Witnessing to What?

In this piece I will be reflecting on two different modes of living community as vowed religious. One is the more prevalent practice of living together under a common roof. The other involves members of the order or congregation participating in the life and mission of the group while living under separate roofs. The second mode may consist in the province of a congregation formally treating as a single community a collection of religious who live within a single geographic territory but in separate residences. That is a modality known for some time in women's communities and recently increasing in some men's provinces. Or it may simply involve recognizing individual members living under a separate roof as belonging to the wider congregational community.

Readers of this journal will probably have experienced the contentiousness which frequently characterizes conversations about these realities. For that reason it is not easy to find non-prejudicial terminology to name them. Does one designate the two variations as 'living together' vis-a-vis 'living apart'? Or do we try other commonly used expressions: that some people live 'in community' and others live 'outside' or 'away' or 'independently' or 'on their own?' Or even that they live 'alone?' It should not require inordinate honesty to recognize that each of these phrases might have its origins in subtle --- or not so subtle --- biases, usually tilted against the acceptability of the less prevalent model. "Why don't they come back to community?"

The only specific reality that clearly and necessarily distinguishes one of these modalities from the other, regardless of any one's ideological commitment, would seem to be the matter of the roof over the members' heads. Regardless of what one may think or believe about the appropriateness (or even the 'validity') of some of these arrangements, the simple fact is that in one case the roof shelters more than one person, in the other it protects only one. For that reason I have opted in this article to speak simply of the one-roof community as distinct from the multiple-roof community. The terminology may be a bit awkward but it has two redeeming characteristics. It keeps our reflection grounded in behavioral reality, and, precisely because it is not common parlance, it may open up fresh perspectives and thereby help us to frame better questions and even new insights.

It is not my intention to advocate for either one of these ways of being-in- community over the other. My aim is, rather, to reflect on one --- and only one --- particular aspect that is frequently adduced as an argument for the single-roof mode of community living: the witness it gives to the people of God and indeed to the 'world'.

In the interest of helping the reader to weigh the impact of my own unconscious ideological biases, as well as in an effort to uncover them in myself, I need to note my credentials for entering upon the subject at all.

For the first 26 years of my life as a Jesuit I lived in one-roof communities. There were the large houses of formation/study of the pre-Vatican II Jesuits, including the reality of residing in one building with as many as 300 Scholastics. Then there was a smaller higher-education community of 30-40 men. A brief stint of one year was spent living in a student residence at a slight physical remove from 'the main community' but with expectations of daily participation in some common prayer and socializing. Later, two years in a 'small', 11-member community of priests and Scholastics, with common duties of cooking and upkeep of the residence. Then for the past 29 years I have lived under a roof which sheltered only myself, while being canonically a member of a community nearby, the majority of whose members reside under a single roof.

The result is that after many years of reflecting and praying over the differences in these two styles and the kinds of spiritual, psychological, and even physical issues each one entails, I would have much to say about the relative benefits and stresses each one brings to the individual who may live in it, as well as to others in the same community. The literature on religious community living is, of course, voluminous (if not endless --- what does it mean that we have to talk about it so much?). Others have written much on these matters (though perhaps not explicitly contrasting the implications of the two different modalities for the persons of the individual religious living them out). Some day I may be tempted to add yet more words on that subject in the light of my own history and experience of living under both modalities. In any case, the internal realities are not our concern right now. At the moment we are talking about witness, which presumably involves symbolizing something to outsiders.

Where Does Witness 'Happen'?

Before we consider the witness value of a residence containing many vowed religious, we may need to take one step further back and remind ourselves that what religious people call 'witness' is a sub-set of the broader reality called 'communication'.

To make the point in a slightly facetious manner, we might imagine a person alone on a desert island proclaiming to the winds, "I am an extraordinary witness to evangelical poverty!" The only true comment to be made about such a scene is that the person is perilously out of touch with reality. There is no witnessing going on because there is no recipient of the message supposedly being proclaimed.

Communication (and therefore, witness) happens in the mind or spirit of the one who receives it, not in the intention of the one who believes he or she is communicating. In the words of the wise insight with which Scholasticism anticipated the McLuhanesque 'discovery' of our contemporary era of communications, quidquid recipitur recipitur secundum modum recipientis. A message is effectively 'sent' when it resides in the receiver, and what is actually transmitted depends on the meaning the receiver gives it, on the basis of the receiver's internal screens or lenses. If I were to write this article in Urdu, most of those presently reading it would be effectively precluded from receiving it, and the loss of communication would not be due either to my spiritual shortcomings or to the readers' receptivity to my message, but simply to the lack of receptors to take in the message.

