Religious Community and the Church

Mechtild of Magdeburg, 13th century mystic, longed to live in religious community. As a young woman she applied to a traditional convent; however she was unwilling to take the accepted route in which a young woman was brought to the convent by her parents who gave a significant dowry. Mechtild chose to apply on her own and without money. When she was rejected, she then became a part of the growing community of Beguines. The Beguines were an “idealistic association of relgious women living communally … a spontaneous local outgrowth of the urge to apostolic life.” (Beer, Frances. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages, Boydell Press) They were a less formal community without the vows of the convent, and often the women lived in poverty. The women of the community worked to help support themselves, and sometimes the communities were aided by wealthy patrons. Mechtild was a woman who gave up the wealth, privilege, and security of her family to live in the community of faith.

Mechtild wrote: “When I can no longer bear my loneliness, I take it to my friends. For I must share it with the friends of God. ‘Do you suffer?’ ‘So do I!'”

Today when the congregation gathered for worship, I witnessed the depth of care that is surely one of the marks of true community. Friends gathered around one who is in treatment for cancer; by their presence, hugs, and laughter giving her the assurance that she is not alone. A longer time member moving over to sit with someone worshiping with the community for the first time. People sharing their lives in such gentle ways that through their actions they say, “Do you suffer?” “So do I?”

The church congregation is not the same as the vowed religious community. Yet I live with the tension of wanting the church live the kind of commitment embodied in healthy religious communities. In my own process as a Co-member of the Loretto Community, I have realized that my true longing has been for the church congregation to live with the depth of covenant found in the religious community. The church, by its very nature cannot be such a community. However I do believe there are gifts and characteristics that may be shared.

The Church can grow as a community of prayer so that a part of our vocation is to live in prayer for the world.

The Church can grow as a community bound together in Christ in a way that transcends and works through our differences.

I pray that we will continue to be formed into a community of God.

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One thought on “Religious Community and the Church

  1. When I hear of religious communities, my first impression is that they are held together by rules and discipline. Not a bad thing, but harder for some of us to accept. An analogy might be my experience in college, being “rushed” by sororities but after touring their houses and talking with my friends who were members I couldn’t handle the idea of being forced to call ALL of these women my “sisters” just because we all wore the same Greek Letter pin. And so I became a leader in an independent Residence Hall, are as we called it at that university, a GDI. And then a funny thing happened; because we were all there voluntarily, we did develop community! My three roommates from my three years there are still my oldest friends, despite the fact that we don’t share religious views (one is fundamentalist, one Unitarian and one a straight line Methodist) or a roof any longer. And when the building that housed our “independent” community celebrated its centennial and was reopened after a renovation, women from many decades came for the occasion. So, I wonder, to what extent is our enjoyment of, and participation in, a religious community related to our sense that we have freely elected to belong, instead of being compelled, or of having no other choices? And how does the answer to that question inform our concept of church in 2007? If all who come to church are our brothers and sisters in Christ, do I resist that idea, the way I resisted the idea of the sorority sisters in 1962? Or have I grown beyond that? Just some thoughts engendered by this post of yours.

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