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Everyday Ignatian is a series written by guest contributors, chronicling their daily lives and experiences through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.

By Catherine Sullivan

In the middle of my daughter’s seventh birthday party, somewhere in between collecting trash and passing out sunscreen, I paused on my deck to survey my backyard. First, kids, and lots of them, from age eight months to eight years. The big kids ran in bursts of color, their little siblings toddling and squatting among the chaos. Then, adults, and lots of them too, from school and church and our neighborhood and our family. Sitting in the shade, chatting, eating, laughing.

From my vantage point high on the deck, our community looked like ocean waves: beautiful and loud, always moving, always changing, and yet still cohesive and whole. So many of these folks only knew one or two other families in attendance, and yet this group of mostly strangers had decided to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon with us. I was startled by the truth, beauty and goodness of it all: These people had not just come for my daughter — they had come to celebrate with me and with each other.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have felt surprised as I stood on my deck, but I did. Isn’t this exactly what a community is supposed to do? To come together in good times (and in bad), to celebrate, support and uplift one another?

As I reflect on that moment, I realize that my surprise came from seeing this group of people as a community for the first time.

That’s because for most of my life, I’ve sought a community with clearly defined edges. I’ve wanted a roster of specific people who all know and love each other equally, like the cast of a sitcom that doesn’t change season after season. I’ve desired the comfort and security that comes from a community that is stable and solid.

But in the chaos of that birthday party, God showed me community doesn’t have to look like that. It can be flexible and a bit more abstract. It can change along with the seasons of my life and still provide comfort and security. The most important thing I think, the thing I felt so deeply on my deck, is that the members of the community are for and with others.

The Jesuit maxim “men and women for and with others,” originated from a speech by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, in 1973 about the purpose of Jesuit education. As an alum of a Jesuit university, I have most often associated this phrase with service to and solidarity with the poor and marginalized. It is a call to action to use the gift of my education not for my own gain but for a greater purpose, the bringing about of God’s kingdom on earth.

With this mindset, I never imagined myself to be on the receiving end of “men and women for and with others,” because I am aware of my many privileges and don’t consider myself to be marginalized. And yet, I felt deeply that the people at the party were for our family and celebrating with us that day. This was possible because, at its core, being “for and with others” involves reaching out beyond one’s comfort zone to be fully present to another. As I moved through the party, offering drinks and making introductions, I saw this play out time and time again.

Our community was not just there to be for and with us, my immediate family, but to be for and with each other. Our babysitter giving my sister tips about caring for my niece’s curly hair. Quieter kids working sweetly side by side on a craft. Two dads meeting for the first time and hitting it off because of their similar work and similar values.

As I stood on my deck, I watched my community grow bigger and stronger before my eyes as my loved ones reached out to each other first as strangers and then as friends, striking up conversations and sharing pieces of themselves throughout the afternoon.

Today, I find myself thanking God for giving me a community that is not rigid like a wagon wheel but flexible like a web, with lots of room to grow. Who else might God connect to us in the future? How else might I widen the web? In what new or unexpected ways might I be called to return the favor and be for and with the people God brings into my life? The possibilities make me feel excited and hopeful for the future — and that is worth celebrating.

Catherine Sullivan is a Catholic writer, reader and teacher. After earning a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, she spent nearly a decade teaching religion and English to middle and high school students. She now stays home with her three young daughters and writes a monthly newsletter on the Catholic imagination called Wonder & Awe. Come say hi and find more of her thoughts on books and faith on Instagram @catherinesullivanwrites