Broken Relationships | Building Community

Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.

I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.

When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.

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23 thoughts on “Broken Relationships | Building Community”

  1. Thank you, Sister, this is encouraging :: the hope we do not perhaps like to articulate, that the church may be re-formed in response to the clear needs of a people looking in faith for continued community.

    Where the action of the Holy Spirit will lead, we shall follow…Our hope does indeed remain high.

  2. You are, of course, right: going on holiday with someone can make or break a friendship. Sadly, mostly break! But the questions about where the Church goes from here are going to reveal where the real fault lines are, I think. It has been difficult for everyone, for example, to come to terms with the cases of clerical abuse. Some have simply left altogether. Others battle grimly on. Even more try to close their minds to it.
    But it isn‘t just these serious issues which are causing such uncertainty. When the Church claims to be a community, a family, but this isn‘t reflected in the daily reality of lives, cracks open up insidiously. For example when a regular Mass attender suddenly doesn‘t attend there needs to be some recognition of this fact: is s/he ill, disillusioned, have they moved away…Given that clergy are mostly trying to run several parishes at once, they obviously can‘t simply react on every occasion. But this is surely a sign that the system is too unwieldy now. Smaller communities, like neighbourhoods, function better. Like smaller schools, where teachers know all the children, or cottage hospitals. So I agree with you, smaller communities loosely modelled on monasticism is very likely a viable way forward. I pray it may be so.

    • I’m not sure about the monastic model, but I do think smaller church communities are probably inevitable. It will take a major shift of attitude, however, to see them as a positive outcome, I suspect. At the moment, we are too close, and changes are being thrust upon us too quickly, for us to gain an adequate perspective.

      • Yes, we have to let things shake down, see where the building blocks land, so to speak. I‘m not sure if we as such can do much about this. There will be signs or nudges along the way, indicating where to go, but only accompanying us rather than giving us a fully-fledged route map of the whole journey. We need to be alert ( that word!) to pick up on these as they appear, and we may not have much idea or picture of what we are aiming for, just trust in God and be led. Sorry, sounds a bit Hesse-ish. I loved his stories.

  3. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine for another thought provoking piece. As we contemplate Pentecost, the success of post lockdown Christian organizations depends on us all being receptive to the grace and love of the Holy Spirit.
    God bless and keep you all safe. Peace and love be with you xx.

  4. Before this lockdown, I spent the run up to Christmas attending the local church’s Christmas services. None included an opportunity to receive communion! Come the new year and attending a service, that I did manage to recieve communion, I commented to the bishops wife, after she asked how my Christmas when, Well , it is finally great to recieve communion! As I work in healthcare I choose to work over this years Christmas period, and was hoping that maybe a communion service would be available! All this is history now, and still I wait! And my point? Stick to the basics sister, some of us find these, like homing home to a cool glass of water on the dusty trail of our lives.. Eastertide blessings. Ruth

    • Ah, yes the UK Sister. We in New Zealand probably appear ignorant and are, as our country is not seeing the number of cases of the virus here physically as you are in your country, so my view is frustratingly limited!!
      Thank-you for printing my point of view when you don’t understand it.
      It takes a great trust and humanity in god to do this, that I have seen in you sister. I will try and leave out my personal frustration, when replying on your page. But on a lighter note, I did get your attention! and I will be recieving communion today, as the vicar messaged inviting me to attend a communion service in the church. ( we are at level 2 here, giving us the freedom to meet in small groups, not more than 10 people) This gift comes in handy sometimes! Graceful blessings and while there I will light a candle and pray for you and community.

  5. Encouraging wisdom indeed. Anglicans, as well, are facing the need for diversity, and the need to see this as something gifted by the Spirit and enabling us to live all the more in that Spirit’s power – each and all, in all our glorious (if divinely-guided) muddle!

