous way by the Father, would never be able to judge anyone any more. How could he reject someone when he sees how he has been accepted by the Father, just as he is, with all his brokenness. The elder son, on the other hand, did judge, because he had not come to terms with his own brokenness; all this was still hidden in the tomb of his being, with the stone rolled tight against it.
We can only really love with a universal heart as we discover that we are loved by the universal heart of God.
Community is the place of forgiveness. In spite of all the trust we may have in each other, there are always words that wound, self-promoting attitudes, situations where susceptibilities clash. That is why living together implies a cross, a constant effort, an acceptance which is daily, and mutual forgiveness.
Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to discover a life which approaches the ideal. If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to learn to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times, we will soon be disappointed.
But forgiveness is not simply saying to someone who has had a fit of anger, slammed the doors and behaved in an anti-social or ‘anti-community’ way; ‘I forgive you.’ When people have power and are well settled in community, it is easy to ‘wield’ forgiveness.
To forgive is also to understand the cry behind the behavior. People are saying something through their anger and/or anti-social behavior. Perhaps they feel rejected. Perhaps they feel that no one is listening to what they have to say or maybe they feel incapable of expressing what is inside them. Perhaps the community is being too rigid or too legalistic and set in its ways; there may even be a lack of love and of truth. To forgive is also to look into oneself and to see where one should change, where one should also ask for forgiveness and make amends.
To forgive is to recognize once again – after separation – the covenant which binds us together with those we do not get along with well; it is to be open and listening to them once again. It is to give them space in our hearts. That is why it is never easy to forgive. We too must change. We must learn to forgive and forgive and forgive every day, day after day. We need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to open up like that.
We are not the masters of our own feelings of attraction or revulsion; these come from places in ourselves over which we have little or no control. All we can do is try not to follow inclinations which make for barriers within the community. We have to hope that the Holy Spirit will come to forgive, purify and trim the rather twisted branches of our being. Our emotional make-up has grown from a thousand fears and egoisms since our infancy, as well as from signs of love and the gift of God. It is a mixture of shadow and light. And so it will not be straightened out in a day, but will take a thousand purifications and pardons, daily efforts and above all a gift of the Holy Spirit which renews us from within.
It is a long haul to transform our emotional make-up so that we can start really loving our enemy. We have to be patient with our feelings and fears; we have to be merciful to ourselves. If we are to make the passage11 to acceptance and love of the other – all the others – we must start very simply, by recognizing our own blocks. jealousies, ways of comparing ourselves to others, prejudices and hatreds. We have to recognize that we are poor creatures, that we are what we are. And we have to ask our Father to forgive and purify us. It is good, then, to speak to a spiritual guide, who perhaps can help us to understand what is happening, strengthen us in our efforts and help us discover God’s pardon.
Once we have recognized that a branch is twisted, that we have these blocks of antipathy, the next step is to try to be careful of how we speak. We have to try to hold our tongue, which can so quickly sow discord, which likes to spread the faults and mistakes of others, which rejoices when it can prove someone wrong. The tongue is one of the smallest parts of our body, but it can sow death. We are quick to magnify the faults of others, just to hide our own. It is so often ‘they’ who are wrong. When we accept our own flaws, it is easier to accept those of others.
Here is a word of advice from St John of the Cross: ‘Never listen to those who speak of the weakness of another. If someone comes to complain about someone, you can ask that person with humility, not to say anything’12
At the same time, we should try loyally to see the good qualities of our enemies. After all, they must have a few! But because we’re afraid of them, perhaps they are afraid of us. If we have blocks, they too must have them. It is hard for two people who are afraid of each other to discover their mutual qualities. They need a mediator, a conciliator, an artisan of peace, someone in whom both have confidence. This third person can perhaps help us to discover the qualities of our enemy, or at least to understand our own attitudes and blocks. When we have seen the enemy’s qualities, one day we will be able to use our tongue to say something good about him. It is a long journey, which will end the day we can ask our former ‘enemy’ for advice or a favor. We all find it far more touching to be asked for help than we do to be helped or ‘done good to’.
