It is a myth and a fallacy to assume that there exists a perfect Christian community. The early Church faced as well its own set of challenges inter-community, intra-community – within and from external forces. For example we see in Acts 15: 37 – 40, that Barnabas wanted to take with them John Mark, but Paul disagreed with his decision, “and there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.”

Even among the apostles, there were clashes in personality as we see in Luke 9: 46, “And an argument arose among them as to which was the greatest.” The difference was that they, through the mediation of Jesus and with the unity of the Holy Spirit, managed to resolve their differences, work with their differences, and remain together as a community.

If you would recall the iconic opening scene of the film, The Sound of Music, Maria Rainer was a postulant who having spent some considerable time singing on the hills, returns late to the abbey. When I was living out a 5-week observership at the Cistercian Abbey of Tarrawara, Melbourne at the end of 2016 to 2017, I was Maria and I caused quite a bit of inconvenience to the brothers.

Living in the Novitiate House was not an easy thing to do. One had to truly put aside the self and be considerate of the brothers living together. Now, after the prayers of Compline, one was supposed to observe the Grand Silence. No one could speak, or do anything. The entire monastery had to be quiet. I often got into trouble with the brother novices, because my door would slam shut if I left it ajar to let ventilation into the room, or I would leave the communal bathroom floor wet, or I’ll take a shower after Compline. However, being the charitable brothers they were, they simply chided me gently. Yet, those days were important as they taught me about community-living. There were chores to be carried out and each had an equal hand in mowing the lawn, or chopping firewood, or washing the dishes.

1 Corinthians gives us an insight to the types of challenges faced in a community. The community of Corinth was struggling. They were divided by different power struggles and claims to partisanship and factions

(1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 4:21); there were lawsuits and grievances among the members

(1 Corinthians 6: 1-11); Idolatry had been allowed to infiltrate the community (1 Corinthians 8:1 – 11:1); and there was inequality at the communal table

(1 Corinthians 11: 17-34).

The solution proposed by St. Paul to alleviate these divisive issues was to enable the community in Corinth to understand that “the body does not consist of one member but of many.”

( 1 Corinthians 12 :14)

Using the analogy of the Church as a Body, St. Paul related that each person has a certain role to play in building up the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body. Like various parts of the body, all of the faithful must work in harmony, and none should feel superior to any other or reject the gifts of another. The Holy Spirit is the source of Christian unity, and each of us plays a part in building and maintaining that unity. (cf. CCC 787-798, 805-807, 1988, 2003) As St. Paul goes on to say, “But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12: 24-26)

By the Holy Spirit, the baptised become members of Christ’s Body and enter into a katholikos, universal, hence Catholic community that transcends all earthly distinctions (CCC. 694) As members of Christ’s Body, the faithful share in a “communion of charity”, a solidarity in which everyone shares in the joys and the sufferings of every individual member. Because the Church is one body, every action of its members can have a positive effect through virtuous deeds or a harmful influence through sinful actions. (CCC. 779, 953, 1265, 1469, 1508)

The challenges faced by the community of believers today are no different from those seen in the early Church – squabbles, politicking, a feeling of superiority or entitlement, inequality, gossip, the smearing of reputation, backstabbing, ignoring the poor and the needy, getting hung-up over the minutia of trivialities, like arguing over whether toilet paper should be placed in the Church toilet or not, or a 50cent price difference of a bowl of Mee Siam sold in the canteen, or placing the blame of one’s mistakes on another ministry. These superficial arguments can lead to deep rifts if nothing is done to repair the relationships found in the community. For example, the Youth Council in a particular Catholic Church in Singapore imploded upon itself and the Youth Ministries disbanded due to irreconcilable differences between the Charismatic Youth congregation and a more traditional Youth congregation of that parish.

In these extraordinary times of COVID-19, the spatial proxemics of what a community entails have become smaller, as families are exhorted to stay at home. The challenges of community living become magnified as people literally rub shoulders with each other in a confined space for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”, it is easy for tempers to go awry as jibes are taken the wrong way, for misunderstandings to occur as words and insults fly freely, and for us to take for granted our loved ones who provide for us.

When I was at the Cistercian monastery, my gaffes and blunders could have easily caused arguments and misunderstandings in the community. However, what saved the day, was charity, and a day-to-day understanding that we did not exist alone.

Likewise, St Paul, beyond stating that the Community is the Body of Christ, proposes yet a better way in 1 Corinthians 13: Love. Only Love can sustain and cause a community living to flourish. Only love of our neighbour can allow us to go beyond ourselves, to stop being self-centred, and to be mindful and considerate of others. For in love, we die to ourselves in self-sacrifice as we desire only the good of our neighbour.

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; Didache Bible

By the Grace of God, Brian Bartholomew Tan