Why On Earth Would You Want to Live in Community?
'I'm sure it's wonderful for some, but I can't imagine doing it myself.' This (or some version thereof) is the most common response to my descriptions of living in intentional Christian community. So, either I'm doing a terrible job describing what it's actually like, or it's a genuinely difficult thing to envision doing (or both).
It is easy, I think, to pick up on the difficult aspects of this kind of community living. You have to redefine your notion of personal space. You have to work hard to carve out anything resembling typical privacy. You really do have to try and be loving towards your community members, all the time, even when it's the last thing you might want to do. You can't fall out with a community member then reassure yourself you won't have to speak to them again: in fact, chances are you'll be doing dishes with them the next day. You lose a lot of autonomy when it comes to plans, as community commitments take precedence over most things. You have to learn to speak as many different languages as there are people in the community, as living in close proximity makes clear just how different people's thought processes are depending on where they've come from.
All these things taken together can make living in community sound like an arduous process, something you would only put yourself through in the name of spiritual gain. They can make it sound like something unpleasant in itself, but good for self-improvement; a mode of living which is justified by what it produces.
The thing is, after two and a half years of Saint Hilda's House, these seem to me to be blatantly false accounts of community living. Far from being something fundamentally arduous, to be pursued for the sake of its transformative effects, it has proved to be about as good a way of life as I can imagine. It has been a way of life in which each of the difficulties listed above has just been the shadow side of a far greater opportunity.
As such, I've come to believe that community living is not something you would only do for the sake of semi-masochistic self-improvement: rather, it is something to be desired in-and-of-itself. And so I'm writing a post about why someone might want to live in community, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. I'm going to explore two of the immediate and tangible benefits which community life offers, benefits which run counter to certain societal expectations. By the end, I have one hope only: that the reader no longer thinks of living in intentional community as just some exceptional exploit to be undertaken only by the most spiritually driven, but also as something we might all have reason to want to do.
The first benefit is this: living in community affords the individual greater freedom than living on their own.
How is this the case? A fair question, especially since the first condition of intentional community is the taking on of a significant number of obligations: obligations towards your community members both individually and as a whole, obligations to God, and usually an obligation of monetary poverty.
All the same, it seems to me that living in community grants the individual more freedoms than restrictions. First of all, it frees people from the worries that can so easily come with the necessity of subsistence. Precisely how this happens will depend upon the individual community's financial structure, but the fact remains that community living can remove a significant number of concerns as to when and where the next meal is going to come from, when and whether the bills will be paid, and whether or not we are going to be able to support ourselves. It can do all of this, moreover, without at the same time doing away with any sense that we are still responsible for ourselves in these matters. Freedom does not entail irresponsibility here; it just means that the dual concerns of profit and loss need not dominate our decision making.
This in turn frees us to do the kinds of work which economic necessity all too often renders impossible. For those who have a sense that they want to do good in this world, but have to compromise their idealism in order to support themselves in an increasingly expensive (yet also increasingly devalued) world, this can be a godsend. It can free individuals and families up to try and do the work of Christ in the world without threatening their ability to do this work in a state of good health.
This might not come across as the greatest clarion call to freedom that ever there was. But whilst I'm a cynic about a great many things, I am not a cynic about the genuine desire of many to do good in the world. And whilst I can often drift into hypocritically scathing language about the importance of material comfort- hypocritical because of just how comfortable my life is- I don't for a second think that those hoping to do good but genuinely afraid of material insecurity should be required to somehow exorcise the root of those fears (such an attitude would be unrealistic and deeply uncharitable). Intentional community provides a model of living which allows individuals to pursue their ideals without requiring this exorcism. This marks it out as an inestimable good, and one charged with potential for the future.
The second benefit of community is freedom from isolation. Living in community can free individuals form the horrific effects of alienation and seclusion which seem to plague so many modern institutions. It provides a more or less unique context for forming deeply personal relationships; a context not reliant on making time and budgeting for the kind of organised socialising which it is genuinely hard to make room for in already busy lives.
All this makes sense: our deepest relationships tend to be grounded in the space shared between bursts of activity, where we aren't necessarily doing anything together, but just quietly sharing such a basic thing as time. They are grounded in comfortable silences (and uncomfortable ones as well), in passivity, in the trust which comes at the point where we no longer fundamentally think of the presence of another as an invasion. This space is practically impossible to create artificially, but it is the foundation of a healthy community. Its spiritual benefits cannot be overestimated.
This, of course, is the benefit which grounds most of the seemingly unappealing aspects of community. If the last two and a half years have taught me anything, however, it's that these aspects are unappealing only against of a deeply destructive view of what personal space is. This ideal of personal sovereignty, of privacy, of being able to control our own environments, of complete independence, of not having to deal other people who could compromise all of this; this ideal is a real one. It is used to sell car rentals, as in the commercial here. And it is one which can lead us to set our sights on the goal of living in a stifling vacuum. .
As it is, it is this same vacuum which isolates us. Community challenges this vacuum and undermines its value. It contextualises our notions of privacy and self-determination a way which allows us to build the kind of friendships which keep us spiritually nourished. It creates the space for relationships which transform us, within which interdependence need no longer be seen as weakness. And it can demonstrate the fact that it is precisely when we divest ourselves of the ideal of absolute personal sovereignty that we can begin to both love and be loved by our neighbours as ourselves.
All in All
These are two simple benefits of intentional community: freedom and companionship. They are benefits which many of us can be deprived of, as our lives are determined by concepts of autonomy which deprive us of relationship with others and cut us off from the freedom to be the people we hope to be. They are benefits which living in community can make possible. They are reasons to want to live in community, quite apart from any sense of overall self-improvement.
Of course, living in intentional community is also hard. Companionship can be unpleasant in the moment, it takes a lot of work to love others, and there cannot be any guarantee against fundamental conflict. Niceness doesn't cut it when real tensions are unearthed, and we can all hurt each other when we live in close proximity, fallible creatures that we are.
None of these qualifications are enough to render community living the preserve of a spiritual elite, however; nor are they enough to count against the real benefits of this way of life for those involved. In virtue of these benefits, meanwhile, I truly believe that we could stand to think seriously about how to make life in community a possibility for far more people, not as an exercise in spiritual discipline, but as something to be desired in itself.