Throughout this time, the Holy Spirit can help us to pray for our enemies, to pray that they too grow as God would have them grow, so that one day the reconciliation may be made. Perhaps one day the Holy Spirit will liberate us from this block of antipathy. Perhaps he will let us go on walking with this thorn in our flesh – this thorn which humiliates us and forces us to renew our efforts each day. When Paul cried out to be delivered from the thorn in his flesh, Jesus replied: ‘My grace is enough for you; my power is manifested in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).
We shouldn’t get worried about our bad feelings. Still less should we feel guilty. We should ask God’s forgiveness, like little children and keep on walking. We shouldn’t get discouraged if the road is long. One of the roles of community life is precisely to keep us walking in hope, to help us accept ourselves as we are and others as they are.
Patience, like forgiveness, is at the heart of community life – patience with ourselves and the laws of our own growth, and patience with others. The hope of a community is founded on the acceptance and love of ourselves and others as we really are, and on the patience and trust which is essential to growth.
There is one sister in the community who has the knack of rubbing me up the wrong way at every turn; her tricks of manner, her tricks of speech, her character, strike me as unlovable. But then, she’s a holy religious; God must love her dearly, so I wasn’t going to let this natural antipathy get the better of me. I reminded myself that charity isn’t a matter of fine sentiments; it means doing things. So I determined to treat this sister as if she were the person I loved best in the world. Every time I met her, I used to pray for her, offering to God all her virtues and her merits. I felt certain that Jesus would like me to do that.13
We must pray that God will teach us to love those we do not like and then to like those he is teaching us to love.
To grow in love is to try each day to welcome, and to be attentive and caring for those with whom we have the greatest difficulty; with our ‘enemies’; those who are the poorest, the oldest, the weakest, the most demanding, the most ailing; those who are the most marginal in the community, who have the most difficulty conforming to the rules; and finally those who are the youngest. If people are faithful to these four priorities of love then the community as a whole will be an oasis of love.
The mutual trust at the heart of community is born of each day’s forgiveness and acceptance of the frailty and poverty of ourselves and of others. But this trust is not developed overnight. That is why it takes time to form a real community. When people join a community, they always present a certain image of themselves because they want to conform to what the others expect of them. Gradually, they discover that the others love them as they are and trust them. But this trust must stand the test and must always be growing.
Newly-married couples may love each other a great deal. But there may be something superficial in this love, which has to do with the excitement of discovery. Love is even deeper between people who have been married for a long time, who have lived through difficulties together and who know that the other will be faithful until death. They know that nothing can break their union.
It is the same in our communities. It is often after suffering, after very great trials, tensions and the proof of fidelity that trust grows. A community in which there is truly mutual trust is a community which is indestructible.
I am becoming more and more aware that the great difficulty of many of us who live in community is that we lack trust in ourselves. We can so quickly feel that we are not really lovable, that if others saw us as we really are, they would reject us. We are afraid of all that is darkness in ourselves, we are afraid to face our emotional or sexual problems; we are afraid that we are incapable of real love. We swing so quickly from exhilaration to depression, and neither expresses what we really are. How can we become convinced that we are loved in our poverty and weakness and that we too are capable of loving?
That is the secret of growth in community. It comes from a gift of God which may pass through others. As we gradually discover that God and the others trust us, it becomes a little easier for us to trust ourselves, and in turn to trust others.
To live in community is to discover and love the secret of what is unique in ourselves. This is how we become free. Then we no longer live according to the desires of others, or by an image of ourselves; we become free, free to love others as they are and not as we would like them to be.
7 cf. Scott Peck’s reflections on the movement from pseudo-community to community, through chaos and emptiness, in The Different Drum, ch. 5.
8 Scott Peck, People of the Lie, p. 260.
9 Ibid.. D. 268.
10 Thérèse de Lisieux, Autobiography of a Saint, trans. Ronald Knox (Collins, London, 1958), p. 214. Thérèse Martin, frequently called Thérèse of Lisieux, entered an enclosed Carme1ite community at the age of 15. She died aged 24. Her autobiography is one of the most enlightening documents about the pain and holiness of community life.
11 passage: a transition that includes a deeply changed attitude, or a movement from one stage of life to another .
12 Sayings of St John of the Cross, no.198.
13 Thérèse de Lisieux, Autobiography of a Saint, p. 211.