Community and Growth
by Jean Vanier
pp 118 – 128
Times of trial: a step towards growth
No community grows without times of trial and difficulty; times of poverty, persecution, tensions, and internal and external struggles; times which destroy its balance and reveal its weakness; times of difficulty which are inevitable when a new step has to be taken.
Creating a community means struggling against all sorts of things. But once the community is launched, energies may evaporate and people may seek distractions; they may compromise with other values. This can be very marked in a therapeutic community. At the start, it accepts people who are difficult or depressed, people who break windows. Then gradually everyone settles down and if ‘window-breakers’ arrive, they are unacceptable. The energies which used to be there to tackle all sorts of problems and to deal with difficult people have dissipated. A time comes when we feel too comfortable together, and that complacency signals a decline in the quality of unity. That is why times of trial are important for a community: they force people to look at themselves and at what is happening in the community, and then to reassess their goals and life of prayer; they oblige them to re-find the quality of unity and the energy to face difficulties.
A community which is growing rich and secure, and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love. A community is alive when it is poor and its members feel they have to work together and remain united and dependent upon each other, if only to ensure that they can all eat tomorrow!
It is often when a community is on the verge of breaking up that people agree to talk to each other and look each other in the eye. This is because they realize that it is a question of life or death, that everything will collapse if they do not do something decisive and radically different. Often we have to come to the edge of the precipice before we reach the moment of truth and recognize our own poverty and need of each other, and cry to God for help.
But times of trial will only unite a community if there is enough trust in it to contain these crises. If one member of the community is killed or very seriously injured in an accident, small personal frictions and interests disappear. A shock like that deepens unity and brings us up against essentials. A new solidarity is born, which enables us better to bear trials and overcome them.
The times of trial which destroy a superficial security often free new energies which had until then been hidden. Hope is reborn from the wound.
Communities need tensions if they are to grow and deepen. Tensions come from conflicts within each person – conflicts born out of a refusal of personal and community growth, conflicts between individual egoisms, conflicts arising from a diminishing gratuité, from a clash of temperaments and from individual psychological difficulties. These are natural tensions. Anguish is the normal reaction to being brought up against our own limitations and darkness, to the discovery of our own deep wound. Tension is the normal reaction to responsibilities we find hard because they make us feel insecure. We all weep and grieve inwardly at the successive deaths of our own interests. It is normal for us to rebel, to be frightened and feel tense when we are faced with difficult people who are not yet free from their own fears and aggression. It is normal that our own reserves of gratuité run low from time to time, because we are tired or are going through personal tensions or sufferings. There are a thousand reasons for tension.
And each of them brings the whole community, as well as each individual member of it, face to face with its own poverty, inability to cope, weariness, aggression and depression. These can be important times if we realize that the treasure of the community is in danger. When everything is going well, when the community feels it is living successfully, its members tend to let their energies dissipate, and to listen less carefully to each other. Tensions bring people back to the reality of their helplessness; obliging them to spend more time in prayer and dialogue, to work patiently to overcome the crisis and re-find lost unity; making them understand that the community is more than just a human reality, that it also needs the spirit of God if it is to live and deepen. Tensions often mark the necessary step towards a greater unity as well, by revealing flaws which demand re-evaluation, reorganization and a greater humility. Sometimes the brutal explosion of one tension simply reveals another which is latent. It is only when tensions come to a head like a boil that we can try to treat the infection at its roots. I am told that there is a Chinese word for ‘crisis’ which means ‘opportunity and danger’. Every tension, every crisis can become source of new life if we approach it wisely, or it can bring death and division.
Tensions and stress come from a lack of balance between difficulties that have to be faced and the support or nourishment that is provided. If the difficulties are great and the support minimal, then people will experience great inner stress. This will come out not only in anger and irrational behavior, which are ways of letting off steam, but also in a great need for compensatory things such as affection, alcohol, coffee, etc. In times of stress people need to be well accompanied if their inner pain is to become a cry for prayer and for God and for wise help, and not just for human comfort and compensations, or a return to values that had been left behind on entering the community. Tensions can break people or bring them back to essentials.
There is nothing more prejudicial to community life than to mask tensions and pretend they do not exist, or to hide them behind a polite façade and flee from reality and dialogue. A tension or difficulty can signal the approach of a new grace of God. But it has to be looked at wisely and humanly. There can be a danger of spiritualizing a tension too quickly instead of talking about it with third person or an external authority.
Tensions and times of trial often come when the community has lost its sense of what is essential, its initial vision, or when it has been unfaithful to the call of Christ and the poor. These tensions then, are a call to a new fidelity. If the community is to re-find peace, it must recognize its shortcomings, ask God’s forgiveness and beg him to give it new light and strength.
