So a few things have changed in the last two months. Most notably, I accepted an offer to become chaplain for one year at the University of Indianapolis. Since this is only a one year position I am trying to learn as much as I can in a short period of time.
Here is what I have learned so far:
College life is about as close to the monastic life that most of us will ever be. One student that I met this week is having a problem sleeping because of a problem with her roommate. She went three days without sleeping. When I met this student, a young woman of no more than 19, she shared how she really liked her roommate. She said this woman was quite nice and knew about the problem. But she still had not been able to sleep. Amazingly, she had not one bad word to say about her roommate even after a very difficult first week at college.
Another student had to endure the pain of broken relationship in the opening days after arriving on campus for the year. Though she admitted that it had been a very difficult week, she couldn’t help but talk about how supportive her friends had been and how much they loved her.
And then there was a group of young women, mostly from small rural towns where they had little experience with people different than them, who were seriously distraught because an international student was eating alone as he had done every day that week. They said one day he was willing to join them, but on the whole he had been unresponsive to their offers. They didn’t let their feelings be hurt. They devised ways so that he would accept their offer in the future so that he wouldn’t be alone anymore.
Most of our lives we have little reason to step outside of our needs and the needs of our immediate family. We don’t have to encounter people in all of the ugliness of their life and call them friend. Living together in physical community, as these students are doing, causes you to engage people in whole new ways. I dare say that this young woman who responded with such maturity to the roommate who had caused her such frustration will be far better prepared for the challenges of a young marriage than most are. Covenanting to live together, whether for a lifetime with someone you love or for a year with a complete stranger in a single room, causes you to be willing to give up something of yourself. Selfishness cannot have its reign in that place.
This is really what monastic life was intended to do. The early church determined that the best way to become a disciple of Jesus Christ was in covenant community. For some that meant marriage. But the early monks became very suspicious of marriage. On the other hand, they knew that simply going out in the desert without human contact (which some did) lacked accountability. So they began to cloister together and submit themselves to the more mature members of the community. And working together to prepare meals, do work, and worship God meant that they had to encounter whatever pride and selfishness that was left in the other. I think that in some sense these undergraduates have cloistered together for a similar kind of life, at least the ones that take their Christian discipleship seriously have.
Anyone who has married knows that much of the early days and years of marriage are about discerning what is the best brand of toothpaste and who’s bank is really the better one to keep the checking account. These answers are never completely resolved. But one does learn how to give up their own desires for the sake of the one they have covenanted to live with. This is part of what true community is about.
It isn’t all negative of course, which is why we all do it so willingly. There is great joy in friendship, especially when we see that our friends are willing to be there for us in the most difficult of times. When a friend holds your hand as you grieve loss or goes out of their way to make sure that you aren’t alone on THAT night (you know which one I am talking about!), something changes about those difficult times. Somehow they become holy too. We usually don’t see them as holy in the moment. Looking back years later we begin to see that those were the days when we really became Christian disciples. We also can look back on those days and realize that we never knew closer companionship and never took so much joy in it.
Those are the kinds of things I have seen in just one week of watching college students learn to live together. Lifelong friendships have formed in just 10 days or so. They don’t know they are lifelong, of course, but they are.
I don”t want to overstate what I am saying here.
Many of the relationships on a college campus are superficial and destructive. Not every undergraduate is interested in living like St. Benedict.
But a few of them are. They are serious about becoming disciples of Jesus. And I have the pleasure of learning from them.
“May this be only the beginning, Lord.”