THE UNITY OF THE COMMUNITY: The Family of God

Sr. Augustine of Butende


When I received the invitation to prepare this conference, I was perplexed! It was a challenge -- Oh! - with my limitations! However, Preparing it has been really a stimulant for my renewal, and I am sure that the Holy Spirit has been working overtime. The movement of God's Spirit in our Church today, is both challenging and exciting.

The phrase: "Church as family of God" appears 15 times in the final message of the recent African Synod. That was the theme of the Synod. Declared the Holy Father: "The Synod is over. The Synod has begun in the Church, in families, in Christian communities." And the Pope reminded us that "Synod" means "to walk together." How do we Cistercians "walk together" in our worldwide communities?

I am sure that the participants in last Year's RAFAM meeting at Latroun will agree with me: We experienced a real family spirit and memorable Cistercian hospitality!

No doubt we Africans do have a keen sense of "Belonging." I wonder how that sift of "Belonging" is actually lived in our communities. It may help our understanding if we look at what constitutes "signs" or "symptoms" of a true family:
...Everyone feels at home. No one is a stranger there.
...There is love and solidarity.
...There is cooperation (even though minor conflicts are ever present).
...There is sharing and dialogue. Everyone gets involved in working toward the development of the family's common good.

Permit me to comment on "tribalism," the dictionary definition of which is: "1. The organisation, culture, or beliefs of a tribe. 2. The sense of entity of a tribe." Tribalism is often accused of being a common hindrance of a community's unity. How accurate, in fact, is that idea? Ever since I entered our abbey, I have noticed one specific remark on every visitation card: "Your community should be grateful to the Lord always, because there is no trace of tribalism" -- in the pejorative meaning often attached to the term. If tribalism, in its negative sense of prejudice animosity or rivalry, should ever rear its ugly head in our community, we would feed it to the cobras!

MUTUAL CONFIDENCE

Self-confidence (together with confidence in God) is very essential. For instance, community members may react, behaving as if incapable of doing anything. Sometimes absolutely dependent (I do not mean the sick and the aging). Dependence is rather discouraging to the superiors. Nevertheless, superiors must take risks and appoint Sisters for various occupations. I think that a Sister who feels threatened or unable to take an assignment, should try it out and be prepared to make mistakes -- and continue on, with courage. Difficulty is not impossibility.

Thanks to her gift of fortitude, a brave Sister may Push ahead against obstacles in her desire to rescue a situation for her community. And what may (often) happen? She tastes a bit of "the cup" the Lord knew: 'Let her suffer; she asked for it!" Perhaps some members will view the Sister's efforts in that way because they do not themselves care to face reality.

WHAT FOSTERS/HINDERS MUTUAL CONFIDENCE?

Love, trust, listening, affirmation -- foster mutual confidence Trust is a risk, as we open ourselves to others we are, in fact, saying: "Here I am trusting You and defenceless before you." St. Benedict asks us to reveal even the hidden temptations we experience to our spiritual mother/father. Is that easy? Genuine communication can take Place only in a climate of mutual trust and confidence At times, one hears it said: "Africans are generally closed." Is that true? Perhaps they are struggling with this need for confidence (and sometimes they are concerned about the matter of confidentiality). It can happen that as we were growing up, we were "conditioned" to avoid intimacy -- "wearing our heart on our sleeve." We may not have expressed our feelings openly. We kept a respectful distance toward our elders and those in authority.

Mutual confidence is hindered, on the contrary, by prejudice, fear, rumor -- even as it is nurtured by love, trust, listening, affirmation. One is naturally reluctant to share, at any real depth, if she feels that what she has shared in confidence may, alas! -be reported from the roof. (Woe to the one who betrays secrets... cf. Sirach, 27;16.) My tongue "is like a fire. It is a world of wrong no one has ever. tamed the tongue" (cf. James, c. 3). Rumor often results in bitterness; a reputation may be ruined; work may become disorganized Benedict reminds us that in a flood of words, there is no escape from sin.

