Faith Matters

Brian Wilson: The power of community

The power of community and human interaction is recognised by both faith and science, with face-to-face contact being a 'biological forcefield against disease and decline'. Dr Brian Wilson explores why communal bonds are so important in the Christian life

In an example of the 'communion' formed by the connection between believers, Pope Francis greets the faithful at the end of one of his weekly general audiences in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican this summer. Picture by AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca
Dr Brian Wilson

"I'M out there in the sea and it's just me and the water. It's then that I begin to think of how small I am in this huge world. Yet, it's when out surfing in Portrush, with only the wind and water for company, that I seem connected to something bigger."

My cousin had invited me round for dinner and I was intrigued by his marine experiences which drew him to reflection. He had grown up in a Catholic family but had stopped going to Mass as he got older, but becoming a father for the first time recently had changed his perspective.

We discussed several topics around life, faith and religion. On the religious front, one thing we agreed on was the unique power of faith to bring people together.

"Even today," he said, "with all of our gadgets, information and connectivity, in many ways it's a lonely world. I think the faith-based approach to community is one of its greatest strengths. It can unite people in ways which nothing else can."

A few weeks later I sat down to read a book by Pope Benedict XVI: Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church.

The book makes it clear from the beginning that Jesus wanted to bring people together: "Even if his preaching is always an appeal for personal conversion, in reality he continually aims to build the People of God whom he came to bring together, purify, and save. He truly came to unite the People of God."

This is in direct conflict to what Pope Benedict calls an "individualism of liberal theology in recent years" which has led to a slogan he refers to, "Jesus yes, Church no".

He notes that in some parts of the Bible it says that members of the early Church community appointed leaders in every Church; elsewhere it says it is the Spirit who has made them guardians of the flock.

Clearly, for the early Church, the action of the Spirit and the action of its community are deeply interwoven. The correct interpretation, therefore, is, "Jesus yes, Church community yes".

In recent years, researchers have realised the huge benefits of community to human health. It has been known for some time that in every part of the developed world, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men.

But it was recently discovered that there is one place in the world where men live to the same age as women: Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean. Here there are also six times as many centenarians as on the Italian mainland, less than 200 miles away.

Susan Pinker, a psychologist and author, set out to find why. It turned out that the answer lay in the power of community.

Pinker visited Villagrande, a town on the Italian island, and was struck by its tightly spaced houses, interwoven alleys and streets: "It meant that the villagers' lives constantly intersect. Like all ancient villages, Villagrande could not have survived without its structure, without its Cathedral, without its village square. Defence and social cohesion defined its design."

She noticed that people there are always surrounded, by extended family, by friends, by neighbours, the priest, the grocer. People are never left to live solitary lives.

Returning to Pinker's initial question - Why do women live longer than men? - she refers to the work of Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology, who addressed this very question in a series of studies involving tens of thousands of middle-aged people, examining every aspect of their lifestyle.

After seven years, she collected and analysed the results, finding that the strongest predictor of a person's lifespan was their degree of social integration, far surpassing other aspects such as diet and exercise.

People who frequently interacted with others throughout their day were consistently found to live longer than those who did not. Pinker invites each of us to reflect: "Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you talk to the postman? Do you play bridge or are you in a book club? Those interactions are one of the strongest indicators of how long you'll live."

She found that a key factor explaining the longer lifespan of women is their focus on prioritising face-to-face relationships over their lifespan.

In conclusion she says, "Fresh evidence shows that these in-person interactions create a biological forcefield against disease and decline. Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of chemicals in our brain.

"Like a vaccine, they protect us now in the present, and well into the future. It's one of the main reasons, for example, that there are the lowest rates of dementia among people who are socially engaged."

In his recent encyclical Pope Francis stressed the value of face-to-face contact in the modern world: "No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human existence."

Whilst there are clear benefits to emotional, physical and mental health from community, Christians recognise a deeper connection to each other through the love of God which knows no limits and gives great meaning to communal bonds.

This connection is a "communion" between believers grounded in the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul was referring to this when he said: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

Therefore Christian unity derives and grows from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This unity inspires us to help others, because, as St Paul reminds us: "God encourages us in all our trials, so that we may encourage those in any trial, with the same comfort we receive from God. Just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort overflows."

I agreed to join my cousin in the biting waters of the north coast the next time the waves are high. I pray that he and many others will have the grace and courage to dive more deeply into the depths of the Christian faith, which can wash away our insecurities and inspire us to pour out our lives for the good of others.

As Pope Francis said: "There is no life when we claim to be self-sufficient and live as islands."

May we come to a realisation that the Christian community of faith is an anchor which can strengthen and protect us all.

Dr Brian Wilson grew up in Ballymena, Co Antrim, completed undergraduate studies in Chemistry at Imperial College London and holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oxford.

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