In 1967 Plough sent Thomas Merton a newly printed book, Why We Live in Community by Eberhard Arnold. In his letter of response dated June 22, 1967 Merton expressed his respect for Arnold’s witness and mentioned that he had used the book as the subject of two talks he gave to fellow monks at Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he lived. In September 1968, he again used Why We Live in Community as the basis for two talks given to Sisters of the Monastery of the Precious Blood in Eagle River, Alaska. Plough obtained transcripts of these talks, given just three months before his death, which shed light on the power of Christian community to deepen faith and overcome human divisions.
Eberhard Arnold wrote Why We Live in Community in the 1920s at a time of great tension. It is a fine gospel statement of community against the background of false community being spread in his day. It may also be seen against the background of the present mystique of community. As you know, there is quite a strong trend among progressive believers towards the concept of real community. Eberhard Arnold comes out with what I think is a completely Christian answer.
But before we start considering our vocation and our life, we have to stop and think what our Lord was doing. What did he come into the world for? What did he die on the cross for? What was his aim? Because that necessarily affects our aim, and it affects what we are doing.
Our Lord’s victory over death, the victory of love over death on the cross, seeks to be manifested in a very concrete form on earth in the creation of community.
The standard answer always used to be, “He came to die for sinners.” That is to say, we are converted from sin; we don’t have to go to hell; we can go to heaven if we behave ourselves. And that is a really crude answer, because there is so much more in it than that. Our Lord came to overcome death by love, and this work of love was a work of obedience to the Father unto death – a total gift of himself in order to overcome death. That is our job. We are fighting death; we are involved in a struggle between love and death, and this struggle takes place in each of us. Our Lord’s victory over death, the victory of love over death on the cross, seeks to be manifested in a very concrete form on earth in the creation of community. The work of creating community in and by the grace of Christ is the place where this struggle goes on and where he manifests his victory over death.
. . .
I do want to emphasize the fact that, in himself, on the cross, Christ destroyed the hostility that was created by all these [religious, ethnic and national] divisions. There again is what community means for us, destroying division by the cross. In other words, we must be bigger than divisions. There will still remain ethnic differences, but they no longer make any difference in Christ. I think that where the real trouble comes is that we have a tendency – it’s a sort of American myth – to think that this is all very simple and natural. All you have to do is follow your natural good tendencies and it is all taken care of. It isn’t. It isn’t automatic, it has to be done by God. It is a work of God.
As Eberhard Arnold says, we really do experience in ourselves, at the same time as the power of Christ, the power of the cross to create community. Yet we also find in ourselves everything that goes against community, and we have to be completely aware of this fact. We are and we are not communal people. It is taken for granted that we are all really sociable. But we are and we aren’t. We are also weak and selfish, and there is in us this struggle between trust and mistrust, where we all believe and don’t believe. We trust some people and we distrust other people. We are, in other words, full of ambivalence, and we must take this into account. Things are in reality so much more complicated. We assume that we are perfectly open and trusting, and then suddenly we discover that we aren’t… What we tend to do is to deny this, repress it; we don’t like to face it. But we just have to face the fact that sometimes we get darned mad at people, we get worked up about it and we do our best not to show it, but there it is. You cannot possibly live a religious life realistically unless you realize that this is going on all the time.
The reason we repress our feelings is that they cause anxiety. If I admit to myself that I feel mad and angry, then right away I think what will this lead to? We will be fighting like cats and dogs for months to come, if I show my real feelings. What are you to do? Where are you going to go for help? You go to God. In other words, instead of basing our confidence on our ability to repress these feelings, and keep them out of sight, what we have to do is to take a whole new attitude and say, “All right, I have these feelings and I know they are there. I am sorry about them, but the grace of Christ can fix it, the grace of Christ in me and the grace of Christ in my brother and sister.” It isn’t just that I have the grace – the point is that the community has the grace. There is sufficient grace to solve all your problems in the ordinary human way – at least deal with them – though not to be without them. You have to work at it all the time, but there is this solution. So rejoice; but realize that you do have some work to do…
Let’s read a little bit of Eberhard Arnold and what he says about this problem:
God is the source of life. On him and through him our common life is built up and led time and again through cataclysmic struggles to final victory. It is an exceedingly dangerous way, a way of deep suffering. It is a way that leads straight into the struggle for existence and the reality of a life of work, into all the difficulties created by the human character. And yet, just this is our deepest joy: to see clearly the eternal struggle – the indescribable tension between life and death, man’s position between heaven and hell – and still to believe in the overwhelming power of life, the power of love to overcome, and the triumph of truth, because we believe in God.
