The Common Life

When I was barely twenty-one, I spent a brief and difficult period as a postulant in a Carmelite monastery. It didn’t take me long to discover that I lacked a monastic vocation. No one who has felt the throttling sensation of the walls closing in will ever forget it.

In the wake of that painful experience, I moved on to graduate school and a different kind of common life: sharing a narrow, tumbledown Washington, D.C., row house with six other young women. The house was located on an extraordinary street. Tucked away in the Brookland neighborhood, Perry Place was home to some of Washington’s few remaining Italian immigrants.

They were a tightly-knit community, all from the same small region of Italy. As much as they could, they had turned their little block into something redolent of the Old World: the front yards overflowed with flowers, alongside pots of oregano and cement birdbaths. Elderly residents would sit on their front porches on summer evenings, enjoying the gardens and exchanging neighborhood gossip.

The house we lived in had no garden and was in terrible condition, but we loved it anyway. We arranged hand-me-down patio furniture on the front porch, where we’d sit on warm evenings with glasses of wine and plates of fresh tomatoes, talking late into the night about whatever occurred to us. La dolce vita. We lived packed into the house like sardines: two to a bedroom, except for a single room that was little more than a closet. We were adult women still sleeping in bunk beds, the five of us on the second floor sharing one bathroom, but in return for putting up with the close quarters we enjoyed bargain-basement rent—hard to come by in the nation’s capital.

We were all young and Catholic, but there the similarities ended: the group included a fifth-grade teacher, an environmental consultant, a nurse, a case manager for pharmaceutical research, two graduate students (one in psychology, the other in philosophy), and an undergraduate. Personal habits ranged as widely as occupations. Some were messy, some fastidious; some liked deep conversation over breakfast while others were horrified by it at any time of day; half had serious romantic relationships, half didn’t.

All of us, however, shared a keen curiosity about the way other people thought. Each of us had her own way of doing things, but we were fascinated by the alternatives. It was a lucky coincidence of temperament. I can remember one night when we stayed up till three in the morning just talking about how the kitchen looked to each of us. Whenever the practical and well-organized case manager entered the kitchen, she noticed every item out of place, every stain on the front of the oven. I had been going in and out of the kitchen for weeks without noticing that there were stains on the oven.

The conversation reminded me of something my nonagenarian Carmelite novice mistress had said to us almost every day. The cardinal rule of keeping love alive in a community, she told us, was never to make judgments or assumptions about other people’s actions. As Thérèse of Lisieux put it, what looks like a fault to you might actually be an act of heroic virtue, because, well, people really are that different.

Besides our shared curiosity, everyone in the house also had to share a willingness to embrace poverty. It was not an explicit or chosen rule, but a simple necessity imposed by the location and condition of the house. Still, it had an effect not unlike the monastic vow of poverty: it encouraged us to value each other more than our things or our personal space.

The only explicit rule I can remember was that no one could ever leave an unsigned note. If you had something to say, you had to be willing to sign your name under it. That one small rule worked marvels in promoting clear and direct communication. Mutual understanding, the flexibility inspired by poverty, and forthright communication—those were the rules that held our informal community together and filled it with the joy of friendship.

While I was in the monastery, I read a lot about the common life. In the bohemian community of the row house, free of the oppressive feeling that I was living a life to which I wasn’t called, I finally began to learn what it meant. We had our unpleasant moments, of course: the occasional fights and frictions that are unavoidable in close quarters. But during those leisurely summer nights on the front porch, we caught a glimpse of what all the rules and regulations of community life aim at: the harmony of lives shared in love.

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 

Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.

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