  6. PS also sister we youth, appeal!? That judgment of our conduct is not warranted. We do indeed honour the ways of the ones a few years ahead of us! Eastertide blessings Ruth

    • I must confess, Ruth, I didn’t really understand your first comment, and I don’t get this one at all. I was referring in my post to the impatience with lockdown restrictions shown by many young people in the UK. That’s not a judgement. It’s an observation that can be borne out by looking at any UK online news site or printed paper in the UK at the moment. I actually have a lot of sympathy with younger people — as I have with novices.

  7. Thank you for this Dame Catherine. On my walks I have occasionally met other Catholics who have said that they have watched Mass being celebrated in various places, but I haven’t. Rather I have continued saying my monastic offices, praying and reading and contemplating your blogs. I wonder about watching a Mass without receiving the Eucharist much as attending a pre-Vatican 2 Mass in Latin with infrequent communion except at an early Morning Mass was.

    I work in my Parish office and Father Kevin and I often discuss attitudes within the Church. I worry that if restrictions on proximity continue that the new normal will be very different but whether the church authorities will be able to adapt is very much open to question. Will we ever go back to frequent reception of the Eucharist or will our church, often packed for it’s one Sunday Mass, ever return to that state given the growing shortage of ordained clergy.

    Contrast that with our parish online service of prayer, the readings, often with a reflection afterwards with intercessory prayers all lead by church members. The community gathers online, celebrates and prays together.

    I really miss taking the Eucharist to the sick and housebound and talking to others in the Narthex after Mass or sharing coffee and chat after Mass on Wednesday.

    I really wonder if clergy in the Vatican can imagine the new reality and allow the Holy Spirit to guide them or are they incapable of it. I rather expect the answer will emerge from the pews but will it be greeted by silence, a lack of understanding and inaction?

    • I wonder along with you, John, which is why I think prayer is needed more than ever, if that were possible. Some priests I know are thinking very creatively about the future shape of the Church and how best to bring people to Christ; others simply want a return to what is familiar. Personally, I don’t think that’s possible. We shall see.

  8. I agree that a return to our previous “normality” is going to prove both difficult and divisive. John Green’s comment about one’s state of mind when watching and listening to Mass in Latin pre-Vatican II and when listening to and watching a live-streamed Mass on the web resonated with me. I feel “disconnected” from proceedings … ironical or what? when we are supposedly more “connected” than ever and in fact, I feel more connected to friends and fellow parishioners on our WhatsApp group than ever I do when watching Mass all on my own in my sitting room. Is this because WhatsApp is interactive whereas one is merely a spectator at a live-streamed Mass in spite of somewhat self-consciously saying the responses? Having said that I would hate to be deprived of it but boy, do I miss that wonderful uplifting feeling of solidarity and common purpose I get from being at Mass with my fellow humans. I miss the assurance that I am participating in an important sacred mystery. Prayers are needed indeed.

    • I think, Caroline, that you touch on several important points, not least how we convey a sense of the sacred online (something I’ve been trying to work out for years). I also wonder whether we are going to recreate online the situation that already exists with one part of the Church rich in priests and resources and another part not, only this time it will be those with access to the internet who will be the enriched and those without who will be impoverished. Fortunately, God seems to be able to overcome our stupidity and shortcomings in these matters.

  9. Dear Dame Catherine,
    During the last weeks I have listened to the Pope’s Mass from Casa Santa Marta which is sadly ending on Sunday. I find it very prayerful, meditative and fruitful. Mass will be said in Rome starting on the 18th. However, here in Quebec, where we have a high rate of infection from the virus, Mass in public is only a dream. And even if it were available, it would be a big decision for me and others of a “certain age’ to go to Mass….risk of contamination on public transport, etc. Life will never be the same again…at least not in my lifetime. We pray. And adapt.

    • I’ve been hearing from quite a lot of people who are of much the same mind as you are, Joyce. Something has changed, but we are a little too close to it to register all its implications at either an individual or an institutional level. The assumption that we will all just return to our old practice fails to take into account the new circumstances in which we find ourselves. The virus is not only nasty in itself but it has some troubling side-effects we are only just beginning to learn about. People will be reluctant to to place themselves — or anyone else — at risk by using public transport, etc, etc. That is bound to have an effect on how we experience and practise our faith, isn’t it?

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