I offer a true story, which may fix the point in the reader's memory, but which is just a good story in any case. Father John Courtney Murray once gave a lecture, after which there was a question-and-answer period. A woman put up her hand and said, "Father Murray, in your talk were you really saying such-and-so?" To which Murray, all six-foot-three of him, looking through his rimless glasses in his courtly but friendly fashion, responded, "Madam, I don't know what I said until I know what you heard. . . ."

And It's True of 'Witness', Too

If we then turn to that particular form of communications we call 'witness', the insight remains just as true. Whether witness 'happens' or not depends on the reception in the witnessees; the pious wish or intention of the witnessers is quite irrelevant. In Gumpian terms we might say witness is as witness does.

The net result is that if we want to find out just what is 'witnessed to' by the fact that a group of religious live under the same roof, the belief of the religious that they are witnessing to something is the wrong place to look. To discover what has been witnessed, we need simply to ask the laity or others who are presumably those being witnessed unto. What message are they receiving? And what is it saying to them?

As a first step in answering those questions, I offer a simple fact from my experience.

My work as a church consultant places me in direct contact with many, many laity and diocesan clergy. They speak openly about their experiences, good and bad, with religious men and women. The simple fact is that I have never heard any single person say anything remotely like "it's a real Gospel witness to me that this body of religious men or women live under the same roof." I have often heard them say things like "the Passionists really know how to stand with you when you are suffering or sorrowing", or "you Augustinians are genuinely welcoming", or "you Marianists really care for one another", or "I don't ever hear any of your sisters bad-mouth one of your community; you take pride in what your sisters do in ministering in the church". What they report as witnessing, in other words, is how religious relate to one another or to their religious body as a group. The fact that they do this relating under a single roof is simply not mentioned.

And I have never heard any religious tell me that they have heard an observer declare the fact of single-roof residency as being of any witness value in itself. But you can be sure it will be trumpeted in every chapter discussion on community living.

Others Do That

If we move beyond the observable fact, that outsiders do not refer to residential living as 'witness', to ask ourselves what might account for the fact that it is not mentioned (in spite of the religious' belief that they are witnessing by the fact of common residency), one hypothesis comes immediately to mind. Residing with other persons under a single roof has of itself no distinct witness value because, until relatively recent times, just about everybody outside religious life did that themselves. Families until quite recently lived under a single roof, and even if adult children moved away from the family roof they usually wound up living with other people under a single roof. They prepare and eat meals more or less together. They care for the upkeep of their common dwelling. They bed down and get up each day, perhaps at different hours, and therefore having to respect other persons' clocks. They negotiate, more or less formally and more or less successfully, the schedule of the group; the temperature in the house; the kinds of chores to be carried out by various members; and whether the body will allow a pet in the house. Often enough they pray both individually and as a collective unit. And very frequently they do so under conditions that many, if not most, religious would find unbearable and in quarters much more cramped, to boot.

I do not note these things in order to evoke guilt in the religious who share the same roof. There can be many very good reasons for the kind of space, privacy, common appliances and even domestic help that some such religious enjoy, the needs of mission and apostolate being uppermost. The point is that living under the same roof with others is the common lot of most people; in and of itself it has no significance as 'witness'.

Then What is Witness?

Laity and diocesan clergy will, nonetheless, frequently pay tribute to the 'witness' of the life of vowed religious. What are they really referring to when they speak so?

As I noted above, they are noting the outstanding manner in which religious present themselves: the way they relate to one another, the way they exemplify some special characteristic of their particular order or congregation: peace, hospitality, reconciliation, contemplation, simplicity of life. Not the fact that religious do this under a single roof, but that they live out some dimension of the calling which is incumbent on all the baptized to a unique and recognizable degree. (Do we still need to be reminded, at this late date, of Vatican II's declaration that religious vows are only a modality of the call of all the baptized to practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience?)

There is a final irony that emerges from these reflections. If the way religious actually live and relate to one another is the only reality that can be received by outsiders as 'witness', two things seem to follow: the requirements are the same whether the religious live under a single roof or under separate roofs, and the witness can't happen if the outsiders, as a result of the religious' need for privacy, are shut out from ever experiencing the reality in action. It does seem a bit bizarre for religious to be saying to one another "we sure witness to the laity by the way we live in communities --- but let's make sure they don't get in to see it" . . . .

George B. Wilson, S.J., is a Maryland Province Jesuit who does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio. His e-mail address: gbwilson@choice.net.