TRUTH IN RELATIONSHIP -- TOLERANCE THAT IS LIFE-GIVING OR ELSE DESTRUCTIVE

Oh my people! How long will Your hearts be closed? How long will YOU love what is futile and seek what is false? (Cf. Ps. 4;3) We pray that daily, as we complete our monastic day.

Truth in relationships asks for my selflessness, constancy, understanding, forgiveness, sincerity -- and the courage to begin anew each day Above all that truth asks me to accept myself as I am. Truth in relationships is a very happy thing: it makes me laugh; it makes me sing; it makes me glad; it makes me sad. It also makes me seek the reason why certain things happen. It should be, therefore, life-giving.

What hinders truth in relationships, and so may make them destructive? Lack of humility; scapegoating; insensitivity; insecurity. Perhaps especially destructive is fear: of opening up; of being myself; of taking others seriously; that others may have something to teach me. And what about the fear that if I really "so in" for full and sincere dialogue, I may have to change, as a result, my own views and behaviour? Further, fear fosters gossip, rudeness, tattling, prejudice, suspicions Am I able to expose myself in the nakedness of my limitations, weaknesses and Poverty, while letting others see me as I am, and not merely as I would like them to see me?

Scapegoating is a big enemy of truth in relationships. So long as blame is projected onto another Person or thing, then the need for self confrontation and conversion disappears or at least postponed . If only we would give time to talking directly with others, that we spend talking about others, wouldn't Community life move more smoothly and more fruitfully?

OF TOLERANCE AND APATHY

Who of us can survive in the monastery without due tolerance? Sometimes that tolerance is put to the test, due to insensitivity We live so closely together! We meet in refectory, church, scriptorium, work assignments. Our uniqueness, temperament, background, Personal Preferences, and so on -- must be considered in our life together within community If they tolerate me, must I not tolerate them? But there is a destructive tolerance engendered by a fearful or uneasy silence, when some sort of communication is called for; this is particularly a danger for those in authority. I might also fall victim to this sort of corrosive tolerance because of my hostility or apprehensions or human respect.

What of apathy or disinterestedness? Not helpful and not healthful. Suppose that those who have the right or obligation to "speak up" for harmony, good order and general well-being of a community, elect to stay snug and comfortable by claming up instead of expressing their sincere concern and -- if proper -- their correction. Is not this neglect -however it may be motivated -- an encouragement for any faulty status quo? I think that this kind of behavior is something quite other than a genuine love of peace and wholesome tolerance. Thomas Merton remarked: "Lord, save me from two kinds of friends: those who always correct, and those who never correct."

Closed systems are ordinarily destructive.

FORGIVENESS AND RECONCILIATION

We are in the school of divine mercy! When emotions are strong, communication is weak. Where there is no experience of death and resurrection, community life is unreal.

Someone said forgiveness is difficult, but to ask pardon is much more so. It is easier to go to the sacrament of reconciliation than to face each other for mutual pardon. "Forgive and You will be forgiven," says Jesus. Without a spirit of forgiveness, one can easily develop schizophrenia or hypochondria, or other physical/psychological disorders.

Forgiveness in its highest form, purposefully seeks for a mutual relationship, and for togetherness. It is willing to repeat itself 70 x 7 times, without being ashamed of being considered a fool, or posing as heroic. No matter the quantity or quality of faults, the one who forgives is convinced that her sister is better than she appears.

Forgiveness is the most humble gesture. It is discreet and gentle -- in such wise that the Person forgiven is not made to feel that it costs the one giving it, very much at all. From my own deepest experience, the -fact that I was accepted to remain in the monastery until death is the sure Proof that I live under the forgiving heart of my fellow-Sisters. Thus I believe that the preservation of unity among Sisters depends on a sincere and mutual effort toward reconciliation.

To eliminate thorns of scandal from the community, the Sisters are not to prolong the time of anger, but when there is a dispute, to make Peace as soon as possible. (Cf. C. 15) Honestly speaking, without a spirit of forgiveness, one easily falls into three capital sins, which the Abbot General commented on in the last MGM - 1993: activism, individualism, inconstancy. Victims of those failings tend to nurse grudges and then find themselves depressed and furious.

