We all ache for community. Few longings within us are as incessant. Everywhere, it seems, people are looking for community and complaining about how their families, churches and civic circles have let them down and disappointed them.

There is a general frustration about community. At every level, today, it seems community is in trouble. Marriages, families, religious communities, like­minded associations, and even business and civic communities that succeed, that sustain themselves long-range, are now the exception more than the rule.

As well, in the past few decades, many people have tried to start new communities. In almost all cases, these communities have failed, despite much initial passion and considerable good will.

Why is that? Why, when we so desperately long for community, do we find it so hard to achieve and sustain it?

Among the many reasons for this, one appears crucial in that its roots affect almost all the other reasons. Simply put, today we often are not able to sustain community because we have false notions and false expectations as to what constitutes it. An overly romantic and psychological notion is so coloring our vision that we rarely even recognize real community when we see it.

Let me begin with example:

Several years ago, I was serving as spiritual director to a very idealistic young man. He was a member of a religious order, but he spent a good deal of his time and energy complaining about his religious community.

Constant was his gripe that there wasn’t enough intimacy within the community, that people didn’t share deeply enough with each other, that the real issues were never addressed, and that he felt lonely and isolated.

At one stage, worn out by his complaining, his community sent him to see a psychologist. After delivering his regular list of complaints to the psychologist, the young man was fairly surprised at the psychologist’s reaction.

Instead of reinforcing all of his theories about the dysfunctionalities of the community, the psychologist told him, gently but firmly: “What you are looking for, you won’t find in a religious community. You’re looking for a lover—not a religious community!”

This story is a parable of sorts. It points out what real community is by flushing out some of the things that it isn’t.

What is community? There are many kinds of community—of which being somebody’s lover is in fact one kind. However community as Christ defined it—Christian community, apostolic community, life together in the Holy Spirit—is, as this psychologist made clear, something quite other than what the romantic imagination spontaneously suggests.

What is it? For purposes of clarity, let me begin by clearly dissociating it from what it is commonly confused with.

Christian community is not…

  • Mutual compatibility, like-minded individuals gathering together on the basis of liking each other.
  • Huddling together in fear of loneliness, lonely or scared people ganging up against a cold and hostile world.
  • People rallying around a common task or cause, people brought together because they share a common passion or ideal.
  • Family, understood in the romantic sense, people brought together through psycho-sexual attraction.
  • Family, understood in kinship sense, people bonded through blood.
  • “One roof.” People together because they live in the same house, eat at the same table or sleep in the same bed.

None of these factors are bad and each of them makes for a certain kind of community—but none of them touches the essence of Christian community. What is Christian community?

Simply put, it is gathering around the person of Christ, being displaced from our own narcissism by that gathering, and then living in the spirit of that person, namely, in charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long suffering, faith, constancy, mildness and chastity.

Until we live in our marriages, families, religious communities, and civic communities with this idea in mind, namely, that our unity has to come from something beyond liking each other, huddling in loneliness, a common cause, psycho­sexual attraction, shared blood line, or shared house or neighborhood, the deep hunger for community within us will continue to be frustrated—and we will continue to complain!