Living in community has definitely been one of the greatest and most radical decisions I have ever made. However, life within any community also can come at a price. The following are some suggestions for how to ensure your social, spiritual, and emotional well being within an often busy environment. These tips are not meant to negatively reflect any experiences, but rather to simply share how you can make them even better. The following are my own views and do not reflect those of L’Arche International.
Living in community is a great experience. It is a place where we learn to share things, where we discover vulnerability, and where our passions and giftings are most fully realized. It is a place where human relationships are fostered and nurtured and where friendships are able to thrive. Yet, it can also be a place of intense conflict and bitterness if we lack self-awareness or if we are unable to forgive those that we live with during inevitable times of mistakes and trials. I can only speak for L’Arche as I have never lived in another intentional community, but I know that along the way, I have learned various lessons. I’d like to share some of these tips with you now. These are some pointers that I have picked up as I have journeyed in community over the years or that have been shared to me by other co-labourers committed to the cause of building a home together. These ideas may never be shared with you formally during training or your interview, but I guarantee that if you follow them they will make any community experience you may have (whether living intentionally or not) much richer and deeper. I hope they will be of benefit to you:
- Have a favourite mug. In L’Arche we drink loads of tea. Probably 2-5 cups a day on average. Make your tea times special by picking out a favourite mug or buying your own.
- Personalize your room. When we live in community we quite literally “share all things in common.” There are very few places or things that are uniquely yours. Utilize the space you do have. String Christmas lights (even when it’s not Christmas), hang posters, draw lovely pictures, get a special calendar, deck out your room with Bible verses or inspirational quotes. Do whatever makes you happy.
- Do what de-stresses you. Community can be life-giving, but it can also be demanding and even draining. Set aside some time every day for self-care..and I mean more than just mindlessly scrolling through Facebook (which is what I often tend to go for). Go for a walk or jog, listen to your favourite music, buy a hot waterbottle or neck and should heater (they work wonders). Also learn where in your body you store stress, try to eat healthy (which can often be a challenge because there are always sweeties on hand), and allow yourself to have a long bath and not think about anything. Your body will thank you and so will your mind. It’s virtually impossible to give unless we are also being generous with ourselves. My friend who has lived in community for over 6 years refers to this practice as “selfish unselfishness.”
- Once a week, treat yourself to something bigger. Many assistants find massages to be wonderful, others enjoy spending the day on a nice hike or going to a concert. Give yourself something to look forward to that will also help you unwind.
- Start each day with a prayer or positive thoughts. Get into the zone. Remember why you are here – this will sustain you when it’s 6am and you’d just rather be in bed.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This is something I discovered in my 2nd year and it has been an invaluable tool. Even on hard days when nothing seems to go right, you will soon discover that each day brings a blessing with it. It could be as simple as an encouraging word or a funny situation or as big as celebrating your birthday… but there is always something. Find joy in the little things.
- People who have been at L’Arche long term really stress this point: PROTECT YOUR FREE TIME/DAYS AWAY. In community there is always something to be done and sometimes the leadership may even make you feel like you need to sacrifice everything. But on your day away or during your four free hours, respect yourself. Leave the house if you have to. Engage in other interests.
NOTE: Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to never make sacrifices. Sometimes I will give up my free time to attend a community function or when an emergency arises or if my house needs extra support. But this must be gauged and you must be intentional when you make these judgement calls. People will tell you “it’s okay to say no,” but will often guilt you when you do just that. Don’t be afraid to talk to your house leader or leadership when the pressure’s on. Stand up for yourself and you will gain respect.
- Find a project that you enjoy. In my first year I decided to bake once a week and do the garden. These are things I love. It gave me a chance to still be at work, but to truly do something for the house that was also beneficial to me.
- Discover a favourite dish. Mine is Baked Salmon and Rainbow Veg. Mix it up a little, experiment with different twists. Have fun in the kitchen.
- I cannot stress this enough: each day is a fresh start. Conflicts happen in community, don’t hold on to them. Forgive and move past all the negative situations. Don’t stay stuck in the past, look towards the future.
- Sometimes the mood strikes you to dress up fancy. Enjoy those days.
- When I first came to L’Arche I was in love with the philosophy. I used to read Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen nearly every day and wondered why I was starting to get burnt out. I wasn’t protecting my free time wisely. I was doing L’Arche even when it was time to turn my brain off. I suggest reading Vanier and Nouwen before you start L’Arche to give you a bigger picture and a greater appreciation, and then referencing it occasionally…but definitely not doing some indepth study.
- It’s important to have friends both inside and outside of the community, but as my mentor who was an assistant at Daybreak for over 8 years put it, “try to become friends with the Core Members first. You’re there for them. If you become friends with the assistants, it’s just an added bonus.” In L’Arche we are constantly saying hello and goodbye. It’s overwhelming and sometimes it can be difficult to make friends who will only be there for 4-6 months and then will move back to another country. At first I found it a challenge because I truly thought I would keep in contact with so many people, but now I just try to let friendships unfold naturally. Friendships can be unexpected, but a place like L’Arche is a great way to meet likeminded people. At the same time, friendships can’t be forced. We don’t always naturally click with everyone even if we live in the same house. There should be no pressure to assume otherwise.
- If you’re a Christian, I would recommend getting to know some of the older members of the community. Although L’Arche is founded on Christian princples and assistants are pretty good at upholding those values, L’Arche also attracts many very young assistants who are not yet at the stage where they can fully appreciate and live into this. Getting to know some of the long term assistants has been invaluable to me in this regard – they have such wisdom and are rooted in the love and care of the community. It is their life, not just a gap year. I’m not saying it’s wrong to come to L’Arche just to check it out (that’s what I did at first). But a commitment to L’Arche takes maturity to understand and must go deeper than just having fun.
- Invite your friends over. Often L’Arche is impossible to explain to someone who has never visited a house. Sharing a meal together moves us from idea into reality. In fact, often my friends are surprised at how different L’Arche truly is from their original thoughts on the place or what it’s like to spend time with people who have a learning disability. This experience opens windows and can be life-changing for many. Also if you are considering being an assistant at some point, I definitely think it’s worth it to visit a L’Arche beforehand to get a feel for the philosophy and daily life. There may not always be a L’Arche close by, or the nearest L’Arche may not be the one you end up applying to or being an assistant at, but if it’s at all possible, I recommend you try it out for an evening before committing long term.
Those are just my thoughts on the topic and I do realize that you may be part of another intentional community with different rhythms. Yet I have discovered that the most important thing to sustain us in our calling and journey together is a trust that this is the life Christ has called us to live. After this, the second and third necessary ingredients for long term commitment are good self-awareness and self-care. When we have these three things, and when we practice what is good for us, we move from eating fast food to eating good food for the soul. I hope these points nourish and encourage you.
Have you been part of an intentional community before? Are you part of one now? Let us know some of what has kept you going. We’d love to hear from you!