Dean of Students
A recent interview on NPR highlighted the universal human need for smaller, intimate community that involves regular “face-to-face contact.” Psychologist Susan Pinker’s new book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter extols the benefits of living “in a community of about 150 people.”
In a world of megachurches, megastadiums, megamalls, and megauniversities, it is difficult for some of us to imagine what it would mean to live in a community no larger than 150 people. In my own ecclesial life here in the “Bible belt,” I have never even been a member of a church or parish that small. While the ideal size for a parish is a fascinating question—and my hunch is that in many ways smaller is better—there is more to the village effect than mere size of one’s community.
“You can create your own village effect. Get out of your car to talk to your neighbors. Talk in person to your colleagues instead of shooting them emails. Build in face-to-face contact with friends the way you would exercise. Look for schools where the emphasis is on teacher-student interaction, not on high-tech bells and whistles.” Susan Pinker
I don’t think I am ready to commit to saying that we must shrink our parishes. There are many benefits of small, but there are also many benefits of large. So for those of us in large cities and large parishes, how can we create our own village effect? One place to start is by not creating our own village effect at all, but by participating in one created long before we came along: the Daily Office.
Pinker reminds us that there is a great difference between the types of relationships we have online, and those which “develop naturally through frequent in-person contact.” Villages have an advantage over Urban centers because this frequent in-person contact happens all the time. Part of our problem is that we simply do not see each other in-person often enough.
The Daily Office does not directly solve this problem; it does not somehow force us into more frequent contact with one another. But it certainly provides an avenue for such contact.
The Office is written in a way that assumes it will be read in community. There is an officiant, there is a reader, and there are the people. There are Versicles and Responses. We are asked at times to listen while others speak, and we are asked at other times to speak in unison. The Office can certainly be prayed alone, but it was meant to be prayed together.
I went on a backpacking trip last Spring with a group of friends, mostly from our small group. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had a growing desire to more regularly pray the Office. I brought my Book of Common Prayer, figuring I would have few excuses for not praying while I spent a few days in the middle of Big Bend National Park. During our long hikes and evenings at the campsite, my recent move into the Anglican tradition came up in conversations with a few of my Baptist and Presbyterian friends. Somewhere along the way I mentioned Compline (the final prayer service of the day to be prayed before one falls asleep), and suggested that we try it together that night.
With no campfire (thanks to a burn-ban), and fading headlamp batteries, four of us sat side-by-side passing one Prayer Book back and forth as we tried to figure out what to say next. I imagine this would have been a hilarious scene to watch, as we dropped the book multiple times and often had to practice our responses a time or two before we said them “for real.” Though Compline that night was awkward at times, and impractical at others, I could not help but get the sense that we were not the only group of guys who have tried to pray together in limited light in the middle of the wilderness. Though we could barely see each others faces, this memory sticks in my mind as one of the more intimate face-to-face contacts I have shared with that group of men. Since the trip I have enjoyed hearing how the prayers we shared that evening were being shared by each of us with our own friends, families, and students.
We could have each gone our own separate ways to have individual “quiet times” that evening. But we would have missed out on an opportunity to participate in the village effect—not only with each other—but also with the countless women and men throughout history that have prayed the same prayers before they went off to bed. I may never be part of an intimate community limited to only 150 people. But praying the Office, especially when prayed face-to-face with others, is gradually serving as a catalyst to my own enjoyment of the effect of living in such an intimate community.