A banner stretched in front of a Washington, D.C., church reads "Come Help Us Build Community." At first glance, the summons seems pleasant enough, but a troubling acknowledgement underlies its appeal: Participation in our communities--from churches and neighborhoods to schools and civic organizations--has declined to the point that we must advertise to passersby to help fill the void.

Today even in small towns, our increasing isolation from one another has rendered the concept of community as unfamiliar as our next-door neighbor. Our single-minded pursuit of "I" has created "a culture of isolates who are going in and out of one breakdown, one addiction, one bout of depression after another," says Sister Joan Chittister, member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and author of many books, including "Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today."

Fortunately, community still thrives inside monasteries, and these religious collectives can model ways that can lead us to a better understanding of and appreciation for living with others. In the Benedictine tradition, for example, community is more than a means to the comfort and pleasure of companionship; it serves as a daily challenge to live into our true selves and provides the support to achieve that.

Community is essential to human development. No community means no growth.

"Community is the keystone of the Benedictine life," Sr. Chittister continues. "because we believe that we are one another's sanctification. It's the strangers that you live with who open you to yourself. I learn from my sisters, and we don't run away when life gets tough. We work on our various virtues and vices together, and we are carried by one another. I am also a trained social psychologist, and I know that community is essential to human development. No community means no growth."

Ron and Jody Berges are oblates at St. Andrews Abbey in California. Although they do not live at a monastery, they regularly come together with other oblates to form what Ron calls "a monastery without walls."

"The first thing that Jesus did once he started his ministry was to surround himself with community. We do the same thing," he explains. "We come together to discuss the practical ways of living out the Rule while living in the world, such as how to make time for daily prayer and Scripture reflection, or how to order our lives in a crazy, rat-race world."

Ron grew up in a parish so large he felt lost in it. Today, he finds that more intimate groups allow him "to know and be known." "The smaller groups help hold me accountable," he adds. "If I went off the deep end some way--drinking a fifth of Scotch or talking crazy--I would hope that my brothers at the abbey or my oblate brothers and sisters would pull me aside and say, 'I see some changes in your life, and we need to talk about this.'"

Our longing for community is felt throughout the culture, not just in Christian circles. Twelve-step support groups have flourished over the past two decades as people seek the support of others to help save and reshape their troubled lives. Simplicity study circles also are increasing in popularity.

For others, cyberspace holds promise for building stronger community. Norvene Vest, author of several books on Benedictine spirituality and an oblate of a "Without community, we tend to turn to other things, such as working too much or shopping and television," says Cecile Andrews, author of "The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life." "I spend a lot of my time setting up simplicity study circles because we need people to talk to about things that really matter to us."

Benedictine abbey in Valyermo, Calif., sees the internet as a bridge across time and space. "I have probably meditated as deeply and as frequently on community as anything else, but I have trouble finding it," she says. "Perhaps that's because in our culture we are so frightened about losing ourselves.... Yet I also know how much I need community, and I am encouraged by the internet as a means of connecting across great distances with people with shared beliefs and interests."

Closer to home, even our most everyday activities offer opportunities to connect with one another. "When we're at the supermarket, with friends, at work, or at church or synagogue, those are all little communities that we operate in all the time," says Paul Wilkes, who wrote "Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life" after a year of regular visits to Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, S. C. "We need to be aware of the effects these communities have on us and we have on them."

In other words, we need to become more conscious of our role within our communities at the same time we pursue our personal development. The two are not mutually exclusive. While community can enhance and support our individuality, it relies on lively, fulfilled individuals in order to thrive.

"We need one another," Sr. Chittister says. "Like that great old story about someone asking the monastic what they do in the monastery, and he answers, 'We fall and we get up, we fall and we get up, and we fall and we get up again.' We cannot do it alone."

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