I write this sitting at my desk at the General Offices. In five days, BVS Unit 295 will commence with a meal shared among 33 individuals from everywhere in the US and even Europe. If there's one skill I've gained in this routine, it's the ability to ignore the natural tendency to panic the heck out while waiting for the coming storm. Orientation is a beautiful whirlwind, a cacophony of faiths, deeply personal beliefs forced to reconcile, lay down their arms and pick up frying pans, abandon the typical urge to prove oneself right by convincing others of your views and learn to accept the role of a pillar: We are all vital to the life of our community, but not because of who we think we are. We are vital because of who we are when we don't want to be around each other anymore. I think you truly discover who you are when you don't want to be here anymore. For me, that means when I become weary of the crowd, when I want to be alone.
Orientation is a transcendental experience for someone who has never relied on anyone else since their mother cared for their every need. A group of independent souls can be a sad-looking thing. Everyone has their own wants, their own perceived needs, and their own cultural norms. It would be easy enough to hold a conference or a seminar series for orientation. We could have a cook prepare all of the meals, and everyone would have more free time to relax, contemplate their service, and get to know each other.
But what exactly does it mean to get to know someone? Does it come from talking about music? Movies? Celebrities? Can you know someone by sharing funny youtube videos? What else do we do with our friends? These are all fine ways to relax during some free time. Left to our own devices, I believe we would follow the path of least resistance - find the people we are most comfortable with and shoot the breeze or play a game. Orientation is hard because it doesn't let you glide by doing the same things you've always done. The strangest contrast is preparing food alongside two people you just met and eating with a handful of complete strangers. Sometimes you answer deeply personal questions in front of these people - whether the question is "What is God to you?" or "How hard is it to sit still and contemplate the divine for five minutes in silence when the lights are buzzing loudly and you really have to fart?"
The strange miracle of orientation, though, is that these complete strangers become family. I've made friends in those three weeks that I could not have made in the 'real world.' Flying to your project, you feel like you've known these people for years. I used to think it was just because of how many sessions we put in the schedule - being around people twelve hours a day is uncommon. Those sessions are a shared experience, but I've shared years with classmates without feeling compelled to call them brothers and sisters. The miracle happens in the dirty work - not in discussing pop stars, but in doing dishes together. It's what happens when you have to be around people in your normally private moments - your morning prayers, your afternoon naps, your emotional trials and your frustrations. There is something of God present when you share these minutes with someone else.
You could spend your whole life serving the homeless in the shelter downtown. You could serve them lunch every day for years, sort clothing to give them, and hand them bags with every toiletry they need, and still not see them the way you see someone you eat lunch with. I dare you to buy two sandwiches in Chicago, hand one to the first homeless man you see, and eat with him, standing up, on a street corner. Do you see the thousands of people walking past you? Or do you see the man? The only words I have are: Jesus Christ, people! We spend so much time talking about what people need, how we can "fix" things - I know I do. If I've learned one thing from orientation, it is the value - the blessed ordinance of being.
When I first joined BVS three years ago, I survived people because I lived in a trailer down the street from the weekly volunteers I worked with. As long as I could retreat to my private space, I had the solace I needed to face people, whether they were cheerful or disgruntled. Peace was only a locked door away.
Today, I live in a house with four other people, with whom I share two and a half meals each day. I work with them, share weekly devotions and a meeting with them, and unwind in the evenings with them. We often have group outings to Chicago, Wisconsin, or, sometimes, Target. For not having television, we watch a respectable number of shows together. We have also been known to play tennis. These are probably not exciting news bits for any of our friends. It's true that we spend more time together than would have been comfortable years ago. But I have to say that the most interesting parts of life in the BVS house have been the commutes to work and house meetings.
In the morning, I am not awake. When my body rises at 7:15 am, I am closer to zombie than human. I want nothing of the world but to return under my sweet blanket, and anyone else can shove off, thank you. But I get up, because I have a job to do, and God help me if I don't do it. Any of my housemates from the last two years will gladly tell the story of that one time when I actually was perky - when I offered Clara a glass of orange juice, or when I was the first one awake and in the kitchen this Monday. Normally, though, I'm disgruntled. I hate the world because it exists and it's bright. This is something I'd rather keep private, because I know that soon enough I'll wake up and be capable of polite interaction with others. Driving to work, though, feels like being shaken awake, thrown into a hamster cage with four others and having a child carry it around a room excitedly pretending to be an astronaut or something. What I mean to say is that we don't have a choice, this is life for us. It takes a week, at most, to realize that you can't survive by falling back asleep on the drive because the roads suck! So, here you are, uncomfortable, and unable to return to the comfortable life you knew before. You can a) quit or b) get over yourself. Mornings still aren't 'fun' by any means, but we know how to get by: how to prepare lunch together speaking only in grunts, when to change the radio station, when you've been asked to drive ,without words, but simply by the fact that the keys are still on the table. These mornings aren't particularly memorable, but living them out together is just one more strange thing about living in the Elgin house that doesn't translate well to the outside world.
House meetings are fun because we all sit down and gripe at each other about everything that bothers us - whether that's the drippy faucet that we want fixed, or how years of long-haired volunteers have clogged the shower drains like a McDonald's addict's arteries, or how someone drove to Target without conferring with the group first. Some people say don't sweat the small stuff, some people say focus on the big picture. But the truth is, when you spend so much time together, the small stuff becomes big stuff.
These things become huge when they happen consistently, and I think their weight is magnified by the nature of the community. Your patience is slowly worn away like a rock in a stream, smoothed bit by bit. It will survive a rainy season, but eons of a current will polish it until there is nothing left. With no power to deal with our frustrations, we lash out and hurt each other, distancing the people that are closest to us.
We can't escape each other, so we can't bottle up our discontent for another time. The only "another time" we have is the end of our year together, and that's a long time away! That's why we felt so refreshed after Christmas break last year- because we had some time apart to let out the frustration and realize that, aside from the fact that we hated each other sometimes, we actually liked each other. Just like being forced to get to know each other at orientation, living through the crises of community life can form bonds that are not easily broken.
Crisis creates change, it opens the door for us to consider how we ought to act - and if we actually do, we can change our character. When things get stressful at home, I can shut off, hole myself up, and drown everything out in music and books. At orientation, you have to actually solve the crisis. It isn't fun, no one wants to do it, and you might hate each other while you work it out. But afterwards, when you are only left with the memory of how unpleasant it was, the shared experience creates a bond that is stronger than any immature disaffection. This is where true friendship is made - by sweating through the struggle and suffering together.
In community life, you can't solve all of the small problems - you will never "fix" your housemates so that everyone becomes best friends. We aren't friends, we are family; you don't get to choose your family, but you can choose how to treat them. Instead of retreating to my room to let the storm pass over, I want to say I can weather it. I have to be able to ignore my ego and the feeling of wrong that bubbles up whenever my stupid pride is hurt, I have to forgive my family as much as they forgive my shortcomings.
I've seen the Henry Nouwen video enough to know: "Being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind, and being together is more important than being alone."