I think that is a pretty inspiring statement. We must believe in community and believe that in God all this is possible. Eberhard Arnold continues:
This faith is not a theory for us; neither is it a dogma, a system of ideas, or a fabric of words, nor a cult or an organization. Faith means receiving God himself – it means being overwhelmed by God. Faith is the strength that enables us to go this way. It helps us to find trust again and again when, from a human point of view, the foundations of trust have been destroyed.
This whole question of believing in God, of trusting in one another and yet knowing that trust can fall and can be rebuilt, all this is part of our life.
Then Arnold makes a statement which I think is extreme. He says, “Admittedly, with our present nature, without God, we humans are incapable of community.” That is going too far; it is pessimism. But a statement like this nevertheless has value because, even though it may be exaggerated, it points to the fact that we really need God, and it is the need of grace that Arnold is bringing out.
Temperamental mood-swings, possessive impulses…all these place seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of true community. But with faith we cannot be deluded into thinking that these realities are decisive.
That is the great point. Suppose all these things are there, and supposing it is tough, the thing that faith does is to make a final judgment. Apply this to a marriage problem. Supposing a man discovers his wife has been unfaithful to him. This is one of the tragic kinds of violation of trust in life. It destroys people. So, this husband finds out. If he is the kind of person who says, “This is the end,” that is a solution. From the moment a flaw is discovered, finished! That’s the end. It is just the opposite with Christ. Even the greatest fault is forgivable. Everything is forgivable.
Here it becomes abundantly clear that the realization of true community, the actual building up of a communal life, is impossible without faith in a higher Power. In spite of all that goes wrong, people try again and again to put their trust either in human goodness (which really does exist) or in the force of law. But all their efforts are bound to come to grief when faced with the reality of evil.
Again, this is quite strong, but the conclusion rings true: “The only power that can build true community is faith in the ultimate mystery of the Good, faith in God.”
. . . Often very incompatible people are thrown together. . . . It is a test of faith.
The ultimate thing is that we build community not on our love but on God’s love, because we do not really have that much love ourselves, and that is the real challenge of the religious life. It puts us in a position where sometimes natural community is very difficult. People are sent here and there, and often very incompatible people are thrown together. Groups of people who would never have chosen to be together in an ordinary human way find themselves living together. It is a test of faith. It puts God’s love to the test and it is meant to. It is what Saint Paul means. It isn’t just a question of whether you are building community with people that you naturally like, it is also a question of building community with people that God has brought together.
What is tested in community is faith. It is not so much a question of who’s right, but do we believe? I think that is the real issue. Of course there are problems, but you put them all together and work them out on the basis and in the context of faith. Faith is first, and the only one who is right is God. No one of us knows precisely what God wants. What we have to do is believe in the power of his love. This power is given to us in proportion as we work together to find out what the score is, and then, if we do get together and decide on something – even if it is mistaken – if it is done in good faith, the power of God’s love will be in it. We are going to make mistakes, but it really doesn’t matter that much.
Now it's your turn: tell us what Thomas Merton means to you. How have his writings influenced your thinking; how has he shaped your faith? Leave a comment.
The entire talk from which this is article is taken appears in Why We Live in Community. Reprinted from Thomas Merton in Alaska, Copyright © 1989 by The Trustees of the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Photo by John Lyons, used with permission.