An Open Door

Thinking ahead to the end of the summer, I chose to save Eberhard Arnold’s short piece, “Why We Live in Community” as a summative reading, suitable for a reflective last week on the job. Arnold’s essay is accompanied by two discussions by Thomas Merton, a 20th century Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite thinkers). Arnold writes that community is animated by God’s triumph of love over death (and the great hope this implies), which in turn is enacted by ordinary people. Ever the practical and deliberate thinker, Merton interprets Arnold’s words for the modern context, calling for a renewed commitment to faith in the power of the collective. This quote from Arnold, which I think best represents my education on the value of community, is worth repeating in full:

Community life is possible only in this all-embracing Spirit and in those things it brings with it: a deepened spirituality and the ability to experience life more keenly and intensely. Surrendering to the Spirit is such a powerful experience that we can never feel equal to it. In truth, the Spirit alone is equal to itself. It quickens our energies by firing the inmost core – the soul of the community—to white heat. When this core burns and blazes to the point of sacrifice, it radiates far and wide. Community life is like martyrdom by fire: it means the daily sacrifice of all our strength and all our rights, all the claims we commonly make on life and assume to be justified. In the symbol of fire the individual logs burn away so that, united, its glowing flames send our warmth and light again and again into the land. (14)

The meat of my summer work is now behind me, and this week is full of reflection and transition. To live well in community necessitates the sharpening of my life perspectives, and becoming more attuned to the state of the world. It means becoming emotionally keyed in to the delicate fluctuations of other community members, and learning to read the ambiguous and fluid moods of a group. This summer has seared in me a new type of insight and a new lens through which to see the world. This may sound a bit corny and contrite, but it is true. These new realizations are seared in the Light of the Spirit.

The big question I face now is, where do I go from here?

The “white heat” of community is the new sharpened focus I bring to my work and understanding of the world. Work becomes urgent and direct. Each action has a purpose and reaction. “White heat” seems appropriate because of how clarifying this new lens is. Presuppositions of privilege and what normative, human life should be have been burned back to expose unalienable needs. Human desires for security, trust, affection, and belonging—these gifts of grace are what I have found most indivisible and most precious. The white heat of this loving and inclusive community has burned away all excess claims I thought people were somehow born with to reveal true joy of life. Homelessness and poverty are still serious issues, and are not problems to be glamorized. The right to dignified shelter and the ability to self-determine the course of one’s life should never be left unresolved. Yet in this complexly knit group of people, reality was pared down to the bareness of love. The individual logs burn away so that the core of the fire becomes clear. The secret of community lies in the power of free choice, the individual choice to walk towards God’s unity; “it becomes life’s most vital and intense energy” (22).

After ten weeks at the Haven, my perspective on the world is profoundly different. I would even say that this summer will turn out to be a defining moment in my life. My time at the Haven has “messed up” the tidy plans I had for myself for a neat and step-by-step academic future. Life feels too urgent and too immediate to live separately from a community in need; I feel “antsy” considering any career path that would isolate me from the parts of life that are harder to face. How can I focus my intellect and energy on anything besides aiding the needy when there is such a desperate call for aid and attention? I found myself feeling desperate, lost, and slightly overwhelmed at the hugeness of something like poverty. Even if I commit my life to imitating the work of Mother Theresa, how will I know that I have made a difference? In other words, in what way will I measure the success of my life? Speaking this worry aloud to a mentor, a good friend, and a parent helped me realize how unnecessary this worry is. I was forgetting one of the main themes I have afforded so much thought: relationality. A career path or a specified graduate degree will not pigeonhole me into any kind of life, nor will it prevent me from engaging in a community as an authentic and compassionate participant.

As one actor, I am not integral to the community. The Spirit alone is equal to itself. My departure will not break the community. Yes, I have learned more than I thought possible this summer. The friendships I have formed at the Haven will sustain me through the next year, and fortunately, I can continue to grow within and by them over the coming Charlottesville seasons. However, I am not the most important thing that has ever happened to the Haven, but am one spoke that helped turn a great wheel for a little while. A serendipitous look into another Thomas Merton collection unearthed this quote from his journal composed on a pilgrimage through Asia: “Such is the door that ends all doors: the unbuilt, the impossible, the undestroyed, through which all the fires go when they have ‘gone out.”’[i] My light has not “gone out” upon departure from the Haven’s daily world, but will be burning with me in every angle by which I now better understand the gifts God hands me every morning upon waking. The door has not closed.

Working a breakfast shift in the Haven's kitchen

[i] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, 1973. Pages 154-155.