Life together under the Word
Each fall at Wycliffe College, I teach “Life Together,” a required first-term MDiv course. We read classics in living the Christian faith in community: the desert fathers, Jean Vanier’s works about L’Arche, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and The Rule of St. Benedict.
There’s a lot of interest in living in intentional Christian community across the church, and our students reflect this. Each year several people come to Wycliffe having lived in some kind of intentional community. Some continue to do so while in Toronto or go on to do so after graduation—at L’Arche communities across Canada, “move-in” communities in the Greater Toronto Area, Ascension House in Edmonton, the Community of St. Anselm at Lambeth Palace or small communities of young families sharing a common home.
Why do they do it? They are looking for a way to live with other Christians in a shared life beyond what they find in their local congregations. Many (but not all) are single and want Christian sisters and brothers with whom to share their dedication to be disciples of Christ in a confusing and hostile world. They are seeking to be of one mind and heart with others in Jesus Christ (Acts 4: 32). But their communities have not always become what they had hoped for, in large part because the individual commitments of the members impeded the development of a common life. There was not enough common prayer or eating together. There were not sufficient common expectations around personal space and cleanliness. The balance between their own lives and schedules and their shared life hadn’t worked out well.
There is confusion over what distinguishes “intentional” Christian community from other forms of Christian community. This confusion leads to a failure to establish a sufficient common life, the very thing many are looking for.
All forms of Christian community are a response to Christ, who gathers us in his name and in his one Body. But these forms vary. Reading both The Rule of St. Benedict and Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a good way to lessen the confusion around the distinction between intentional Christian community and other forms of Christian community. Reading them together is helpful. The two write for and about different conceptions of intentional Christian community. Benedict, in the sixth century, was creating a rule for vowed monastic community; the 73 short chapters of his rule became the basis of Western monasticism. Bonhoeffer led a seminary of young men preparing for ministry in the Confessing Church of Germany from 1935 until 1938, when the Gestapo shut it down. Life Together constitutes his notes on their common life and the vision behind it. The young men living in this intentional community planned to marry, have families and serve congregations which refused to subordinate the Word of God to Hitler.
Bonhoeffer and Benedict share the same framework, coming out of a shared reading of Scripture, understanding of human nature and the divine reality of life together in Christ. Intentional Christian community is life under the Word and is described and measured by what its members do together daily: eat together, pray together, hear the Word together, break bread together and share their goods and labour. Obedience to coming together daily under the Word is the foundation of all intentional Christian community, whatever its shape. It is through obedience to this rhythm of life together under the Word that individuals develop the freedom to hear and respond to Christ.
Something sets intentional Christian communities apart—and it’s not just that they do things differently. All the baptized receive their vocation from the apostles, who responded to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship and the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We all carry this forward as we enter the faith. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” the church asks all new Christians in the baptismal covenant (Book of Alternative Services, p. 159).
All Christians are called to this vocation, but, it seems, many do not exercise it on any regular basis. Many families do not pray together regularly. Many do not even say grace at dinner. Or eat dinner together. Or read Scripture together. Do most congregations have a common rhythm outside of Sunday morning? At Wycliffe we struggle to instill in students the rhythm of gathering daily in the chapel for prayer. The increasing popularity of part-time studies, distance education and online classes—now the norm in most seminaries—makes this even harder. These challenges aren’t new, but the thinning out of a recognizably distinctive Christian form of life in congregations, families and the larger communities in which we live has led some to look for something more. That “more”—that which distinguishes intentional Christian community from other forms of Christian community—is the obedience of members in coming together daily under the Word. To eat together, pray together, break bread together, hear and study the Scripture together. Obedience to daily life under the Word is the challenge and measure of all Christian community—be it a family, a congregation, a monastery or convent, a seminary or an apartment shared with Christian friends.
Obedience is the path to freedom, and obedience to daily rhythms is based on an understanding of how the Holy Spirit binds us to Christ. All the things we hope for in Christ—love of sister or brother, sharing a common mind, faithful discipleship, saving one’s soul, working for justice—are translated into the prosaic reality of the quotidian. Both Bonhoeffer and Benedict write of such goals. But the daily rhythm is not a means to these ends: it is the shape of life in Christ, as received from the apostles at the first Pentecost. Both are keen observers of human nature and put no stock in our capacity to love our sister or brother untethered from what we do together daily. Both were creating communities in ages of violence and darkness. Obedience is the defining characteristic of intentional communities which have endured and flourished. An obedient life together under the Word is the root system that holds together our fraught attempts to love each other. These daily activities prevent the erosion of the soil of Christian community in times of drought, flood and fire. They are the soil in which the freedom to love God and neighbor takes root.
Christ promises us nothing less than this freedom. It is a promise and goal worth seeking with our whole hearts. Young people today are to be commended for looking for it in intentional Christian communities. Christ’s own life tells us that obedience to God’s Word and will cannot be skirted. St. Benedict and Bonhoeffer tell us this obedience is found right under our noses, day by day with one another. In an era and church in which we seem to have forgotten this, intentional communities of obedience to the Word are necessary reminders of this truth and promise.
The Rev. Annette Brownlee is chaplain and professor of pastoral theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.