10½ Rules for Forming Christian Community

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July 30, 2018

By Douglas D. Dewey, The Catholic Thing, Saturday, July 28, 2018

What exactly is Christian Community and why should we form it? Christian Community flows from our imitation of three persons perfectly in love with each other: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When the whole world looks like the Holy Trinity, we will have fulfilled the great commission to make disciples of it.

God did not place us alone in this world but in the presence of others, starting with our families, working outwards, then – as He commanded us – loving our neighbors as ourselves.

We’ve all heard that commandment innumerable times, but has it ever occurred to you to ask whyit is so essential to our salvation to love our neighbor? After all, God could have ordered the world in other ways, including solitude for billions of souls.

St. Catherine of Siena wondered about that too, and asked God, who told Catherine that what He mostdesires is for us to love Him as He loves us. That may sound straightforward, but it is impossible for us to love God as He desires to be loved without the presence of other human souls.

Because for us to love God back is mere justice. We did absolutely nothing to deserve a single day of life, much less an immortal soul and the possibility of Heaven. When we love God directly, we are acting justly, but also in our own interest because of the promise of greater happiness on Earth and the mega-prize of eternal happiness after death. But, there was nothing in it for God when he loved us into creation. His Divine love is gratuitous and disinterested, whereas our love for Him is fitting and self-interested.

So, in order to give us the opportunity to love divinely, He placed us among other souls whom we could love without any prospect of reward. We can only love God the way He wants us to by loving other people who cannot benefit us.

And that is the reason why Christian Community is so important: communities are a target-rich environment for us to love selflessly. Forming Christian Community – communities of fellowship, brotherhood, and Christian charity – isn’t a nice optional thing to do after work. It’s why we are here.

So much for the why, what about the how? It’s a mistake to think that a lot of external activity could substitute for the harder work of personal holiness. God builds communities through holy people, or at least through people working at being holy. There’s no escaping it or substituting for it: you have to be holy to build the kingdom.

A good way to start loving God divinely is by generously loving your spouse, children, parents, siblings, and friends. It is doubtful that we will love anyone else if we fail to love the ones closest to us.

Love is the key, love is the secret weapon. Forget about how you feel. Love is not a feeling; it’s a decision to prefer the good of others. Make a habit of this and you will start changing things around you and your work will be amplified.

So here are some practical things to do to become holier and form Christian Community. Jordan Peterson has 12 rules for Life, and Chris Pratt has 9. I’ll split the difference and offer 10.5 rules:

          1. Get married soon. Scott Hahn calls marriage the First Society – which is just a word for big community. This presumes that you don’t have a consecrated vocation after opening your heart and asking God hundreds of times if that’s what He wants. But chances are good that you have a vocation to marriage. Do not put your vocation off for career reasons, or because you need a second master’s degree or don’t think you can afford children or because of some nonsense about finding yourself or – worst reason ever – sowing your wild oats. Sowing those oats will yield weeds, haunt your life and taint your marriage. If you don’t know someone you think you might marry, God has that person picked out. So pray, keep your eyes open, and go where that person might be. Make it your first priority – way above your job.

          2. Be open to children. Don’t try to game this, calculating how much money you will need for a two-bedroom apartment or a minivan or summer camps or college tuition; plunge into the vocation of marriage and be fruitful. A great start in practicing selfless love is taking care of an ungrateful, selfish baby who demands your attention constantly and instantly. Whatever benefit you may eventually derive from your infant will feel a long way off when you are pacing the floor with her from 2 to 4 in the morning. Adding Christian children to society is the most enduring impact you will probably have on building Christian Community. Mark Steyn has said that history belongs to those who show up; so have them be your descendants.

3. Make friends and invest in them. If you’re married those will most likely be other married friends. If you are single, you will see your single friends getting married, so join them. Real friends burden each other, and we should want them to do that. Networks of friends are the knitting work of Christian Community.

4. Put others first in everything. Practice Mother Teresa’s recipe for JOY by ordering your thoughts and actions according to the letters of that word: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last – J.O.Y. The more you forget yourself the more joyful you will be. God uses Ju-jitsu. The more you seek the good of others, the more He takes care of the you you forgot. God’s way of taking care of you will also include suffering; it’s His way of getting closer, so don’t imagine He’s abandoned you when bad things happen.

5. You have to learn how to pray like everything depends upon it, because it does. Pray intensely and regularly. Not just before an exam or interview or after you messed up. Pray before you’ve messed up and you’ll do it less often. If you already have an active prayer life, build on it; you’re probably just a piker compared to what God has in mind for you. If you’re normal, which is to say, your prayer life is sporadic, feckless and tepid, then make a plan, get help from a priest, and get started on it today.

6. Pick a good parish and be active in it. Most of us have choices among parishes, so choose wisely and go all in. Do whatever Father asks of you. Priests need the support and affirmation of energetic faithful families and individuals.

7. Don’t be lukewarm. It’s boring, detestable to God and unattractive to other lukewarm souls. The priest at our parish once asked everyone: who says grace before meals? Then he asked: who says grace at restaurants. Sure it’s a little thing, but Jesus told us “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” You combat lukewarmness by prayer, the sacraments, and doing things you don’t feel like doing. Fighting lukewarmness doesn’t mean being brash or argumentative. That’s an ersatz form of piety and is ineffective. Be zealous in the way you love people. They will feel the difference and then will listen to you about Christ and the Church.

8. Overcome fear or sloth with a decision to love. If you dread parties or public speaking, you can dispel those temptations by deciding to love all the people in the room. Try it.

9. Make a defining habit of listening – especially to boring people, God has something to tell you through them. Listen and try to help other souls at every turn. Help them to get jobs, fix their computer, move into a new apartment. Some will exploit you, but who cares? You’ll be more like Christ and He will doubly help you.

10. Show up for things. Woody Allen was right about this: 80 percent of life is showing up. Go to fundraisers, family gatherings, funerals, and the hundred things that God leads you to. Go when you don’t feel like going, you don’t have as much time as you think. Within the limits of your family and work obligations, get out there. Don’t wimp out with a text the day before, telling yourself that others will be there and you won’t be missed. God will miss you.

10 ½:  Take care of your body and your grooming. Don’t think you have to be a semi-bathed eccentric to be holy. Be that person who is fit, clean, decently dressed and is a pleasure to be around. Good grooming isn’t for you it’s for others.

That’s my listicle. It’s not comprehensive, but everything here I learned the hard way. You form Christian Community by deciding to love other people, and by being holy, generous and vulnerable. Do that, and God will work miracles through you, guaranteed.

*Image: Palm Sunday Mass by Zdzisław Jasiński, 1891 [private collection]

Douglas Dewey is President of the Wethersfield Institute for Catholic Thought, in Manhattan, which was founded by the late Chauncey Stillman in 1984. He and his wife live in Westchester County, N.Y. where they preside over a slowly emptying nest of ten children.