Building a lasting, exciting community of spiritual leaders has been one of the greatest struggles I have known. How do we encourage it, build it, grow it? What should be its purpose? In the age of self-sufficiency is community still in demand? And if so why is it in such low supply? Books have been written on all these issues.

Are community and contemplation contradictory? Can you contemplate while living with others, with all their messy-ness and issues? Their things that don’t have a proper place, all their unwashed dishes that clog the sink for days, the unwanted music that comes from their room, the friends that only come over for a coffee but promote long, noisy conversation till early morning hours. Does contemplation cancel community? Make it an obstacle, even an impossibility? Do individuals or do communities change the world? These and other questions have bothered me as I continue to search for a meaningful community and be a person of deep contemplation.

Community is more than just people sharing things together, whether interests, culture or the space they occupy. It comes from the Latin words cum, “with/together” and munus, “gift.” It means ‘a gift together’ or ‘with a gift.’ Community comes as a gift and it is a gift we share with others. It is not supposed to hinder contemplation but aid it.

Contemplation is thoughtful observation, full of deep consideration, reflection, purpose or intention, prospect or expectation.

So what does it mean to live in contemplative community? To me it means a life shared with others, but on a deep level. It means purposeful and intentional conversations, and a gentle awareness of the needs of others. It means to be aware of God’s hidden presence just as much as we are aware of the visible realities of life. It is in community that we share the treasures we have found in contemplation.

It is as though, through contemplation, we see the presence of God working itself out in the ordinary events of everyday life, in the midst of community. It means having a healthy distance as we view the things that come our way from the inner sanctuary of peace.

Tomas Merton said “even the active vocation is sterile without an interior life, and a deep interior life at that.” So can we say also that even the most active and exciting community does not bear fruit if its individual members do not maintain, alongside the community and togetherness, silence and solitude?

I realized that all my efforts to build communities should be put to building up contemplative, focused, deep people who are not afraid to spend time alone with their own soul and with God – and then, only then, be part of a vibrant community. For most of us we are either drawn to community or contemplation. The secret is to keep these two in balance.

Joanna has a passion for mentoring female leaders to become mentors for a new generation. She is a founding director of One Rock, a board member of Renovare UK, and an associate lecturer at Oasis College. In her spare time she loves taking photographs of nature, and playing with her cat Chester.