The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
Communities are never “established.” They are risked, one day at a time.
WHEN I HEAR the word “community,” I often suspect that people have little sense of what they mean by it, and that this is fine with them. The word dwells uneasily in the American consciousness, in a culture of such all-consuming narcissism that it’s easy even for Christians to forget that to be a faithful follower of Jesus requires us to seek the common good. It’s easier to allow the word to remain abstract, a vaguely romantic notion of how people are supposed to get along.
Our need for others is imbedded deeply in our Judeo-Christian heritage. Early in Genesis, God decides that it is not good for Adam to be alone: Adam and Eve constitute the first community. The Christian experiment with community as expressed in traditional monastic life can be traced to a description of the first disciples in Acts 2: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God.”
In our current political climate, this early Christian community seems like an impossible and maybe even undesirable dream. Holding goods in common does not stimulate the economy, and distributing them according to people’s needs could promote class warfare, socialism, or communism. We hold to our myth of the self-made, autonomous individual even in light of its dire effects on our society. Nearly half of our marriages end in divorce, and some twenty-eight percent of our adults now live alone. (That figure reaches almost fifty percent in some urban areas.) Our sense that to do it right, we need to do it by and for ourselves is a far cry from the perspective of a fifth-century Christian, Dorotheus of Gaza, who said that he would rather do something badly with others and fail, than do it by himself and succeed. In today’s America that’s so subversive it may violate the Patriot Act.
Think of how we use the word “community.” Depending on your political persuasion, to call someone a community organizer can be a slur or an endorsement. But for Christians I believe that community is inseparable from the question: who is my neighbor? Is it only people within a narrow circle of friends and family, those who have a like income, education, or social status, who agree with me politically or share my religious beliefs? Or does my community reach out to include the entire human race, as people made in the image of God?
How, as Christians, do we respond to neighbors who experience bankruptcy due to medical bills, or who in desperation abandon family members in an emergency room? Do we castigate them, or take a hard look at the unjust way that health care is distributed? What of the significant number of American children who lack sufficient food for proper development? Growing up in poverty, they also experience such a “word deficit” that by the age of four they will have heard some thirty-two million fewer words than children raised in more affluent circumstances. A pure utilitarian might suggest that the uneducated and poor undergo sterilization or have abortions, but a Christian will seek another way to assist these youngest of our neighbors and their parents.
I believe that the Christian church itself, in the life of an ordinary congregation, can teach us who our neighbors are, and what community means. When Jesus is confronted with a woman who says, “Blessed is the womb that bore you,” he responds: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” A church, then, is not made up of our family members. It is not a trade union, professional association, or political party. It is full of people with whom we may disagree about everything, from who to vote for to how to clean the parish hall. We do not belong to a church because it’s a self-selected group of like-minded people with whom we feel comfortable. We are there because God has called us to be a community of faith. We are called there by love, and are asked to love the people who are there, even if we may not like them very much. Hard as it is to believe, it’s this unlikely, contentious, and motley crew that God has gathered to be accountable, both to God and to one another.
I believe that accountability lies at the center of our ambivalence about community, our uncertainty about how best to navigate the tension between individual desires and community needs. To some extent this ambivalence is part of the human condition. But a contemporary Benedictine monk, Columba Stewart, insists that “accountability galvanizes community, [making] the difference between mere cohabitation and genuinely common purpose.” But as privatization is held up as our cultural ideal, even for our spiritual lives, we can lose sight of any common purpose that is worth fighting for.
I have long suspected, for example, that people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are really opting out of the hassles of dealing with other people. I once heard a woman declare that she did not need church to find God; after describing at length some trails along a river where she went to meditate, she became angry when I asked, “What would happen if someone else showed up?” Her unwillingness to even consider the question stands in sharp contrast to Saint Benedict’s response to a pilgrim who appeared at his hermitage explaining that he had brought a gift of food because it was Easter. Benedict replied: “I know that it is Easter, for I have been granted the grace of seeing you.” In being welcomed in such a way, that unexpected visitor was in the presence of the grace of a God-given and, more importantly, a God-like hospitality. Benedict offered him a profound and indelible experience of Christian community.
