“Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away” —Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
The last time I stopped in Gainesville on a bicycle tour almost 20 years ago, I didn’t leave till over three years later. I arrived without a strong religious orientation and left headed to a Zen Buddhist monastery. In other words, stopping in Gainesville, Florida, on a bicycle tour spells trouble if I’m invested in a certain religious status quo.
Over these past weeks, I chose to spend some time simply bicycling and camping because I know from experience that, not only do I derive tremendous satisfaction through this kind of simple, earthy travelling, but it also serves as a spiritual discipline: tuning out the voices of social expectation, personal idealism, and emotional attachments that no longer serve, and fostering a greater receptivity to spiritual intuition, even when this intuition seems to contradict my own desires. Hence, I believed that this time of biking would help me enter more deeply into the questions that resound in my own heart, and where these questions intersect with what I’m learning on this tour of communities. In fact, I got more than I bargained for.
I generally don’t seek to give something up or take on a new practice for Lent. The reason being, I have come to believe that God plays upon my life with often surprising attention to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. In other words, rather than giving something up, I’ve found that some kind of loss or disorientation usually sneaks up on me right about the beginning of Lent. I expend my energies through the Lenten season, then, navigating this un-asked-for loss, seeking reorientation and a deeper reliance on spiritual help. This Lenten season has proven no different, except that the experience of loss and disorientation has less to do with anything happening in my outer life and relationships and more to do with uncovering those questions and doubts that simmered below the surface during my previous three years of theological education.
I introduced “Pilgrim Reflections” in my last post intending a series of sharing more about what’s happening within me and the kind of questions that I am wrestling with on a more personal level on this journey. However, after a dozen or so attempts to sit down at my laptop and tap out the next post, I’ve since had a change of mind and heart. There are two reasons for this. First, anything I write at this point on such a personal level would be too raw and tentative for a public forum. Secondly, in trying to interweave my personal journey with reflections on communities, I’ve found that both become rather murky. Rather, focusing objectively on communities helps ground and anchor me in something outside myself on this otherwise solo venture, while attending to my inner life allows me to be more present and wholeheartedly engaged with the communities and people I visit. And in order to maintain a healthy balance, the inner journey has to be bracketed to some extent from bleeding through overmuch into my more objective reflections on communities.
That said, I do want to begin the considerations that follow by sharing that, in general, the questions that I’ve been wrestling with revolve around religious identity and my perennial difficulty in “finding myself” within conventional religious institutions and systems of organized belief. And at least in this sense, I find that my personal journey and what people have shared with me in interviews and private conversations dovetail perfectly. In fact, what has emerged as a kind of overarching narrative to the story of emerging intentional communities is that we are all engaged in a massive historical shift in what it means to live a deeply intentional religious life. This theme was addressed explicitly in my first three interviews. Both Mary Ewing Stamps and Ivan Kauffman, for instance, see this shift in terms of historical cycles of deep mutations in our religious structures every 500 years, with the implication that we should expect nothing less than that we are living in a period of time analogous to the upheavals of the Reformation. And Mary Ewing Stamps, Mary Forman, OSB, and Ivan Kauffman all affirm that what’s facilitating these tectonic shifts today is dialogue: ecumenical, inter-religious, inter-cultural.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” —Isaiah 43:19
In the case of Mary Ewing Stamps, the theme of following the promptings of the Spirit toward developing surprising new structures of religious life through dialogue becomes most explicit. Formed within established Benedictine houses while remaining true to her Methodist heritage, she has gone on to establish an ecumenical, non-residential Benedictine monastery embracing both celibate and non-celibate members. Arising from the evangelical end of the continuum, I am particularly impressed by InnerCHANGE as another new expression of ecumenical religious life. Also embracing single people as well as families, modeled upon the historical example of Saint Francis and his followers, among others, and embedded within the framework of the larger missionary organization CRM, InnerCHANGE is poised at the forefront of developing formal structures to nurture and give expression to this impetus toward what Ivan Kauffman calls lay intentionality: patterns of religious life for lay people analogous to the intensity of commitment and intentionality as historically embodied in formally vowed, celibate orders.
Perhaps the most dramatic of structural mutations I’ve encountered thus far, however, is that of San Francisco Zen Center, relative to its roots in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. In the context of developing new structures, Buddhist communities in the West have at least two advantages over Christian monastic, neo-monastic and other movements. The first is a far more flexible institutional framework that lends itself to an adaptability exceeding that of formal Catholic orders. Secondly, Buddhist communities are also largely unburdened by the kind of historical amnesia and dissociation from tradition that new evangelical orders and movements are in the process of remedying. Hence, it is my hope that Christian monastics and neo-monastics alike might learn from their Buddhist sisters and brothers during this time of transition and experimentation.
And lest I get carried away by the apparent seamlessness of this emerging narrative, there’s Paula Huston’s critique of modernism and celebration of classic monasticism to interrupt the flow, or at least call it into question. Actually, I’ve been surprised by how many people have shared with me how much they appreciate her contribution. I say surprised because these are people who are highly sympathetic with newer movements but realize that the viability or potential viability of these movements lie in their ability to establish some formal connection or rootedness in ancient tradition. I see her critique less as a contradiction, then, as a potential warning or corrective to an overly enthusiastic embrace of change and the allure of novelty. In fact, it seems clear to me that this longing for ancient roots is part and parcel of what’s driving such movements at their best, embodying the creative tension articulated during Vatican II as a return to ancient sources while adapting these sources freshly to the unique needs, aspirations, and challenges of our moment in history. And if I can reiterate Ivan Kauffman’s strong admonition: the way forward is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—of new movements and communities establishing relationships with classic orders in an ongoing conversation of mutual learning and growth. Evangelicals especially seem susceptible to getting carried away by the apparent discovery of some liberating new insight, only to see this initial explosion of enthusiasm quickly fizzle and fade as a seed cast on rocky ground (I think of Debbie Gish’s chuckling over the extreme presumptuousness and naiveté of her and her community-mates at the origins of Church of the Sojourners: “We found Acts 2 and we were the first ones to get it. Like, how come no one else noticed this before!!??”). Hence, she and others laud the shift in the air among Christian communitarians today in deliberately seeking out and incorporating the wisdom of those who are heirs to traditions of Christian community living that span centuries.
In closing, since these reflections have been a comfort to me, I want to convey to those readers who also haven’t “found themselves” within conventional religious structures, who feel prompted by the Spirit to press forward into an unknown future, that you are not alone. Far from it. Thanks be to God, hopeful signs are abundant.