Perfect love for the imperfect: about community life

Perfectae Caritatis, perfect love, is the name of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the renewal of Religious Life. The Fundamental Constitution at the beginning of the Constitutions for the Nuns of the Order of Preachers (LCM) echos the words of this document, saying:

By their way of life both the friars and the nuns press onward to that perfect love of God and neighbour which is effective in caring for and obtaining the salvation of all people. As the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of all, offered himself completely for our salvation, they consider themselves to be truly his members primarily when they are spending themselves totally for souls. (LCM § 1,2)

Monastic life, as any Christian life, is basically and essentially about love. True love. Perfect love.
The monasteries, as all other Christian communities and families, should be little cells of charity, where this love is received from God, nourished and brought to the world.

But the whole community, united as it is in the love of the Lord, should become a radiant center of charity to all. (LCM § 14)

Contemplative Community

In a fallen and imperfect world, a life in perfect love requires openness to the grace of God which works in us conversion and reconciliation, the will to give, ask for and receive forgiveness. In a community of sisters with different backgrounds, from different cultures, societies, generations and places, each with her own unique personality, respect is required, so that each one can be allowed to be her true self. At the same time, we must be attentive to maintain unity, and see our differences as riches to be shared between us. Then we can become a sign and a seed of communion, as we are called to be (cf. LCM § 2,2).

In order that each monastery be a center of true communion, let all accept and cherish one another as members of the same body, differing in native qualities and functions but equal in the common bond of charity and profession. (LCM § 4,2)

Love is not simply an emotional rush or pretending that the beloved is perfect. None of us are. In the first, infatuated stage of a relationship – be it a romantic relationship, a friendship, a community, a parish, a church – we have a tendency to idealize and make ourselves believe that all about the other is pure perfection. It is when we realize that this is not the case, and still find ourselves capable of loving what is imperfect, those who are imperfect, it is then we grow into mature love, the kind of love we are called to love with, God’s own love – God, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Mt. 5:45). God does not love us because we are loveable – we are loveable because God loves us!
            To develop a contemplative way of seeing is learning to see as God sees. It means learning to see the world through the eyes of God and see our neighbours as God sees them – God who so loved them that he sent his only Son into the world, and through the self-gift of the Son revealed his love among us (cf. 1 John 4:9 – 10). This contemplative seeing does not let another’s faults or imperfections overshadow and get in the way of his or her beauty, dignity, positive sides, gifts and advantages.

            The contemplative gaze is the gaze of Jesus, looking at the crowds and being moved to compassion. After the example of Jesus, we find it in Saint Dominic, as he is moved to pity with the famished people of Palencia and sells his books to help them, or in his ardent desire for the salvation of all. Saint Catherine of Siena was given to participate in it, and was so captured by the beauty of the souls of people around her that she told Raymond of Capua that if he could only see what she saw, she was convinced he would give his life a hundred times over to save even just one of these souls. Montesinos and Las Casas, two other Dominicans, saw the dignity of the native inhabitants in South America in a way most at their time did not, and protested vehemently against the way these were treated.

Love and Truth

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22 – 23)

The encounter with the truth of God’s word reveals to me the imperfections existing also in me, and if I am willing, I am brought to understand that I cannot and should not judge anyone. I am liberated to join the community of those who understand that love is not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us (1 John 4:10), and that God is the source from which I must draw love, both for myself and for others. If I come to understand that God loves me in my imperfection, I also understand that I am called to love others in their imperfection. If I learn to love the imperfect, I can also learn to love myself in the appropriate way, with the love of God, imperfect as I am.

The Temple of the Spirit

 Like the Church of the Apostles, our communion is founded, built up and made firm in the one Spirit. (LCM § 3,1)

God is the one who calls us together to live in community. It is the common quest for God that unites us. And the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rm. 5:5). God himself creates unity, by the Spirit, God who is in his holy dwelling and who makes a home for the lonely (Ps. 68 (67):5 – 6). And the dwelling of God is not just the church or the monastery itself, it is each one of us:

Let all of you then live together in oneness of mind and heart, mutually honouring God in yourselves, whose temples you have become. (The Rule of St. Augustine 9)

We can pray, then, every time we see a sister:
Because you are the house of the Lord, I will seek your good. (Cf. Ps. 122 (121):9)

This is the love we are called to radiate to others and to love others with, not just our sisters in community, but all people. The monastery is not supposed to be a cosy club closed in on itself, where we love one another but keep this love for ourselves within the monastery walls. The whole of humanity is to be embraced by it, so that the joy of all may be complete.

Jesus said to his disciples:
"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved youRemain in my love
If you keep my commandments
you will remain in my love
just as I have kept my Fathers commandments 
and remain in his love
I have told you this 
so that my own joy may be in you 
and your joy be complete
This is my commandment
love one another as I love you." 
(John 15:9 – 12)