Seeking to know God and seeing God in others are indivisible in Christian life. Columba Stewart has written that for Benedict, “community is not simply the place where one seeks God but its vital means. This is perhaps his most important message for modern Christians,” he adds, “especially those in western countries, where autonomy has become the ideal pattern for life.” People are eager to express their desire for community, a place where they will belong, where others will welcome them. But our consumer culture conditions us to focus on what that community offers us as individuals. We are less willing to commit to what is required of us to make the community work for everyone. Concepts such as humility and mutual obedience rear their ugly heads, and we’re tempted to retreat into the safety of isolation, or to appropriate the communal traditions of others. We choose an Indian name and buy a dream catcher. We claim a monastery as our faith community, conveniently forgetting that we are indulging in the luxury of always being a guest in a place that regards hospitality as a holy obligation.
Offering radical hospitality—welcoming all guests as Christ—distinguishes a Benedictine monastery from a cult or tribe, opening the community to the world even as it rejects much of what the world has to offer. Humility and obedience are all about the primacy of relationship, with God and with one another. And to be a member of a community means being obligated to it, fully committed to its everyday struggles. If the fear of God is the first step of humility, close on its heels is the shedding of prideful judgment, recognizing that the only hypocrite you need to worry about on Sunday morning is yourself. And community offers wonderful correctives: if you can spot another’s fault, it only means that you share in that fault. If you find others exasperating, it means that others find you exasperating as well. And God wants us to move beyond the pettiness and create a community that will be a witness to Christ in this world, and that will endure.
Benedictine monasteries, having endured through all of the vicissitudes of human history for over fifteen hundred years, can teach us plenty about community. Their daily lives are centered on scripture and prayer, and the relational issues of how to live with others are always in play. Columba Stewart sums up the conviction that is at the heart of monastic life: “We are made for life with God and with one another rather than for isolation. To know God and others we must understand ourselves, but to know ourselves we must rely on the help of others. The interplay of individual and community is always a matter of learning through experience and negotiation.”
I often ask an audience to imagine that the people they encounter daily, on the job, in school, in the neighborhood, are the people they will be spending the rest of their lives with. Praying, working, and engaging in recreation with them, all day, every day. The shock in the room is palpable; the groans begin. Now, I add, imagine that God has called you to remain with these people, and that your eternal life depends on how well you establish community with them here and now. This is what monastics take on, I tell them, but to some extent this is also what we do as church. At this point I have people’s full attention, but they aren’t necessarily happy with me.
Christian community challenges us to give up so much that we hold dear. In Galatians we are told that for the Christian no one can claim status as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we have all been brought together to be one in Christ Jesus. In a world in which there is an increasing gap between rich and poor, and tribalism and identity politics are as much a scourge as terrorism, the cause of so-called “little wars” around the world, Paul’s concept of community is hard for us to grasp. And it’s more difficult still to act as if we believe that such community is possible. And yet that is our call and our commission.
Christian life, both in ordinary congregations and in monasteries, survives because it is grounded in essentials, a desire to find God in the words of scripture and in the communal breaking of bread. But another key element is a willingness to experiment. At a recent conference at Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota, members of some twenty-five “intentional communities” gathered to garner wisdom from the traditional monks, and also to discuss issues such as “Becoming a neighborhood church,” “Egalitarian ideals and the need for leadership,” and “How much common life does a community need?”
Several veteran communities were represented—Koinonia Partners, the Bruderhof, Jesus People USA, and Reba Place Fellowship—but participants included people from newer groups such as Radical Living (Brooklyn), Lotus House (St. Louis) and Oak Park (Kansas City). One organizer, David Janzen, reported that trying to keep track of these groups is difficult. He keeps meeting members of new communities and carries their addresses in his shirt pocket until he can follow up with a visit. Some of these groups will outlive their founders; many will not. (They would do well to consider that one reason monasteries have successfully navigated the shoals of community life for so long is Benedict’s insistence that no one is excused from kitchen duty.) But surely, in a culture that idolizes the individual, the proliferation of these groups is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in America, among people seeking to more fully and truly understand what it means to live in community.
Kathleen Norris is the author of Acedia & Me and Journey: New and Selected Poems.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.