Written by Alex Swain, Beloved in the Desert
“O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 134)
Prayed during compline, this last sentence describes, I think, a major hope and ideal of the Christian life. That through Jesus Christ we may always recall that our common life together depends upon one another’s work, and that this is sustained by God’s grace. The Christian then is an individual who must live in community and continually recollect that one’s life is not in a selfish and individualistic microcosm, but rather is deeply connected to God and to fellow humanity.
Community was a key component of my return to the Christian faith. The recognition of need for a nourishing, rooted faith community led to my eventual stumbling into an Episcopal church. There, that very first Sunday, it felt as though a puzzle piece had found its location to be placed. It felt like a home where I could grow more fully into relationship with others and with God. Fast forwarding a few years, as I finished my schooling, I found myself directed towards the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC) to continue drawing closer to God in relationship with others.
One of the main pillars of ESC is the sharing of a common life lived in intentional community. When we sign up for the year we are all very aware that we will be living with people that we do not know and have never met. Yet, we come together to serve, learn, and grow. We find ourselves, perhaps individually quite different, yet united by a common and shared intention: to live simply, to do justice, to serve others.
I find a degree of solidarity in that a group of us young adults are venturing into the unknown to serve and grow together. I think this is precisely where the intentional component of our communities comes into play.
I also find that this intentionally communal life is precisely what we, as faithful Christians, must learn to increasingly live into. I suspect this to be particularly true of those of us in the United States, where our culture demands an intensity and precision of individuality and individualism that often detriments the broader scope of the connectedness of human experience.
“Life in community is no less than a necessity for us – it is an inescapable ‘must’ that determines everything we do and think. Yet it is not our good intentions or efforts that have been decisive in our choosing this way of life. Rather, we have been overwhelmed by a certainty – a certainty that has its origin and power in the Source of everything that exists.” (Eberherd Arnold, Why We Live in Community)
German theologian Eberherd Arnold describes beautifully what is found throughout scripture. Jesus declares in the Gospels, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). In the creeds we declare one faith, and in our faith we worship one God, in being many members we are one body – the body of Christ. Saint Paul declares it, saying, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5).
In many ways, I see the structure of the ESC, with a year of intentional community and formation, as a modern-day incarnation of what the early Church was manifesting two-thousand years ago.“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:42-47)
At Beloved in the Desert, our life together is very much held in common. We hold our living spaces together, our meals together, our food stipend together, our worship of God together. We touch base each week with one another to address any community issues that invariably arise when different personalities coexist together. Through it all, our intentionality and faith have hold us firmly as a community and undoubtedly we have all grown together. I know that this sentiment is shared by other members of the ESC throughout the nation as well!
This life together demands grace of us, and I suspect in its imperfections that it is a reflection of the grace that God pours out upon each and every one of us. In this common life, we must be agents giving grace to others in exceedingly troubled and difficult times; and we must be recipients of grace by our community when we undoubtedly and inevitably stumble, infringe, upset, and make mistakes.
In communal life, we learn to give and receive grace.
This grace-fueled common life together has certainly bolstered our community’s resiliency in the upending and difficult times brought about by the pandemic. With tragedy and the unknown continuously around every corner, being anchored in community has truly been a deeply moving and grounding experience. Our rooted relationships have permitted us to act, for example, with kindness and agility when needing to get resources to those who cannot go out due to age or condition. Together, we find our prayers joined with the prayers of the broader church to draw us all ever closer to God in our common life together as Christians.
Togetherness is the linchpin of community, be it with shared meals, shared worship, shared experience, shared time, shared pain and sorrow, shared triumph and joy. All of this, done together, is wrapped up in the term community. And flowing out of this community, joining with our prayers and service, we more fully may realize what the Lord asks of us in Micah 6:8:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I find that we ESC members, though scattered throughout the nation, strive to do just that. Amen.