From time to time, we find ourselves called to form temporary communities. A stay in the hospital, the pilgrimage to an area of conflict, an occasional weekend reunion with one's extended familythese exceptional times present opportunities for true community, though we may miss seeing them as such. They surely require of us many of the same skills demanded by the more ordinary experiences of community.
In reflecting here on these occasional communities, we do not mean to include the brief exchanges of "I'm OK, you're OK." These are not the stuff of community. Rather, this meditation is about the intense life situations, which, though brief, draw us into true community. They are the building blocks of community just as surely as are the longer-term commitments to a stable and intentional group striving to achieve a purposeful communal life.
These occasional communities demand much of the best that is in us. Take the hospital stay, for example. We heard once of two men in a suburban hospital on the eve of tests to determine the extent of their respective coronary heart disease. One of them was beside himself at the possibility that the next day's examinations would show a potentially crippling and life-threatening condition. The other, faced with the same bleak prospects, was able to reach out to the first and help him somewhat overcome the near-paralyzing fear he felt. This dynamic between them resulted in a communal bond that carried over to the day of the tests, the tension-filled moments when the results came, and the process of each getting on with his life in the new and limiting circumstances of heart trouble.
ONE COULD CITE many examples of similar temporary circumstances that call for efforts on behalf of community. A cursory reading of Jesus' activities points to the Lord as true community builder even and especially in passing moments. A sequence of events early in Mark's gospel highlights this dimension of our Savior's personality.
In Mark 1:21, we find Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. A person possessed by a demon enters the precincts and his shouting threatens to disrupt totally the communal moment that the Lord's message has created. Jesus takes charge of the situation, confronts the danger to the occasional community that he has just been building and presumably goes on with his preaching.
Following this incident, Jesus and the disciples go to Simon's house and find his mother-in-law sick in bed. Again the Lord intervenes and the woman is enabled to offer the hospitality so necessary for community to prosper. Later, in the evening nearly the entire village gathers outside the house and Jesus attends to each one. It is not hard to imagine the sense of community that builds up over those hours as the Lord establishes a sense of calm and well-being among those who feel his healing touch as well as among the onlookers.
Early the next morning, Jesus' own community tracks him down while he is praying in a secluded place and informs him that the rest of the village awaits him back at Simon's house. Here Jesus makes a crucial choice, one that any engagement with an occasional community inevitably forces on us. "Let us go elsewhere, to the neighboring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came" (Mark 1:38). His missionand oursis to foster community wherever he goes, however short his time there.
The itinerant carpenter from Nazareth called people around him in groups, most often for a short period; the early disciples like Paul moved from community to community and thereby formed the church; today in Latin America pastoral agents foster and nurture base Christian communities which together make up the church. Might we conclude from all of this that the real vocation of Jesus' followers involves building community wherever we find ourselves? Such occasional communities may finally be as important as more stable, long-term communities.
Joe Nangle, OFM, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.