The following is taken from a letter dated March 4, 1968, about seven months before Thomas Merton’s untimely death. The recipient is Sister J. a young nun who wrote to Merton about her order’s experiment of living in groups of five.
The idea of community really needs reviving: it has got lost in the idea of institution. Community and person are correlative. No community without persons; no persons without community. Too organized an institutional life tends to stifle both community and personality. Primacy tends to be given to an organizational task. Community is an end in itself, not a means to carry out tasks. Community is ordered to life, as a good in its own right. It is life-centered, person-centered. Hence we should not get too anxious about “getting anywhere” with community, except that community itself should “be” and celebrate itself in love. Probably one of the things about it is that it is too simple. We have forgotten how to be that simple. But I am glad your generation is finding out about it again, and maybe the rest of us can learn from you.What stood out to me:
I understood “no community without persons” intuitively. It is like saying “no silverware without forks, knives, and spoons” But the 2nd half grabbed me. “No persons without community” -- to be fully myself, I must be a part of something greater than myself. In the story Into the Wild the main character learns much too late that living alone is not the best situation for a person – because there is no one with whom to share. In fact, he dies because he is alone.
No community without persons;
no persons without community.
If there is a correlation between community and personhood, then the importance of a person learning to “be” naturally fits into community life as well. I’d never thought of that. I think of the church as the spiritual "nation of Israel", which the Bible says is – “blessed in order to be a blessing” – but I always thought of that in terms of activity: food given away, cars washed, money donated, moving boxes hauled – all the practical ways a community can “give” to others. But this idea that somehow the world is made a better place simply by the community “being” – just by the community “celebrating itself in love” is foreign to me. Refreshing, but foreign. So if Cathy & I and some others get together and have dinner and enjoy one another and celebrate together the wonder of God’s sovereignty in bringing us together as a community…this is “enough”? Only? Ever?
Community is an end in itself,
not a means to carry out tasks.
Community is ordered to life,
as a good in its own right.
It is life-centered, person-centered.
Hence we should not get too anxious about
“getting anywhere” with community,
except that community itself should “be”
and celebrate itself in love.
In personhood, there is a time for “be”ing and a time for “do”ing – as long as “do”ing flows out of “be”ing. So likewise with community. Anything we “do” must flow out of who we “are” and are “becoming” and that only happens as we dwell together.
King David wrote about this in Psalm 133:1-3 when he began:
What I hear God saying in this:
Behold how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity
I made you with an innate appreciation for being alone but, at a deeper level, I made you for community. I made you to be with others: you *need* them in order to *become* completely you. I’ve called you out to individuate, yes -- but a part of that leaving home and family is joining to a new home and family –- a new community I am building around you. The Orchard is a part of that but there is more/other besides that.
Before anything was created, I AM community. Out of me -- out of community -- springs all life and all personhood; all blessing.
Teach me my need for others. Teach me to seek them out and then allow them to be used by You to help me become who You’ve called me to be. May we gather together and learn to “be” as a community – that You may be shown to be a God of love and togetherness and peace in this busy and fast-paced world.