“BETTER ALONE THAN IN BAD COMPANY”?
As I write reflections on community, I realize the complexity of the issue and of the many angles from which it could be treated. After speaking the last time about the local superior and his particular “vocation” to be the shepherd of his brothers, for this issue and perhaps the next, I had thought about reflecting on the members of the local community, studying and analyzing the different “types”. Although it would be an interesting effort that could provide food for thought, it is too complex. It would lead to “classifying” people, closing them into predetermined clichés, with the risk of being superficial and subjective.
So I would like to touch on two other points that I feel are important to the life of an Oblate community. The first, trivial if you will, is that of the ideal number of people who should compose a local community. It is a number that does not exist. There are Oblate communities of thirty persons where relationships are good, despite some inevitable difficulties and not necessarily related to the number; there are Oblate communities of three or four Oblates where relationships are always quarrelsome, or even non-existent.
According to our Rule of Life, “The local community normally consists of at least three Oblates,” and “the situation of Oblates living alone should always be considered as temporary.” There is, in these two expressions, some wisdom, also linked to psychological considerations. The fact is that we still have many, too many Oblates who live alone, and for many, too many years. What is to be done? How often this question comes up in our meetings at the level of the General Council! Even though I consider myself a generally optimistic person, I must confess that regarding this question, and the situations to which it refers, my optimism sometimes abandons me...and that’s where the question arises: what is to be done?
Someone could quote me the saying “better alone than in bad company”, but who says that the only alternative to being along is to be in bad company? Couldn’t people come together and work at being good company?
The other point, though very complex and in some ways more subtle than merely an external number, is that of interpersonal, interwoven relationships within the Oblate religious community. This theme is linked to one of those previously treated, where we said that the Church is the place where one learns communion. The community is somewhat the same thing. The aspect that I wish to emphasize here is that of “otherness.” Much ink has been spilled on this subject in recent decades, and I wonder if this is the very core on which depends the functioning of community life. Identity and relationship. Self-affirmation and recognition of the “other.” The “other” in his being “other-than-I:” is this a help or a threat to my freedom? Is he a brother with whom I walk after the Master who has called us both or an obstacle on this path? Is he a presence that enriches me or a “spoke in the wheel” of my personal agenda? We could go on. “Hell is other people,” said a famous French philosopher. Are we sure, existentially, that this is not so? Can we prove it? Perhaps it is precisely here that we find the prophetic dimension of religious community. “Otherness” is a serious matter; it is a challenge, a call to conversion, an exercise in asceticism. Until we manage to experience “otherness” as a positive daily experience, we are probably not yet able to make community happen.
A final consideration. In a report that I came across recently, I read a story about a house that was designed and built with enough doors so that its residents could come and go without being seen and without meeting. I thought about the nature and usefulness of such a house. I was bothered when I found out that this project was actually built with this feature; not only that, but it is a religious house, and for Oblates! It was, I confess, a blow to my so-called bright optimism. What is to be done? Do some readers wish to venture an answer? Even from this point of view, the 200 years of our history are a “kairos” we must not lose. Otherwise, what would be our prophetic stance? How could we still speak of a “prophetic religious life?”
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