Crisis Magazine recently published an article addressing the common failure of Catholic men’s groups. I know exactly what the author is talking about— but it’s not just a problem with Catholic men’s groups. Despite the ways in which women may be more socially inclined, I have found that our “groups” often fail too. Single women get married. Married women have babies. Children grow up and need schooling. People move far away. At the end of the day, home and family have to come first, and so, inevitably, Catholic meet-up groups are going to take the back-burner.
So should they exist at all? Maybe not in the current format. But our inclination towards them is based off of a good desire. Many of us feel isolated from peers who share our values. Most of us can’t expect to share values with our actual neighbors or the colleagues in the workplace. And even when marriage and family life are great, we feel that there’s something inherently good and important about “brotherhood” and “sisterhood”. But brothers and sisters don’t form bonds by simply meeting for coffee once a month. Certainly, coffee once a month may strengthen bonds. But it is actually living life together that creates brotherhood and sisterhood. Brothers and sisters work together and they play together. And through that work and play, they grow in love.
One of the problems with our Catholic meet-up groups is that they don’t form naturally around work, play, and daily life. They are just extra. Now, people without families to care for or without other demanding vocations (or people who believe these kinds of groups to be an inherent part of their vocations) may have or make time for that kind of “extra”. But most of us, deep down, know that we don’t really need to go to Bible Study. Maybe we did when we were freshmen in college and it was the better option in lieu of going to a Friday night party. But now? With children to put to sleep and a tired spouse to spend time with? Bible Study is always going to be extra.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read the Bible and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t socialize with other people who share our values. But we have to stop trying to do it as an extra. We need a new model.
I suggest a model that’s actually quite old— the model of the village. In this model, friends are not the people you do the “extra” stuff with. They are the people who are a part of your daily life. In the village model, a woman didn’t need to go to a “mother’s morning out” in order to meet other mothers. She already knew other mothers. And there were enough natural reasons to get together with them. Friends and family naturally came during pregnancy, childbirth, and the inevitable household sicknesses and sufferings. Most women couldn’t just call up babysitters and nannies and maids when they needed help around the house. They called on mothers and sisters and friends. Similarly, men didn’t call the professionals when something went wrong in the house— they called their friends and neighbors to help out. Time spent together was out of necessity. And conversations and inspirations sprung up organically out of that time spent together. Women could share reflections on Bible passages while sewing and kneading bread. Men could “open up” to each other while tilling soil and slaughtering pigs. Basically, people didn’t need “extra” social events because normal peasant life was inherently social. People worked together. Families worked together. Men (generally) didn’t work with strangers with whom they shared absolutely no values, nor did they work with strangers who lived thousands of miles away. They worked with the very people they would otherwise want to form “men’s groups” with. And then, when they were done working, they played.
I know it wasn’t all idyllic, by any means. Plenty of people in times past were socially isolated and/or required to work alongside pagans and persecutors. But these were deviations from the norm. Nowadays, our norm is to be naturally isolated from those with whom we share the most important things— our faith and our families. We do the essentials— corporate work, school, grocery shopping, food preparation, etc.— by ourselves or with people we don’t know well or really care about on a deep level. And then we expect to form brotherhood and sisterhood when all that work is done. That’s never going to be a sustainable model!
So what’s the solution? We have to get back to needing each other the way the village peasants needed each other. And the only way to get back to needing each other is by creating needs. It sounds crazy, counter-intuitive, maybe even downright foolish— but it’s the only way. We recently took out our dishwasher, which also may sound crazy, counter-intuitive, and downright foolish. We did it for a number of reasons– practical and philosophical– but at the end of the day (and, usually, throughout the day) it means that everyone washes dishes now. And we wash dishes together. And we talk and we laugh and sometimes we get frustrated and sigh at the sight of dishes in the sink. But we get through it together and we grow together. By taking away the automation of the dishwasher, we created a need. And through that need we indirectly created a social activity, and through that social activity, we created a bond. The scary truth is, we aren’t that far away from a completely automated society. Alexa-type robots will get smarter and smarter and we might never need our friends’ physical help ever again. I don’t think any of us really want that. But we can’t just bemoan the theoretical future or the disappointing present. We have to actively turn back the hands of time and choose a different way of living. We have to choose to call friends and family when we need help. We have to choose to be those friends and family who offer to help. We have to show up. We have to be willing to let others show up. We have to invite people into our homes, and visit people in theirs. We have to stop relying on restaurants and coffee shops and internet portals and social media to facilitate Catholic brotherhood and sisterhood. We have to be willing to step out of work environments and school environments that are counter-productive to our whole philosophy of life. We have to be willing to take on work that requires the help of family and friends. We have to be willing to actually live alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, in daily life, not just at the end of the day.
In the original article on this topic, the writer mentions that he’s never really heard of any of these groups actually being successful. I know what he means, but I can think of two models that can work quite well— monasteries and convents. Why do these models often work well? Because monks and nuns have actively turned back the hands of time. They have chosen a fundamentally different kind of life. They have chosen to forgo and reject modern conveniences which destroy our natural need for our fellow man. Monks and nuns have to rely on each other, on a tangible, daily basis. And it is this vulnerability, this humility, this reliance, and this trust which forms the bonds that lead to love and make the space for those organic conversations we modernists can’t seem to fit into that crowded local coffee shop.