Love your neighbour
Convents are peaceful places, right? Full of prayer, and Sisters who love each other, and a sense of peace that hits you as soon as you walk through the door. Well, it’s probable that for visitors that last one might be true; and, to be fair, most Sisters probably do love each other and they do pray. But a moment’s thought might tell you that all that does not necessarily add up to Convents being peaceful for those who live there. Just take any number of women (say, between 7 and 30) of any age (anything between 20s and 90s) with a variety of different backgrounds, and different personalities and that should tell you that Convents can be anything but peaceful. As one of our Sisters once said, the peace the visitors feel comes from the struggle of those who live there. Sometimes, fairly minor issues can lead to ongoing, and major, disputes. Take the argument of the open window….
In the Sisters room at the old Convent, we had a window in the corner of the room that opened into it. In the colder weather, it was helpful to have this window open for those who wanted (and needed) some fresh air, rather than the stuffy fug that would predominate otherwise. But, of course, it was also helpful to have it shut for those who wanted (and needed) to keep warm. This was an ongoing clash that happened regularly every winter until some bright spark suggested that we take the window off its’ hinges and put it back the other way, so that the fresh air was coming in towards the wall rather than the room. This meant that those who wanted fresh air could sit up that end of the room, and those who didn’t couldn’t feel the draught. (Mind you, it was actually our maintenance person who did the work). But it did solve that particular dispute, if not any of the others.
One thing about living in a Convent, though, is that all those there are a Community, and have, on one level, chosen to be there with each other (even if, on another level, you can easily argue that it is God who has done the choosing, especially with Sisters you wouldn’t normally dream of living with). It means that there is a communal lifestyle, and one you cannot easily avoid: you share meals and services and so on. An argument between two members of the Community does make it difficult to ignore each other, as you will almost certainly be coming together in the Refectory, or sitting opposite one another in Chapel, to share something in your life that is actually quite intimate. It takes a lot of forgiveness, especially as anything long drawn out will affect other members of the Community; and, being a Community, there is a commitment to mutuality, to loving and being with one another, even if it doesn’t always feel like that. But that doesn’t mean that loving one another is easy; far from it.
We are all called to love our neighbours, whether or not we live in a Convent. A call that is not – and should not – be easy: a call that may be far more difficult outside a Community context, where there may be no commitment to each other as there is in a Community; where it is easier, in many ways, to escape the commitment to each other that cannot be avoided in a Convent; where it can be easier to allow the usual pace of life to carry us on, without committing to love each other as we should. For love is not easy, especially with all those awkward characters you may be likely to meet (and who may be likely to meet us …). Nevertheless, we are still called to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. I guess that may be a good place to start: we can only love others if we feel ourselves loved, if we are able to love ourselves.
That is not an excuse, but a deeper commitment, to allow ourselves to be loved, to be willing to love ourselves; but also to treat people as we would wish to be treated. However, that is not the only call to love in the Gospels. In John’s gospel, Jesus gives us a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. So we are called to love, as Jesus loves us. This is a call on a very deep level, to allow Jesus to love us, to open ourselves to the possibility that God may love us in a far deeper and far wider way than we have imagined so far; to be open, not only to the possibility of that love, but to its’ consequences. We can indeed only love others as we find ourselves loved, but that is not to be a limit on our love, just the starting place for a journey that could take us to places we have never imagined. Possibly starting with that really irritating person who sits near you every Sunday … It is a journey that shouldn’t be airy-fairy in the clouds, but have real, practical consequences. Again, starting with allowing God to love us in our most difficult areas, in our most troublesome problems, and then allowing that love to spread outwards from us. This may sound like a get out clause: ‘I’m focussing on God’s love for me at the moment, that’s where my spiritual journey is right now’. Sorry, but I think this is both/and not either/or. It is not something we will or can do perfectly, and the nature of human relationships is that our attempts to love may fail, or hit the rocks of someone else’s angst, or merely be clumsy and inappropriate. There is also the ongoing issue of how to maintain suitable barriers and protections for ourselves. For that is part of loving ourselves and our neighbour: to neglect ourselves, or to get in too deep, will cause us problems, and will not help our neighbour.
We have an example of how to love in Jesus; to spend time reading and praying with the Gospels may well influence our own attempts to love. Jesus spent time with the disciples, and others; he responded to their needs, but was also careful to carve out time alone for himself, and time where he could be alone with his disciples without the crowds. He also didn’t feel the need to be ‘nice’ all the time, willing to challenge people where necessary, although this may be a behaviour we need to be careful about following, especially if we are not in a position of responsibility.
But ultimately Jesus’ journey of love took him directly to the Cross. We should expect our own journey of love to also be nothing less than the journey of the Cross also. Love is not easy, nor was it meant to be. If we are truly committed to loving our neighbour, it will almost certainly also involve following Jesus’ command to take up our Crosses and follow him. If we are serious about our Christian faith, I cannot imagine how we can be satisfied with anything less, however imperfectly we may do it. But remember, too, that Jesus’ journey to the Cross led directly to the Resurrection, and we live in Resurrection times.