August 27, 2011

Seasons in (Virtual) Community

People enter and exit "in real life" (IRL) communities all the time. They leave because they're "done" with community or believe to be so; because other opportunities or responsibilities have emerged; or because the community is not what it seemed or they hoped it would be. This happens even in abbeys which follow the Benedictine Rule that includes making a vow of stability.

Considering the historical context for monasticism and the rigors of spiritual life in community, the vow of stability is genius. It means promising to grow where one is planted; not bolting when the spiritual going gets tough. And the spiritual going will get tough -- that's what happens whenever we embark on a spiritual journey.

Monastic communities IRL handle members' spiritual sturm und drang in very practical ways like changing work and prayer assignments; meeting as a community to minister to disaffected members; and providing one-to-one spiritual direction.

Optimally, when someone decides or is asked to leave, the community acknowledges that loss in some way. Really healthy communities recognize that some members will feel feelings that include but are not limited to grief and minister to members who may feel confused, abandoned, or angry.

So what happens when someone leaves a virtual abbey? We're figuring that out.

Given the fluid and transient nature of 21st century life in general and social media in particular, you'd think it would be no big whoop when someone drops out of @Virtual_Abbey's Prayer Team. But as I've often said elsewhere, virtual community is real community and this includes what happens with and to a virtual community when key people leave.

Now into our fourth year, we're learning how to embrace the reality of changing lives and changing commitments. Some who were key participants when Raima Larter (@RaimaLarter) started this ministry have virtually disappeared. Others have taken a spiritual time-out and then come back. We've become somewhat quicker to recognize and do something about burn-out among members of our Prayer Team. And wiser about both reaching out and letting go.

Truly this well-known passage from Ecclesiastes is wisdom eternal: to everything there is a season (Eccl. 3:1).  And I, for one, derive great comfort from St. Teresa of Avila's reminder:

Let nothing disturb you;
nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.

Pax max,



Brenda said...

Beautiful post and great reminders. I think as the world evolves, we are still figuring out many things regarding community IRL and on-line.

Lives change. People change. Relationships change. It's still hard though, even when people disappear for a good reason. And I think the community does have a responsibility to pick up the pieces together.

There's a mindset in a spiritual setting that the commitment should be stronger and the relationships more durable. And maybe they should be. But, as long as any community is made up of humans, the risk of hurting one another intentionally or not will always be there.

It's greatly comforting that God never changes, and with that truth in mind, the benefits of God centered community far outweigh the risks.

Matt Katz said...

Constancy in the face of change has been a struggle recognized for millenia. Though not of the same faith, I recognize in your words the challenges I and others face in many relationships we wish to endure. Whether that relationship is with a spouse, community or God.

A vow of stability makes sense, for commitment to a worthy cause or belief is difficult. When passion fades, or obstacles present themselves, this vow does make sense.

Though not a member of your community, I respect it. Your thoughts remind me of a wonderful John Donne poem about the constancy of God:

Thank you for sharing these important thoughts, Meredith.

Meredith Gould said...

Thanks, Matt. Glad the post resonated.

Methinks the special expectations of spiritual community make the durability (or lack thereof) of relationships seem more poignant and painful.

By contrast, we have relatively little problem recognizing the situational nature of work-based friendships, although it did take a while for me to recognize that I wouldn't know people I worked with closely "forever."

Suzanne said...

Let nothing disturb thee
Nothing afright thee
All things are passing
God never changeth
Patient endurance attaineth to all things
Whom God possesses in nothing is wanting
Alone God sufficeth.

-an alternate framing of the prayer of St. Theresa (and great for a walking meditation).