Some Thoughts On The Dynamics of
Parish Community Life
by Martha Ainsworth
a talk delivered as part of a workshop on parish community
Let him who cannot be alone, beware the community...
Let him who is not in community, beware of being alone.
Separateness and Closeness: The Key To Community Health
The people who study such things tell us that in parish life, as in family life, our main task is to find a balance in the tension between “separateness” -- defining ourselves, knowing who we are, standing up for what is unique about us -- and “closeness” -- being involved with each other, giving and receiving support, compassion and care. Both those things are necessary. We must be close; and yet we must be separate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let him who cannot be alone, beware the community... Let him who is not in community, beware of being alone.” The poet Rilke said, “In love two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
Probably the most famous statement on this dynamic in a Christian context was written by St. Paul in First Corinthians 12. In this passage, Paul compares a community of Christians to a human body. The parts are different and unique; but all are part of the same body. The hand and the eye are very different and separate from each other; but the body needs both to be whole. In the same way, in a community of Christians, each of you is unique, in the gifts you bring to the community, in the way you think and see things. And yet, as part of this community, you are all involved with each other, so that you share your joys and pains with others.
But the two things, being separate and being close, pull in different directions, causing tension. How you manage that tension, finding a balance within it, is your task in developing a healthy community life. You must not be too separate, isolating yourself, and you must not be too close, losing yourself in the crowd. Peter Stienke wrote, “The church is a gathering of dissimilar parts. It is not necessary that the parts be identical to one another. It is necessary that they be identified with one another.” And Paul Tillich tells us, “What is most characteristically human about us is the tension between the desire to be ‘free’ -- self-identifying and self-choosing -- and to be ‘related’ -- to love and be loved.”
Closeness can be frightening, even as you long for it. It is easy to isolate yourself, and never admit to your need to be loved and cared about. It is easy to not get involved with other people, and hold yourself aloof. But you are involved with each other. The Holy Spirit already involved you with each other, by bringing you all into this room today. Just as you have anxiety, and grief, and joy, and love in your heart, so does every other person in this room. There are about fifty of you here today; that is fifty anxieties, fifty sets of grief, fifty loves and hopes and angers and joys. You discovered a few of them during the exercise we just did. What would it be like, to notice the anxiety, and the love, and the grief and the joy, in another person here? Look around you now, choose one person, and consider for a moment: what is this person’s hope? what is this person’s fear? Then consider: while you have just been wondering that about someone, someone has just been wondering that about you. What would it be like to let down the barriers, and allow someone else here to know your grief, your anxiety, your love and hope? It is to this that God is calling you. We cannot live Christian lives in isolation. Your relationship with God is expressed in your relationships with the people around you, the other members of your Christian community.
In order for you to be able to care for each other, you must, while being close, also be separate. Separateness, however, sometimes brings on conflict. When we are aware of ourselves as unique individuals, and value our uniqueness, sometimes we find two people thinking two different, and apparently opposing things. This is conflict. Conflict is a healthy and normal thing, if it is handled responsibly. If there were no conflict, we would all be melded together in one big undifferentiated blob -- to use St. Paul’s language, we would be one big eye, or one big hand. Our differences are good; our task is to learn to use them for good. Michael Nichols writes, “The main problem is not differences in points of view; it is the emotional reaction to the differences.”
I have provided here some thoughts about handling conflict responsibly. How we handle this creative tension, and still uphold our baptismal vows, is the subject. I invite you to read it at your leisure. I have also provided a list of these quotations I have been giving you, with some others.
So today, I call you to look around this room, at the other people here with you today, and know that as far as God is concerned, we are all members of the same Body. Let me close with another quote from the poet Rilke:
Once the realization is accepted
That even between the closest human beings
Infinite distances continue to exist
A wonderful living side by side can grow up
If they succeed in loving the distance between them
Which makes it possible for each to se the other
Whole and against a wide sky.
Some other thoughts on the tension between separateness and closeness in Christian community
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the parts of the body, each one of them, as he chose. As it is, there are many parts, yet one body... If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
—I Corinthians 12:14-21, 26
In love two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
—Rainer Marie Rilke
Let him who cannot be alone, beware the community... Let him who is not in community, beware of being alone.
We are used to thinking of compassion as an emotional state, based on our concern for one another. But it is also grounded in a level of awareness.
Anxiety blinds us [and] binds us. We have difficulty perceiving that in which we are emotionally tangled. We have trouble separating ourselves from the pressure of togetherness. Most of us are afraid of losing one another’s support... Intoxicated by its own togetherness, a crowd cannot focus outside itself. In a stupor, God is hardly the focal point.
—Peter L. Steinke
Without difference, there is no relation, just mixture, and without distance, nothing to which we can raise our eyes.
From cells to societies to ecosystems, things enjoy existence only by virtue of their relationship in larger wholes.
—Charles M. Johnston
The church is a gathering of dissimilar parts. It is not necessary that the parts be identical to one another. It is necessary that they be identified with one another. Those who have the same Lord are to have the same care for one another. Belonging to the Lord through faith is inseparable from belonging to the parts through care.
—Peter L. Steinke
If we ever got honest enough to go out in the streets and uncover our common grief, we would discover that we are all grieving over the same things.
On the exaggeration of separateness:
All extremism inevitably fails because it consists of excluding, of denying all but a single point of the entire vital reality. But the rest of it, not ceasing to be real merely because we deny it, always comes back and back, and imposes itself on us whether we like it or not.
The main problem is not differences in points of view; it is the emotional reaction to the differences.
Families have restorative powers. This needs special underscoring. Our current preoccupation with family dysfunction, victimization, and pathology skews our perception of the family. The truth is that we constantly influence each other, that we leave our mark on each others’ souls, that we either help or hurt each other. The psyche takes notes on all of it.
—Peter L. Steinke
What is most characteristically human about us is the tension between the desire to be "free" — self-identifying and self-choosing — and to be "related" — to love and be loved.
Christianity got over the difficulty of combining fierce opposites by keeping them both — and keeping them both furious.
© 1997 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.