The Whole is Greater: Vanier & Community Pt. 1

A Story:

During my study abroad semester in Italy (which, ironically, was when I began this blog), one of the big focuses was community.  We lived together, 24 of us under one roof of the monastery.  We ate lunch and dinner together at one long table in the local Italian restaurant (for descriptions of how delicious those meals were, see blog posts from 2011).  We met daily before pranzo for chapter meeting, where we celebrated, or grieved, or typically just shared life and wisdom from whatever author our professor felt moved to share with us for that day.

One of the authors I was introduced to that semester was Jean Vanier.  Vanier is most notably known for his founding of the l’Arche centers–communities for those who are mentally handicapped.  I remember distinctively one of the texts our professor shared with us one day:

“Some people fear to enter a community because they are afraid of losing their identity.  They fear that they will disappear, lose their personality, and inner wealth if they become part of a group and accept the principles of community discernment.  This fear is not entirely unjustified.  When we come into community we give up something of ourselves, and the rougher elements of our personality will have to be left behind.” (Vanier, Community and Growth, Paulist Press 1979, p. 73)

I don’t remember much else from that chapter meeting because I was stuck on this thought.  You mean, I have to stop being me?  The idea was repulsive to me at first.  Maybe it was my American individualism shining through, but more likely it was my own selfishness and arrogance.  The thought contradicted everything I had been led to believe about all of us being unique and needing to be individuals.  Or so I thought.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how errant I was in my thinking.  Vanier wasn’t saying we had to stop being us…at least not entirely.  When we enter into community with other people, we do give up some of ourselves–the parts that need to be grown and changed.  The parts that God is already sanctifying in us get pulled out even more in community.  And yes, we lose some of our individuality because the whole is greater than just us.  It’s our job to empathize and work for the greater good of the community.

When I returned to the United States in the fall of 2012, I decided to order the book that this excerpt came from: Community and Growth.  I started the 330 page book that November.

The reason I’m just posting about it now is…I just finished reading it.  It was one of my goals for Christmas break to finish reading the book.  It didn’t take me so long because it was a bad book.  On the contrary, it was probably one of the best books I’ve ever read…which is why it took me so long.  It’s the type of book that you read a paragraph, and that paragraph is so rich that you have to go back and read it again because it speaks so much truth about community.  It’s the type of book that you read with pen in hand, because there’s just so much good stuff in it.

Some Thoughts:

Now that you’ve heard the story that brought me to Vanier, I wanted to take a couple of posts to share some of the excerpts of the book that I thought were most meaningful/noteworthy/inspiring/whatever other adjective should apply.  Some will correlate with interpretive commentary.  Others, I’ll let speak for themselves.  My favorite is still the section that I posted above.

The book itself is part commentary on community, part guidebook for community, part reflection on community.  It begins with defining community, then travels through mission, growth, leadership, and celebration.  Here it goes–apologies if they seem a little out of context.  That just means you’ll have to go read the book:

[In the chapter entitled Mission]

-“The cry for love and communion and for recognition that rises from the hearts of people in need reveals the fountain of love in us and our capacity to give life…Their cry is so demanding, and we are frequently seduced by wealth, power and the values of our society.” (p. 98) Tragically, I feel like I see this a lot in life these days.  I see my students who don’t usually come from a whole family and so cry out for this love.  And I see so many people who turn away from them.  And I know that if I’m not careful, I too can turn away from them unwittingly.

[From the chapter Growth]

-“The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation.  If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence, and if we do not know how to take time to live from the presence and gentleness of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered.  It is only to the extent that we nurture our own hearts that we can keep inner freedom.” (p. 139)  I feel like Vanier is pointing to the inability of people from my generation to be alone.  Given that this text was written over thirty years ago, I feel like it’s even more of a danger today, with the prevalence of technology without people truly taking the time to think carefully about information they are taking in, or even more importantly, to find solitude from that information.

[From Nourishment]

-“The essential nourishment is fidelity to the thousand and one small demands of each day, the effort to love and forgive ‘the enemy’ and to welcome and accept community structures, with all this brings by way of cooperation with authority.  It is fidelity in listening to the poor of the community, in accepting a simple and unheroic life.  It is fidelity in directing personal projects towards the good of the community and its poorest members and in renouncing purely personal prestige.” (p. 169)

That’s all for now.  Hopefully in the next couple of days (after my New Year’s excursion) I’ll flip through the rest of the book and find my other favorite sections for part 2.

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