A community which is constantly welcoming people will soon become dispersed; it will end up like a railway station where people just run into each other and part. A community which is closed can become stifling and suffer from dissension and envy, and may cease to be alive.
A loving community is attractive, and a community which is attractive is by definition welcoming. Life brings new life. There is an extraordinary gratuité in the power of procreation: the way a living being gives birth to other living beings is marvelous, and this is true for the living body which is community.
Love can never be static. A human heart is either progressing or regressing. If it is not becoming more open, it is closing and withering spiritually. A community which refuses to welcome – whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors – is dying spiritually.
But there is a time for everything: a time to be and a time to welcome.
Sometimes when people knock at my door, I ask them in and we talk, but I make it clear to them in a thousand small ways that I am busy, that I have other things to do. The door of my office is open, but the door of my heart is closed. I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go. When we welcome people, we open the door of our heart to them and give them space within it. And if we have other things to do which really can’t wait, we should say so – but open our heart all the same.
It is sometimes easier to welcome a visitor than to welcome someone with whom we live all the time.
Welcoming is not just something that happens as people cross the threshold. It is an attitude; it is the constant openness of the heart; it is saying to people every morning and at every moment, “come in”; it is giving them space; it is listening to them attentively. To welcome means listening a great deal to people and then discerning the truth with them. A community cannot accept as a resident every single person that knocks at the door. In order to welcome there must be a peaceful space in the hearts of those welcoming and a peaceful space in the community for the person to find a place of rest and growth. If that peaceful space is lacking, then it is better not to welcome.
At the same time, the people welcomed must try to accept the community as it is, with the space that is offered, be willing to abide by the spirit, traditions, and rules of the community, and desire also to grow and to evolve. If newcomers only want to change the community and get everything they can out of it, without any modification on their part, there can be no true welcome.
That is why there must be a double discernment when deciding whether to welcome a new member into the community. Can we in the community give that person the peaceful space and the elements she needs to be at ease and to grow? And then will she, so far as we can know her after dialogue and prayer, really benefit from the community as it is, and truly adapt to its minimal expectations? Or does she have expectations that cannot be fulfilled?
A community needs wise people to discern peacefully and prayerfully. Of course, this careful discernment is only for new members and, at most, those who want to stay a while in the community; it is not necessary for casual visitors.
A community must not fall into the trap of thinking it can be the savior of all. It must not feel guilty if, after discernment, it says “no” to someone. But there is a way of saying “no” with compassion; there is a way of taking time, listening, explaining why the person cannot stay and offering suggestions where he or she could go. It is such a wounding experience to be turned away. We must always remember that.
The welcome a community offers visitors is an extension of the welcome its members offer each other. If our heart is open to our brothers and sisters, it will also be open to others. But if we are withdrawn from other members of the community, we are likely to close ourselves off from visitors. We may of course – and this does happen – be delighted to use visitors as an excuse to flee from the community. We can get bored with each other’s company and so become aggressive; visitors then become a distraction. That can be valuable and even lead to better welcoming of each other. But it is not true welcome. It is sometimes easier to welcome a visitor than to welcome someone with whom we live all the time. It is rather the same as husbands and wives who are always away from home, caught up in a whole variety of good works. They would do better to spend more time at home, being a bit more welcoming to each other.
Can we truly welcome strangers as they are, if we have not welcomed the community as it is and the members as they are? If we are angry with the community and its members, we risk using strangers to compensate for our anguish. That is not welcome.
There is something prophetic in people who seem marginal and difficult; they force the community to become alert, because what they are demanding is authenticity.
I am discovering more and more how many people are deeply lonely. They bring certain emotional problems with them into community, together with what may look like a “bad character,” which is often the result of suffering and lack of understanding during childhood. It is good that these people can come into a community, which can be a place of support, opening, and growth for them. But clearly they are going to suffer there and make others suffer too. Perhaps they need a community whose life is structured, where the sharing is not too threatening, where there are not too many meetings or demanding situations which could make them explode. They need space to be alone and work that brings inner security. It would be sad if communities accepted only perfectly balanced, flexible, open, and available people. Those with difficulties also have the right to the possibility of community life. But we need communities with different structures in order to welcome people with different needs.
When a community welcomes people who have been on the margins of society, things usually go quite well to begin with. Then, for many reasons, these people start to become marginal to the community as well. They provoke crises which can be very painful for the community and cause it considerable confusion because it feels so powerless. The community is then caught in a trap from which it may be hard to escape. But if the crises bring it to a sense of its own poverty, they can also be a grace. There is something prophetic in people who seem marginal and difficult; they force the community to become alert, because what they are demanding is authenticity. Too many communities are founded on dreams and fine words; there is so much talk about love, truth, and peace. Marginal people are demanding. Their cries are cries of truth because they sense the emptiness of many of our words; they can see the gap between what we say and how we live. If the community reacts by showing them the door, this can create a terrible uproar, and then it is easy to label them unbearable, sick, lazy, and good for nothing. It has to devalue them as far as it can, because they have shown up its hypocrisy.
Yes, we have to discern wisely when we welcome. It is so much better to refuse someone at the outset because the community is conscious of its limitations, then to welcome him naively and then ask him to leave.
If they are to refind hope, those who have been marginalized have to feel loved and accepted. It is not simply through being welcomed that they will rediscover their own value and capacities for positive action. They need people who will listen to them, with all their wounds and needs, and sense what they really want. This demands time and patience, because they are afraid of revealing themselves and won’t open up to just anyone. They need to sense that they are not being judged, but are really understood. They need someone who can listen to them, a stable reference person who can guide and support them and bring them security, who can encourage and help them to discover their abilities and take on responsibilities. Because of their very deep confusion, they have to learn to trust that reference person, that father- or mother-figure who unites tenderness, goodness, and firmness.
A community which welcomes people with deep needs has to make clear to them when they arrive exactly what it expects of them. They have to accept its rules, even if these are very flexible. They have to sense that the community will not let them do exactly as they like, but will demand this minimal conformity. If they refuse this, that is their way of saying that they do not want to stay.
Source: Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 266–268, 271–275.
Photograph by Jace Grandinetti.