Much of our time at the Catholic Worker Farm is spent accomplishing work in the garden and around the house, helping the women with their legal cases, discussing the state of affairs at our two houses in volunteer meetings and planning upcoming events. Personally, I often find myself hoping for more opportunities to simply be with the women. I think this time I hope for is often available; it is just a matter of recognizing when a situation has presented itself to sit with or talk with the women, and making the choice to take the opportunity. It is in time spent being with the women that I have experienced joy in the smallest, simplest of interactions, and I find these experiences to be fleeting moments in which the intentions for our work become realities.
“Community life can become a real school for growth and love,” writes Jean Vanier in his work, “Our Journey Home.” Vanier is the founder of the L’Arch communities for disabled persons, and he has written extensively about community and relationships based on his years of experience living with volunteers and disabled guests. His writing on communion has helped me to articulate the joyful moments I’ve experienced with the homeless women with whom I live in community. Though often times there is conflict, stress, and irritation in our houses, it seems the joyful moments that occur intermittently are slowly creating a sense of unity amongst the women. Vanier describes the L’Arch communities as families of brothers and sisters; we describe our houses in the same way. The women have not chosen each other as housemates and it is easier to get along with certain people more so than others.
Acknowledging disparities between members of a community as gifts rather than as irreconcilable differences is a way to see how community members complement each other rather than create divisions amongst each other. Vanier uses the example of Martha and Mary in the gospel of Luke. In the scene, Martha wants to concentrate on the tasks she needs to accomplish, while Mary desires simply to sit “at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he [is] saying” (Luke 10:39). Vanier sees the two sisters as having a choice, to either become jealous or critical of one another as a result of their different tendencies, or to make the “transition” to see each other as “members of the same body, different from ourselves, but important and necessary to the life of the body,” in which “differences then are no longer a threat, but a treasure” (189).
The reference to members of the same body alludes to 1 Corinthians 12 in which Paul describes how each member of the Christian community has been baptized into one body. The community is diverse, and therefore it is necessary that all of the “parts” function together. Each person should take concern for the other members because although each serves a different purpose, all are necessary. In a similar way, each woman has entered into the body that is the Catholic Worker house, and as a community we must address how the diversity within the house will function. I find Vanier’s description of making a “transition” as an appropriate way to describe the decision to see another as an individual with gifts and as a member of the same body, though it can take many encounters and interactions before a full transition can take place. He also speaks of passing through many stages before one is able to accept another as “neither angels nor demons, but human beings, beautiful and wounded, a mixture of light and darkness” (188).
It is a joy to both watch and take part in a friendship between two young women living in our house of hospitality. These two women seem to have nearly opposite personalities in addition to being of different nationalities and having sought accommodation at the Catholic Worker as a result of different circumstances. One of the women is quiet and consistently hardworking, while the other is the most outgoing in the house and sometimes needs encouragement to complete her weekly chores. The first woman is still taking English lessons, and the other is attending a local college and is fluent in English. One is from Southeast Asia and the other, from Africa. Unexpectedly these women both enjoy spending time together and are friends. It is inspiring to see how they respect each other and accept each other’s differences; neither of them poses a threat to the other, but rather sees the other as a treasure.
Another kind of transition that takes place is the realization of a shared, common humanity or underlying relatedness, which can occur as a result of or during a particular interaction or conversation. This is another joyful experience because when this transition is recognized, it seems a theology of intrinsic dignity at the root of the Catholic Worker becomes a reality. During some dinners in which the women are open to dialogue and seem to have peaceful spirits, I sense a transformation in which a group of Africans, Americans, Swedes, homeless persons, Catholics, and Sikhs, are united simply as humans, around a dinner table, all with common desires and feelings. Usually this sense of underlying relatedness manifests when the women are discussing a topic to which they can all relate and contribute. Usually when we talk about food, children, and childhood, the women seem to desire to openly share their experiences and to affirm each other. Everyone has something to share about how to prepare their favorite foods, their culinary preferences, their childhood memories, how they were parented, and experiences parenting their own child.
Though the women often communicate feelings of annoyance that they have to participate in house dinners, I have found that coming together for a meal each night is an opportunity for a celebration, as it is often where I have found I can make these transitions and choices to respect differences and to recognize commonalities, both of which are a source of joy. Vanier writes, “celebration creates unity in the community, and also flows from it” (199). When the women are respecting each other’s differences, or discussing shared experiences with each other, a kind of celebration takes place, as it seems the unity of the community is affirmed. Moods and feelings relax, the women laugh and joke with each other, and common experiences are recognized.
Vanier writes that the celebration of a community finds its fullest expression in shared meals, recalling that the words “companion” and “to accompany” have their roots in cum pane which means to share bread or food in Latin. He also cites Aristotle, who stated that “for two people to be friends, they must eat a sack of salt together; they must share many meals (199).” Choosing to make the “transition,” to see another as a member of the same body, and to respect another’s differences, is something that certainly must be done over and over again; as making a full transition resulting in recognition of the treasure that is another person can take time. Not surprisingly, many of the moments of joy that I have experienced with the women have happened during a shared meal when it was least expected, after so many ordinary meals of slow conversation, subdued spirits, or energy focused solely on the children. The table itself is a place of solidarity in which all those who sit around it are leveled by the common food and common table.
Many women have told me that they find the stress they carry and the waiting they must endure to be unbearable. The community dinners are an opportunity for the women to engage with each other, and our vision for the meals is that it would be a way in which a community of support could grow over time. Often times the community dinners are quite difficult or chaotic, but sometimes there are these fleeting moments in which our vision manifests itself. Vanier describes celebration as a “song of hope;” I hope the women find these moments to be their hopeful song in the same way that it has become mine.