We must accept tensions as an everyday fact, while at the same time trying to resolve them through a search for a greater depth and for truth. And resolution does not mean hasty confrontation. It is not by making a tension explode in the presence of all the people concerned that we will resolve it. People are not necessarily helped to overcome their limitations, fears, egoism, jealousy and inability to enter into dialogue simply by being made conscious of them. In fact, this can sometimes shut people off in even greater anguish, close to despair.
People can generally only become conscious of their limitations if at the same time they are given the strength to overcome these by being helped to discover their own capacities for love, goodness and positive action, and to regain confidence in themselves and the Holy Spirit. People cannot accept their own fears if they do not at the same time feel loved, respected and trusted. They cannot overcome their difficulties and inner darkness if they have not been helped to discover that they are lovable. This is the role of people with responsibility: to perceive the beauty and value of people who are tense and aggressive and to help others in the community to do the same. Then those people, knowing that they are not rejected, but accepted and loved, will gradually be able to allow their positive energies to flourish in the service of others.
And when the fears diminish, when people begin to listen to each other without prejudice and rejection, and to understand why others act the way they do, the tensions disappear. It is a question of accepting others and loving them with all their fears and aggression. This mutual acceptance, which can gradually become a true welcoming of the other, takes time and patience. It can involve many laborious meetings and sensitivity in dialogue, as well as silent, peaceful and tender acceptance.
Tensions should neither be hidden nor be brought prematurely to a head. They should be taken on with a great deal of sensitivity and prayerfulness, trust and hope, knowing that there is bound to be suffering. They should be approached with deep understanding and patience, with neither panic nor naive optimism, but with a realism born of a willingness to listen and a desire for truth even if it is challenging and it hurts.
There are always subjective and emotional elements in situations of tension, but there are also elements of objective truth and real differences of opinion. One must not hide the other. It is dangerous to refuse to look at the truth of a situation that is disturbing, under the excuse that the other person has emotional problems. In the same way, it is wrong not to accept the fact that people can use differences of opinion to express their emotional problems.
Tensions may arise from the fact that some people are too set in their opinions. With time, these people become more open and discover that reality has other dimensions. Their vision is modified and the tensions disappear. That is why we have to be patient with tensions and not always seek a speedy resolution. If we act too quickly, we may push people to exaggerate their position instead of becoming more flexible.
Other tensions in a community come when it contains apparently opposed values. The attempt to harmonize these is the genius of community. We want l’Arche to be a Christian community, but also to work within the structures demanded by the state. We have to be prayerful and loving; we must also be competent. Some people hold to one set of values more strongly than to others, and that is good. But this can sometimes bring tensions between people. These tensions diminish as the community and its members become more mature and reach a certain wisdom.
Yet other tensions come from the fact that the community is evolving and new gifts or realities are appearing, which will gradually demand a new balance or even an evolution in the community’s structures. It is vital that we do not panic when faced with these tensions, which cannot always be verbalized. We have to know how to wait for the moment when these questions can be discussed in peace and truth.
The Holy Spirit is always making the new out of the old. I am amazed as I read the history of the Church with its pains and struggles. Always new things unfolding: new prophets, new saints arising to announce the old truths, but in new ways. There is always a tension in the Church between the old and the new: supporters of the old are fearful of the new and see it as a threat, as dangerous and wrong; they condemn it and sometimes even destroy it. The initiators of new ways can also be angry with the old, rejecting it as wrong, as corrupt or evil and then breaking away from it. Similar tensions exist in every community, as each one evolves according to the inspirations of the Spirit and the needs of the time but is reluctant to change.
Leaders can be crucified by these tensions. They are pulled in two directions and often criticized and condemned by both sides. They must try to see the truth in each position, keeping their eyes on essentials, discerning what is prophetic in the new from what is just human desire for change; discerning also what is true in the old and must be retained from what is just fear of change and of insecurity. Leaders need to be patient and to wait until the light of the Holy Spirit is given, and they must call others to be patient.
I am touched by the way tensions in community are so often a gift and a grace. Some tensions are like the pains of childbirth. Different people, holding on to different aspects of the vision which seem to be in contradiction with each other, appear to be opposing one another, but this is not so. It means that a new light or a new reality or new structures, which can harmonize the two, have not yet been given by God. People must continue to bear the pain of these tensions and wait for the resurrection, as Mary waited on that Holy Saturday. The pain keeps each one little and humble; it keeps them calling out to God in prayer; it keeps them also struggling to understand and to love truth over and above their own ideas.
Individual growth towards love and wisdom is slow. A community’s growth is even slower. Members of a community have to be friends of time. They have to learn that many things will resolve themselves if they are given enough time. It can be a great mistake to want, in the name of clarity and truth, to push things too quickly to a resolution. Some people enjoy confrontation and highlighting divisions. This is not always healthy. It is better to be a friend of time. But clearly too, people should not pretend that problems don’t exist by refusing to listen to the rumblings of discontent; they must be aware of the tensions and then learn to work on them at the right moment.
