Last Monday night, the Albemarle Chorale started up its weekly practices again. There had been a break for about four or five weeks after the Christmas concerts, but now work starts up again for the Spring: Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven are on the program, and the bright melodies, baroque and romantic, already echo with the rustle of spring leaves.
I don’t go just for the music, but for communitas. I don’t use the word “community,” because of its potential for confusion with the TV comedy of the same name (and any college study group that includes Chevy Chase). Communitas is a Latin word that points to the “spirit” of community. It is a “togetherness of shared experience” that is not formally defined, as is a business or a political party.
Communitas has to do with life, beauty, hope, and peace. “Function” or business (and Robert’s Rules of Order) is secondary, if present at all.
So at the Chorale rehearsal, we checked in on each other’s Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. We caught up on various medical and health reports, and the activities of children and grandchildren. We signed a get well card for one of our own who is recuperating from an auto accident: and she was truly missed, being the bright and cheering personality that she brings as a gift every Monday evening.
We assiduously avoided politics, as we generally do not know where each other stands on divisive politicians. Singing in the Chorale is palliative in a season of so much bad news. It is more than intriguing that while we avoid politics, we talk about church and religion comfortably, even though we stretch across a wide continuum of affiliations and non-affiliations. These days, that is probably a good discipline: religion yes, partisan politics no.
The Chorale is composed (get it?) of folks from around the Sound, Edenton and Elizabeth City, Chowan and Perquimans Counties. It is only one example of the “communitas” spirit that exists in this region, a spirit that is alive and well. There are gardening clubs, trivia gatherings, historic associations, fraternal orders, and charity organizations galore, let alone the coffeeshops and taprooms, and even an outside courtyard at the Edenton Bay Trading Co. (where, last time I was there, Malcom was spinning LP’s of the indomitable Linda Ronstadt).
None of these is just window dressing, or props for Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Communitas is not only important as an attractive feature of our region: it is also necessary, like heartbeat, a breath of air, and consciousness for the soul. Communitas is writ large all through human nature. Humanity cannot survive without it. It is like water and bread, sunrise, wind, and rain.
A human being cannot exist on her or his own. God is not one self, neither is the humanity (and all creation) that He creates.
Of course, this should be simple stuff, so very basic that it should be impossible to think otherwise. But modernity (starting after the high-water mark of Christendom in the 1300’s) threw a wrench in this basic common sense. The reform movements of early modernity tried to “level things out” into a regularized, normalized cosmic playing field. Where “communitas” used to be a messy organic thriving ecosystem of different “speeds” of life, modernity legislated only a “one speed” life, where people were reduced to individuals, like little packets of energy and skin.
In his magisterial volume (it’s as big as a doorstop and making my shelf sag), “A Secular Age,” Charles Taylor writes that in reformed modernity, “There is no more separate sphere of the ‘spiritual’ where one may go to pursue a life of prayer outside the saeculum; and nor is there the other alternative … which Carnival represented. There is just this one relentless order of right thought and action, which must occupy all social and personal space.”
That is exactly why, in 17th century England, Oliver Cromwell’s people outlawed Christmas and Easter and all festivals, Shakespeare’s theater, and revelry in general. They also ransacked beautiful (and eccentric) religious retreats like Nicholas Ferrar’s “Little Gidding,” which is poignantly memorialized in T S Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Cromwell, being the proverbial last one in the crowd to ever get the joke, could not tolerate different “speeds,” different people, different ideas, different times and seasons (a time to laugh and dance, a time to weep and mourn). He wanted neatness and regularity at all cost.
Cromwell wanted a sterile laboratory, which merry ol’ England (and humanity) most assuredly was not.
But modernity ended up getting its way. Charles Heying writes that as a result of flattening human life down to one speed, many things were lost:
“Lost to moderns are the manifest answers to existential questions provided by embeddedness with kin, culture, and place. Lost are pre-modern certainties of everyday rituals and known obligations. Lost is the intrinsic value of work, the sacredness of object and place, the natural rhythms of day and season. Lost also are the intimacy and trust generated from repeated face-to-face interactions in a society in which relationships are dense and multi-stranded.”
But what was lost centuries ago can be recovered in the here and now. We build community in both the sacred and the profane — that is, in prayer and in “carnival” (public music, theater, celebration), in religious blessings and festivals. We can match our lifestyle to the natural progressions of the seasons, the agricultural cycle and the Church year. Last spring, Fr Malone and I blessed boats off the dock in Edenton Bay — but this is only one of many, many blessings that the Church can do. There are blessings for fields and barns, cars and ambulances, beehives, vines, and livestock. I even have an ancient agrarian prayer for the removal of rats from a water well.
We need to make our “public square” a place where all are welcomed and treasured. In our towns and countrysides, here in the Carolina lowlands, we need to nurture, like a gardener (like Miss Frances) life, beauty, hope, and peace.
We need communitas.
We need it for hope, because there is no hope without it.