My husband is someone who prides himself on knowing everything about the area he lives in. His special talent is high school trivia and one of the first questions he’ll ask you is what high school you went to. The man knows every high school in Los Angeles. He’ll ask not in an elitist way (like people who ask which college you went to in order to compare to themselves), but to find out where you’re from, because ultimately he doesn’t just know the high school, he knows the area around the high school, the things to do in that area and the culture of the people there. He believes that where you’re from will give him a better idea of what experiences you’ve had and what values are likely to matter more to you. It’s not a fool-proof approach – especially when he met me and I had lived everywhere! – and he understands that outliers exist, but what he’s looking for is something that matters to almost everyone: a sense of community.
When I met him, he had just moved to Texas for graduate school so the “What high school did you go to?” trick only worked for people from his hometown, er, metropolis. So it was a cool trick but let’s face it, he only knew those high schools because he lived there for his entire life! That’s a gimmie. Before long though, I realized that when he met people raised in our new city, he was asking the same question! He’s lived here for much less time than I have and already he knows the ins and the outs of the city, (almost) all the high schools, the developing neighborhoods (useful when it came time to buy our home!), which restaurants the locals like to eat at, where a certain type of music comes from, etc. It might be quick to write this off as a weird passion (which I guess it still is) but he intentionally does this in order to build a sense of community with those around him and to feel a part of the community himself.
Having a sense of community and feeling like you belong is something that matters to everyone and I really enjoy this part about my husband since he can be a little more outgoing than I am. He’s gotten us in touch with the city and as a result I’ve learned more about where I live than most people probably do in cities where they just go to school. We feel like we can call this city our home now.
Apart from where we live, people find communities through their interests, like sports or other hobbies (like blogging!), or where you work or go to school. Our desire to have a sense of community and belong to a group is natural, but sometimes it can overshadow what is true and good for us. How many school age kids get involved in communities of ill-influence, with drugs or other dangerous behaviors, because they are searching for a sense of belonging and to fit it? For as much as our community can support us and have the power to shape our lives in a positive way, it can work in the opposite way too. Everyone knows that peer pressure is an extremely effective measure to get people to conform. People with addictions who have friends suffering from the same vices can have an even harder time overcoming them.
A sense of community and bonding with others, while very important, cannot be the end all be all to the purpose in our lives. There has to exist some objective measure by which we can determine if something (like a community) is a good or bad influence in our lives. How can we determine that? I love my sports and school communities, but when I was discerning my religion and faith in God, I knew I needed to look for something deeper than just a feeling of closeness with people. I already had other communities that satisfied my social needs, so ultimately if I wasn’t looking for truth in God, why have religion at all?
[Just to clarify, I’m not saying my faith shouldn’t include that (if it’s a community reflective of God’s loving nature, I believe the community will be striving to reflect that. This is more of a what comes first, community or God.) This can be hard to distinguish because while our Church is made of people who continue the work that Christ left on Earth, we are still just all sinners and we’re all working towards that closeness with God, so we will by definition be imperfect.]
Figuring out what is a “good” community is the hard part. I see many churches that advertise the demographics of their congregation like the fact that their service attracts diverse groups of people, it must be good. Or others that seem to do the opposite and claim a “small, close-knit Christian community” in order to almost foster a sense of exclusive belonging like a replacement for the perfect family relationship that everyone desires.
Along those same lines, I used to be concerned about the fact that a Catholic Church would be SO BIG. Shouldn’t it be smaller and more intimate? That would make people feel better, feel like they were important. But if the face of the world should be renewed by Christians, then why should we be limited to a small-close knit community? Ideally there would be no borders, no exclusivity within Church walls. Truth is truth, and the more people who know it, the better! I’m no anthropologist, but from what I know about human nature its natural to want to break off into tiny groups in order to have a sense of identity and importance. You can see this today on a college campus or in the political sphere where “identity politics” reign. I do understand that these small groups can have tremendous benefit for educational instruction and social purposes (for example, educators have shown that smaller class sizes and higher teacher to student ratios are beneficial for learning). But in terms of truth, it should be universal and open to everyone otherwise it’s not really true, right? Ultimately it is a blessing that the Catholic Church is so large, that so many people have joined the mystical body of Christ. By its definition the Catholic Church means universal, salvation for everyone, not-limited to just those of the original Jewish tribes. Go to Mass and you’ll see all types of people, but to advertise statistics of colors and races of people would be limiting the scope of the Church and why it’s here in the first place. It’s Christ centered, not “us” centered.
I remember the first few Masses I attended, the “sense of community” felt different from anything I’d experienced before. Everyone seemed so quiet and focused on something. I took that as acting cold and unfriendly towards me and other outsiders (self-centered much?). I’ve realized that the feeling of community in a Catholic Church is different because it extends beyond ourselves. “Communion” in its truest sense isn’t limited to union with each other, but extends to Christ himself. Especially during Mass. Mass is a time to all come together to be “refueled” for our work in this world by contemplating and focusing on God and Christ in the Eucharist, not really to socialize with each other. There are other times for that. This shift in focus to a communion with God rather than just each isn’t just a mental focus, it plays out in physical aspects of Mass as well. I recently heard from a friend that during the Our Father prayer, the traditional way of standing is with your hands folded in prayer rather than the more modern trend of linking hands with your neighbor, which reflects more of a protestant influence (apparently my RCIA class wasn’t that thorough…). The explanation she gave was that while it’s great to love our neighbor and we should show outwardly signs of love for our neighbor daily as God commands us to, ultimately what connects us all is Christ in the Eucharist as children of God. This is what makes the Church what it is! We’re all connected regardless of our feelings and actions towards one another, despite the times that we don’t show love or don’t feel like showing love to our neighbor.* Another example is during the wedding Mass, the couple stands facing Jesus during the ceremony (except for the part of exchanging the vows to each other) to physically show who connects the couple and what the focus and purpose of the marriage is (to lead you closer to God).
It’s great that my husband can find common things to talk about with people because he’s interested in where they grew up. This makes for an interesting conversation starter and serves as a good way to build social communities. I also love the fact that I have friends that play basketball together and a thriving young adult Church group who I can turn to in order to find strength in about our common struggles. But I believe the only withstanding, truly renewable source of community with each other, with everyone, is to focus at the deepest level, beyond where you live, what sports you like, or if you have a personality traits that fit well with mine, on what we have in common: our Creator, our innate dignity as human beings, and our salvation through Jesus Christ.
The love and spirit that we receive from our union with Christ is what overflows from us to allow us to start and have thriving relationships with others.
“You cannot give what you do not have” and as Catholics we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. While that may not feel like what the rest of the world is telling us “community” should feel like, when we are all together during Mass in the presence of the Eucharist with all the angels and saints, it is truly community at its finest hour.
*[I’m still not entirely convinced of if that means it’s bad to link hands during the prayer. Since the Church is all about outwardly signs I don’t imagine that this tradition is set in stone and can’t evolve slightly, as long as we’re focused on Christ together and not distracting anyone. Still working that one out.]