It’s almost Christmas time: a very important moment for any Christian religious community. In this period I often happen to think about my own community, here in Italy: such a mix of different opinions and positions I sometimes wonder how can we form a community… but we do, even if in a way that could appear strange to the majority of all other religious denominations.
Honestly, at the beginning of my ministry, coming from a much more “dogmatic” religious experience, I was a little shocked by so many and so different visions but, little by little, I fell in love with such an “open community”, kept together just by mutual love and respect and I’d like to tell you why.
What should, in the end, a religious community be? Should it be a hierarchical entity in which the members obey to super-imposed diktats (or dogmas), just showing their respect for “a superior authority” and sharing a feeling of common bond, probably even of common love in the end (at least till the moment members “follow the line”, more or less like in a platoon), in a sort of “military style” situation with “officers”, “sergeants” and “privates” under the presumed orders of a “general” (what a sad vision of spirituality, reducing God just to an imposing chief of staff!)?
Personally speaking, this is not for sure my vision of religion and, if we really think about it, such a kind of community can’t be even seen as bounded together by love. Of course there can be the one we can define as “vertical love” between men and God (just in case fear for God and judgment is not the final glue) but where is the horizontal love, the love among human brothers? If it exists, it is just a sort of “a posteriori” defined love, born from a common discipleship and conditioned by a common belonging and a common track.
If we are asked (or we simply wish) to love every human being indistinctly, regardless of any possible variable, this doesn’t look like being the best situation to achieve this aim: in a way, our love will remain “conditioned” by our feeling of common belonging and, even in the rare case we would love any member of our community, our love will express itself on the common ground of some shared convictions.
On the contrary, in an open community the love and respect for your neighbor, independently from his/her beliefs, ideas and spiritual track, will be the real glue creating the connection with all other members and this connection will express itself in the respectful exchange of ideas, in the search for a common action related to common aims, in the listening of the reciprocal visions and opinions for a common spiritual growth.
And, to me, this is, ultimately, the real goal of any real community: the common growth of all its members in the respect of each one’s single path.
I believe any relation with the Divine (or the Transcendence, the way we prefer to call it), is, in the end, absolutely personal: if it gets structured as a bilateral spiritual dialogue or it is just a reflection of our psychological need could be matter of endless discussions and, finally, is simply subjected to the faith of the single. So, what do we need a community for?
I would say simply to avoid the risk of a solipsistic, almost onanistic self-referentiality in the understanding of the voice of the Spirit working within our soul.
I will try to explain this concept with a metaphoric image. In a way, in our spiritual search, we are like people suddenly parachuted in a desert: nothing is explained to us in advance but we only have a sort of inner intuition that, perhaps, there could be an oasis somewhere in the distance. We find some traces on the path, here and there, and, sometimes, even road signs or small and large groomed trails but, in the end, any decision about the direction to take is just up to us. And, we all know, personal intuitions can be precious but, from time to time, they can also be misleading and prove only to be the result of our desires, of illusions and even of mirages. That’s why it is important not to travel alone: to ask for advice to the ones travelling with us, to exchange tips and suggestions with them, to know other people’s visions of the track… finally to understand that many eyes can perhaps see more than just two eyes.
But to have the whole think working you need two essential prerequisites:
a) not to have just one “infallible” leader showing the “right way” to everybody, but just many different people coming from different tracks and able to have different points of view to share with the others;
b) to have trust in what each one can give to all the others and this trust can only come from a shared love and from the belief that anybody has the image of God, of the immense, inside of him/herself and, therefore, is able to give something more to all the others.
About this last point there is a very nice Dervish story which, I think, can be very instructive.
A boy from a remote village was very ignorant but also very intelligent and wished to become wise. So he decided to reach the oasis in which a famous master lived. Once there, he met the old wise master but this last replied to him: “I am sorry, but my school is already so crowded that I can’t accept any other student!” The boy got very sad for this answer but, while he was preparing for his way back, the wife of the master came to him and suggested him: “Dear boy, don’t be discouraged. We need a servant to keep the schoolyard clean and, if you settle for room and board and sweep the courtyard twice a day, you can anyway listen to the lessons of my husband from outside and, perhaps, one day, some student will leave and you’ll be able to take his place…” The boy, with a new hope in his heart, accepted the agreement: every day he sat out of the schoolroom and listened humbly and patiently to the discussions that were taking place among the master and his students, then he meditated about what he had heard while cleaning the schoolyard. Unfortunately, he could have no contacts with the students and the master and so, after a couple of weeks, he begun to feel very alone. Time passed, a day after the other, and, a year later, the boy felt so sad and alone that, to ease the pain he had in his soul, he began to modulate his thoughts, produced by the lessons and the discussions he could hear from outside the classroom, in songs he sang while sweeping the yard. Another year passed and another again but no students left the school and the situation of the boy didn’t change. Finally, five years later, the poor boy was so sad and discouraged that he decided to leave the school. One morning he packed his things and, without a word to anybody, he set out toward the desert. As soon as he reached the desert he met a Bedouin tribe: everybody in the tribe looked like being very sad and the boy, curious, asked to an old woman the reason for all that sadness. “You see, my boy”, she replied, “we live here, outside of the oasis, our poor and hard life but we had a great luck: every morning and every afternoon the wind brought us a far singing of a wise man who was teaching us deep and important things. That singing gave us joy, hope and knowledge but this morning the wind brought us only silence and we fear that the wise master sharing his deep thoughts with us has died…” The boy suddenly understood that the old woman was speaking about him and decided to return to the school to bag to the master to welcome him back as a servant as, finally, even his humble work was so useful to someone. As soon as he arrived back to the school, the master came out of his class and, smiling, gave him his turban saying: “Finally you are back my dear son. I have heard you singing day after day, delighting in what you were learning and saying. You arrived here impudently and you have learned humbleness, you came here ignorant and you have become wise. Only one thing was still missing to you: to understand you were already a master and the responsibility that this entails. Now you have understood it but, equally, you haven’t mounted in pride and you are ready to start back working as a servant to help other people: you are my master now!”