In many communities, there is someone who is more fragile or difficult than the others, who seems to provoke all their aggression and become the butt of their blame, criticism and mockery. All members of a community, in some corner of themselves, feel frustrated and guilty. These feelings can very quickly be felt as a sort of anguish – a sense that we are not comfortable with ourselves. So we project our own limitations and cowardice on to someone weaker than ourselves. This ‘scapegoat’ for personal and collective anguish can be found in many communities.
Once the aggression, bullying or rejection is unleashed, they are not easy to control. And yet, for the health of the community, they have to be deflected from their target, because no community can live while one of its members is being persecuted. So another person, either consciously, or unconsciously under the inspiration of the Spirit, must absorb the aggression. They may do it by playing the fool. Then the aggression is gradually transformed and the crackle of tension is dissipated in the light of laughter.
Many tensions arise from a refusal to accept that authority has its failings. We are all looking for the ideal mother or father and when we do not find them, we are deeply disappointed. These are good tensions: each person must discover that the people who carry authority are also human beings who can make mistakes, without losing confidence in authority itself. Each person has to grow in maturity to find a true and free relationship with authority. And people with authority have to be ready to evolve and to be less afraid.
Sending people away
Some communities break up under the pressure of internal schism and disruption. It is striking how quickly, after a time of grace and unity, the first Christian communities became divided and partisan. Some, for instance, took Paul’s side; others supported Apollos (1 Cor. 3). St. John talks of these deep divisions in his first letter. There had been real splits in the community; some people left, refusing to be in communion with the others or to accept the doctrine of the apostles or, in particular, the authority of John (1 John 2:19).
Judas himself lived with the eleven and with Jesus, but his heart was full of malice and jealousy, and long before Satan led him to the final act of betrayal, his heart had become separated from the hearts of the others. Jesus had called him, but very quickly – and for reasons we do not know – he decided to take advantage of his position to further his own glory and personal plan. He did not want to serve Jesus with the other apostles; he wanted to use Jesus for his own ambitions.
At what moment should someone whose heart seems completely separated from the community, who is sowing disruption and trying to use weaker people for personal and destructive ends, be sent away? These people, whose hearts are filled with jealousy, are often extremely intelligent, with a considerable ability to perceive and exploit failings in legitimate authority or the community’s life. So they can appear clairvoyant, and to have the ability to redress certain injustices. They can attract some of the weaker people or some who are dissatisfied with community life; they know how to create divisions, sow confusion and sap authority. It seems unreasonable to let them go on dividing the community, especially when all attempts at dialogue with them have failed. But to send them away, especially when they have been in the community for a long time, also seems unbearable.
Jesus is clear:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. (Matt. 18:15-17)
Only the people with responsibility in the community and its long-term members can decide that someone must go. But in doing this, they too must recognize their share of guilt. Perhaps they did not dare to take the person in hand and set up a dialogue as soon as the first inkling of divisions appeared; perhaps they let the situation drag on, hoping naively that everything would sort itself out. Perhaps they even exploited the disruptive individual because they needed him or her for a specific job. But a belated recognition of its mistakes should not inhibit the community from acting firmly. If someone is causing dissension among the members of the community, they must be asked to leave.
At the same time, authority must not be too quick to send people away simply because they dispute it. It is often a refusal to listen to these first disagreements which throws up a barrier of pride. If the points had been heard, if the weaknesses and mistakes of the community had been admitted, and if something had been done to try to set them right, perhaps the disputes would have disappeared, or have been converted into positive energy for reform.
A community should not send people away simply because they are disturbing or have a difficult character, or seem to be in the wrong place, or are challenging it. The only people who should be sent away are those who have already cut themselves off from the community in their own hearts, who pose a real threat by influencing others against legitimate authority and sapping confidence in it. These people divide the community and deflect it from its first goals.
In this difficult area of division and schism, there can be no rules except those of patience, vigilance and firmness, and of respect for the community’s structures and insistence on dialogue. In fact, as long as people are integrated into a group and have no opportunity to spread discord, there is no reason to send them away. It is rather a question of carrying them, bearing with them and helping them in whatever ways we can. All members of the community must be on their guard against sowing discord, whether consciously or unconsciously. All of them must constantly seek to be instruments of unity. That doesn’t, of course, mean that they must always agree with the people at the head of the community. But they must confront them in truth. None of us who lives in community is free from elements of pride, born of bruised susceptibility, which can, if we are not careful, invade our whole being.
It takes much time and wisdom to build a community. But it can take very little time to break and destroy a community if a proud and destructive person seeking power is allowed to become a member, more out of a need of the community to find someone competent than through a real discernment. If there are no strong people in the community to confront him or her, then it is likely that the community will break up and die.
We must never forget that Satan is the adversary of love and communion. He hates communities where people are growing in love and in the knowledge of Jesus. He does everything he can to sow discord, to create tensions and divisions, and finally to destroy community.