"Confess Your sins to one another and pray for one another, then you will be healed" (James, 5:16). If I find myself embarrassed if I have to confess the same sin now and again, then I should ask myself: "Does the sacrament of reconciliation give me the guarantee that I'll never sin again?" Why does St. Benedict ask the superior to recite the Our Father both morning and evening -- Lauds and Vespers? That's twice a day.

INTEGRATION OF DIFFERENCES AND HEALING OF WOUNDEDNESS

Indeed, as the Abbot General said in the MGM Conference, 1993: "Each of us pilgrims to the absolute, companions in joy and sorrow, witnesses of the Monastic church and to the Kingdom to come!" We enrich one another but at times we cause Pain to one another due to our differences, because being human, we are influenced by what is said and done to us. It is only by that love which covers a multitude of sins that we remain together.

Lack of openness, differences in opinions, insensitivity -- are a few of the reasons that can create agitation in us. Have You ever been in a meeting where some participants were hearers only -- and later claim that they had no influence on the decisions made?

I am convinced that one should speak her truth, listen attentively to others -- even the dull and ignorant, for they too have their rights and convictions. If we are Prone to contrast ourselves with others, it is easy to become vain and bitter; envious or jealous. There are always greater and lesser persons than ourselves. "Be yourself," is both wise and practical advice.

Genuine sensitivity is the heart of dialogue and the Perfection of charity. "Do unto others as You would have them do unto You," Jesus teaches us. In fact, a wound of insensitivity takes time to heal because it is rubbed now and again.

What about differences in opinion? One example: change. Life is not static, but a community may sometimes be so. Some of its members may refuse to change from their present life-style because change can subject people to tensions: "What is this change going to do to us?" Why do some religious conclude that tension, per se, is harmful? Change does call for a blend of humility, courage and strength -- and if these elements are missing or weak, then rigidity of mind and spiritual rheumatism may easily set in and immobilize those thus afflicted. Unless one moves along with the community ("goes with the flow"), she may very well experience friction, irritability, defensiveness and suspicion. Every new idea will be a daunting challenge; every new proposal a threat. How often does it not happen that we argue vehemently, only to discover suddenly that there was no real Point of disagreement.

Are we willing to confront one another? Conflict is an extremely difficult issue for most people living together. Many never learn how to handle it, and often see it, therefore, as wrong. When a community has commenced to deal effectively with conflicts, it moves into cohesiveness (sticking together). And when a social-religious group is cohesive, it discovers a sense of trust in and joy with one another. The members then show a great deal of sharing and tolerance, becoming more effective at decision-making.

THE JOY OF LIVING TOGETHER

Indeed, the ability to rejoice with my Sisters, spontaneously and intimately at their successes -- or to empathise with them in their failures or sorrows -- is a sign of my being truly a sister-Sister. Love unites. With a mere "companion," her victories or defeats may leave me relatively unmoved, one way or the other. I might be jealous of her successes or smug at her falls.

Take the example of relatives or close friends. At times they may do things of which we disapprove or be shocked at, and Yet we remain firmly attached and devoted to them. Where there is genuine love, we instinctively recognize and accept the difference between the Person and the deed. We find it easy, normal to continue loving them, even if we repudiate what they have done.

For some people, a stress-free life is their ideal, their goal. Although high-level stress and tension are regarded as injurious to one's psychological and Physical well-being, may it not also be true that an untroubled life leads to boredom and meaninglessness?

St. Bernard writes of our daily difficulties as:
...burdened with sin
...weighed down by our mortal body
...emerged in earthly cares
...drugged by carnal cravings
...blind, bent, infirm
...entangled in a web of error
...defenceless before a thousand dangers
...frightened by a thousand fears
...perplexed by a thousand difficulties
...subject to a thousand misgivings and burdened by a thousands needs.

In all these trials, Bernard sees us as destitute of sufficient power in our own virtues; mute before the harsh importunity of human destiny, when unaided by divine mercy. This incites us to pray, or ought to, and that is what God is looking for..."Without Me YOU can do nothing."