We need stability to establish “crockpot communities of faith” that allow people to slowly and steadily, grow together. The stability that St. Benedict, the “father” of monasticism, brought to the early monastic movement is what disciples of Jesus always need. The structure and order of the Roman Empire were in steep decline, paving the way for the stability of The Rule of St. Benedict. The Empire was under siege from the tribes of the north as well as decaying from within economically and morally. The family unit in the Empire was in utter decline, destabilizing the very foundational unit of society. Galbraith writes in The Benedictine Rule of Leadership,
“But in the declining years of the Romans Empire, extended families began to act more like petty gangs pursuing economic rewards than caring social units. By Benedict’s time, the family leader had the feel of a boss or dictator, not a concerned and compassionate father. Institutional and political commitment no longer existed…”
Benedictine monks took a vow much like a wedding vow to stay with the monastic community their entire life unless excommunicated. This vow created much needed communal stability as it created family-style units during unstable times. It is within the stable community that authentic spiritual formation can occur. The lack of communal stability in the modern church is one of the greatest detriments to people becoming true disciples of the Rabbi Jesus.
We are created for community and to be transformed in community because we are created in the Imago Dei (image of God). This truth, resurfacing in The Rule, traces back to Genesis, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). Human beings are, first and foremost, equal image bearers of God. The word “image” is the Hebrew word tselem and the Hebrew word for “likeness” (see v.26) is demut, both referring to something similar but not identical. Our principal identity is grounded and birthed not in our sexuality, vocation, education, physicality, or economic outlook, but in our essence. We are created as a reflection of the Creator God.
In the prior verse, “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness….’” (Genesis 1:26), the plurality of God, his triune nature, is revealed when the Scriptures use the words “us,” and “our” to refer to himself in making humanity. One begins to see how the Godhead operates together with each other, called Perichonesis. God who exists in the plurality of the Trinity created male and female together to best mirror his own nature. The specific aspects of the Imago Dei in humanity are the “communicable” attributes of God. Communicable attributes are the aspects of God that we share because we are created in the image of God. These attributes include, but are not limited to: Spirit, knowledge, wisdom, truthfulness, goodness, love, wrath, peace, freedom, beauty, peace, justice, holiness, and community.
As communal beings because of the Imago Dei, relational intimacy is what we need and ultimately desire. Intimacy is about closeness, deep familiarity, affection and healthy companionship. At the core, we are lonely and insecure beings in need of relationships. Intimacy is found, much like that in the Trinity, in the fact that we are created in the image of a God in relationship. Our relationship with God alone is not enough and our relationships with each other are not enough. We need an intimate relationship with God and with each other. We see this truth in the creation narrative, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Genesis 2:18). Adam existed in the perfection of creation before the fall, before sin broke everything. Adam had an intimate relationship with God unpolluted by sin, yet God recognized he needed another, someone like him. As God exists in the most stable communal context, and we are created in his image, so also are we communal beings birthed to experience the stability of community.
It is within community that we will experience spiritual growth, and true discipleship. Spiritual formation occurs when we remain in community, not when we run to the next church, next small group, next retreat, and next ministry that scratched personal preferences. Solitary life has its place but it will never accomplish holistic discipleship on its own. Dennis Okholm expresses this in Monk Habits for Everyday People, “If monks wanted to develop character traits like obedience, charity, and humility, it was obvious that those traits were best formed in the constant presence of other people…it’s difficult if not impossible-to obey someone, love others, and be humble when you are the only person around.” It is only when disciples embrace the consistency of stable community that their blemishes, sins, junk and unhealthy habits can be brought to the surface. It was difficult over the years to hide your true self in a Benedictine community that was committed to The Rule. The struggle of communal relationships is what we need to reveal our blemishes and to journey toward Christ-likeness. Michael Casey lucidly describes the pain of refusing the power of community, “Of course, one who refuses to acquiesce in the truth of others’ reactions becomes more deeply entrenched in bitterness and recrimination and further away from love and God”
A rabbi like Jesus would have a small group of disciples who would stay together for years. They would learn from the rabbi to be like the rabbi, but they would also learn and be challenged by their continual interaction with other disciples. In Jesus’ case, he gathered twelve disciples who spent three years together in a stable community. The formation of the original Apostles could not have emerged in a 12-week class or by sitting listening to the rabbi once a week for 30 minutes on a podcast. It was the daily interaction with the rabbi and each other that became a major catalyst for spiritual formation, equipping them for their future role as the leaders of the first century church. Discipleship happens in community and God has uniquely ordained the local church to be that intimate communal environment.