It’s a nice story, isn’t it? And what is really great is that, in a real, loving, open community everybody can be the master, the students, the boy and the Bedouins at the same time: everybody can teach something to the others, everybody can discuss all the opinions of the others, everybody can listen and rework the concepts he gets to know, everybody can get new, fresh hope from the words of his/her neighbors!
Moreover, this story opens to a corollary element which is important to discuss (or, at least, about which I often happen to meditate): the role of a minister inside of an open community.
Perhaps the presence of a “master” in the story can be misunderstood and one could assimilate the master’s teaching with the function a pastor should have inside of a group: actually this similitude would be the most erroneous vision possible.
In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes which is committed in many religious groups is to be minister-dependent: sometimes this is something formally held (in example in those denominations considering the figure of the minister as “ontologically different” from the people composing “the flock” because of the consecration), while in some other occasions this is a sort of “natural result” of the ministerial function inside of a group, a parish or a community.
Even not taking into consideration the fact that it is difficult to understand the reason for which a person, reflection of God like any other human being on Earth, should have a sort of “ontological mutation” only following to some formulas of consecration pronounced by another human being, a vision of the minister as detached from the rest of the flock can lead to some misunderstandings.
- As first thing it can lead to a sort of substantial if not formal hierarchization inside of the community which naturally leads to a passive attitude of the believers. In a way, they become like sparrows waiting to be fed by a sort of loving mother, unable (or, much better, simply too lazy) to develop their own vision detached from the one of the “leader”.
- As second thing, how can we speak about a bond of love and reciprocal growth in the difference of visions when we finish to have just one, probably monolithic, vision? This, to me, is not a matter of love and respect but just a form of enslavement of many to a specific expression of the Spirit being possibly good for one person but not universally.
- Finally, it is the feeling itself to be a community that gets lost. A community is a place of sharing, not only of ideas and visions but also of tasks, duties and responsibilities. In a pyramidal structure simply this sharing doesn’t take place: all responsibilities, choices, organizations are delegated to the minister who is seen as “the one in charge” of the good working of a community which becomes a “religious care institution” and no more a common ground belonging to all its components.
Which is, therefore the role of the minister in the community?
The first thing to say is that a minister is not strictly necessary for a community. In the Protestant vision, every human being is a minister and a totally lay community is, consequently, nothing so terrible.
This said, a minister is, finally, a person that, in my opinion, not so much in relation to a sort of “call from heaven” but rather to a particular personal interest, has just deepened a little more his knowledge about specific religion related elements. In a way, he is something similar to a religious consultant, not so different, in the end, from a lawyer or a business advisor: his role is to give “informed opinions” in relation to historical, social, organizational issues as much as he has studied these elements more than the other members, not to try to substitute the voice of the Spirit everybody feels or to impose a determined perspective which remains just personal and not general and valid for all. In this picture he (or she, obviously) can be a “professional coordinator” of the common activities (as this is his job and he is often paid for this and his consultancy) but never a person trying to impose his will.
If this is, according to me, the only role of the minister inside of a community, there is also another role he has in a more general, social picture: to be a sort of “bookmark” of the possibility of a “spiritual vision”.
In a way this is what possibly makes of the “ministerial job” something more than just a job, up to justify the use of the term “mission”. Going back to the similitude with the desert, many people think that to travel in a desert is more dangerous in the daylight than at night. Actually, anyone who had the experience to live in the desert for a certain period know that things work exactly the opposite way. It is true that during the day the heat of the sun is terrible but it’s also true that it is almost always possible to find some reference point, some scored runs, some caravans to join to. At night things are much different: the cold is as terrible as the day heat but, in the absolute darkness, it is much easier to get lost, to move in circles and to get discouraged. That’s way the nomads of the desert have the habit to stop travelling at sunset, to light fires and to prepare some hot tea for anyone passing by: the fires work as a “lighthouse” for the lost traveler who can warm up with tea before resuming his journey. Also in the life of a spiritual traveler there are moments of total darkness, “nights of the Spirit” in which desperation seems to have the upper hand, in which the “silence of God” becomes so stunning to make it impossible for us to believe in the existence of something transcending the phenomenal reality. Perhaps, it is just in that moment that the figure of a minister acts as a sort of “signal of a possibility”, a place to rest, to talk, to get some comfort, to remember you are not alone. A minister is just a “guardian of the fire” in the desert nights, trying to give some warm tea to the traveler passing by, not imposing a vision but reminding of an alternative. And, believe me, sometimes to be a guardian of the fire can be much more demanding in term of love and work than being the leader of an army of obeying soldiers! Yes, much more demanding, but also so rewarding …