I’ve been struck most deeply thus far on the journey by the recurring theme of commitment, especially in my earlier interviews. Craig Greenfield’s perception that so many community-oriented young people today seek a kind of “community without cost”—that is, without real commitment or sacrifice—became a kind of conceptual lens through which I reflected on my own life experiences. John Schwiebert’s likening the level of commitment required for joining an intentional community to that of marriage also left a deep impression on me. Finally, Debbie Gish’s reflections on what she learned about commitment in her years of living in Church of the Sojourners, especially her sensed inability to even communicate that experience of commitment to a world that was quickly losing any kind of analogous experience or conception, named the elephant in the room: I’ve been operating without an inner conception or clear analogy from my own life experience of what deep commitment to people and place requires; to some degree, I’ve unknowingly sought “community without cost” because I hadn’t been aware of an alternative. And the emotional ambience within which these self-revelations were unfolding was drenched by my grieving a painful disappointment in an intimate relationship for the first months of the tour. In short, I was learning, in a graphic, visceral way, that I had a lifelong habit of making poor choices around commitment, to my own detriment and at times to the detriment of others. And the communities and people I was now encountering on this tour were serving as gentle but firm mirrors to this habit. Or, to place this discovery process in a positive light, these communities, these people, were helping to establish in me a new imagination, a new sense of possibility, a new hope that I could begin to live differently.
What I recognize more clearly now is that I have brought at least two sets of motivations into the communities I’ve lived. On the one hand, I’ve come to community out of the mature motivations of seeking to co-create a life of spiritual practice and justice-making, personal and social transformation, companionship and collaboration, in the context of serving a common vocation or mission. On the other hand, I’ve been compelled by a child’s motivations to satisfy the ache of unmet needs of the past, of holding others responsible for meeting those needs, and of acting out in unhelpful ways when they don’t (and, of course, they never do!). And to the extent that I have lacked self-awareness around this inner dichotomy, or haven’t had the understanding or ability to engage others responsibly amidst these emotional tensions, I’ve suffered greatly and have caused others to suffer as well.
When I think of Lois Arkin’s strong admonition to select for emotional maturity when discerning whether a prospective community member is a suitable fit, I don’t think this means that such a person must demonstrate pristine psychological health and wholeness. Heaven forbid! Rather, I think first of having a healthy self-awareness of how the kind of dichotomy I describe above functions in their own inner and outer lives; secondly, I think of having an adequate skill set to responsibly navigate their relationships given their unique mixture of motivational centers. On the community’s end, like Lois, I think of the necessity of having clear agreements and accountability structures, vision and mission statements, conflict resolution and participative decision-making processes, and a general ambience of safety that encourages clear, honest communication.
When I probe more deeply into what commitment means to me, however, I am compelled to think in terms of the vows I made in my formation as a Camaldolese-Benedictine monk: stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia. While these vows were temporary and I have since left the Order, my reflections around the nature of commitment over the course of 3000 miles of bicycling thus far have brought me back to their profound meaning and formative potential, both within and outside a formal commitment to community.
These vows rest upon the foundational experience of discovering oneself called by God to a particular community, people, or way of life: “Listen, my son, to the precepts of the Master, and incline the ear of your heart” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue). Listening in a deep and sustained way to that call (the practice of discernment) leads to a consolidation of one’s energies toward a particular commitment, understood as a concretization of one’s “yes” to God’s invitation. To use Catholic language, this means that one’s actions, responsibilities, relationships, and the events of one’s life become imbued with a sacramental quality. One’s whole life is illumined as an ongoing conversation with God. When I remember to call these vows to mind, for instance, they still resonate with the power to reveal God’s presence and action as intimately woven into my daily round, imperceptibly guiding my steps, meeting me at every turn.
In particular, stabilitas, or stability, functions as an anchor, reminding me that this moment, this place, this person or people, are sacraments of God. Perhaps especially given my history of relational and geographic instability, both growing up and in my adult life, my only hope for prolonged stability lies in my faith in the gravitational pull of God’s invitation; Christ’s love, the only love that could ultimately bind me enduringly to people and place. Why? Because without this transcendent, relational reference point, as I’ve shared above, I recognize that I am highly vulnerable to relating to people, places, situations, and events as ends in themselves. This kind of self-seeking always leads to disappointment and, often enough, harm or neglect of others. At the same time, without the concreteness of real-world commitments and responsibilities, faith is reduced to a mere wish dream.
The careful discernment of God’s loving invitation requires an intuitive listening beyond preconceived ideas and ideals, beyond habitual likes, dislikes, and emotional predispositions. Staying put in the dispositions of faith, hope, and love carries me beyond the reach of immature, self-centered motivations. Only through abiding in these dispositions can I hope to stay put through life’s inevitable disappointments, disillusionments, and the painful consequences of my own limitations and weaknesses and those of others.
Conversatio morum sorum, often translated as fidelity to the monastic way of life, ongoing conversion, or even (with a pinch of poetic license) conversation, reminds me of the dynamism inherent in staying put in God. Stability, manifested through concrete commitments, places me fixedly under God’s transformative, loving gaze. It’s ironic that I’m learning more deeply of my own need for stability, of rootedness in order to more freely move in God, while on a perpetual-motion bicycle tour. While itinerancy has its place, even its own form of stability in God and conversatio through its constant invitation to nonattachment and letting go, in the context of community, growth tends to happen through an ongoing willingness to carry forward the sacramental conversation; that is, through fidelity to one’s given relationships and responsibilities. Conversatio always flows away from immature, self-centered motivation, and accepts growth, change, loss, and death as nonnegotiables that can neither be run from nor fought. Through eyes of faith, I aspire to see these nonnegotiables as a participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery, death to resurrection, constant transformation. Through faith-filled, dynamic fidelity, life forms me for God, God forms me for love, and I am freed to hold life and other people lightly without demanding that they stay the same for my sake.
Obedientia, obedience, presumes that God is in the mix, which is not to say that a superior’s dictates are always imbued with the wisdom of God. Nor does it presume that I must simply comply with what I am told to do without question or recourse. Rather, the practice of obedience dis-locates my motivational center from the exaggerated need to have my way, unclenching heart, mind, will, and imagination for real love and creativity. While the word “obedience” strikes modern ears with more than a hint of infantile, oppressive connotations, it derives from the Latin obediere, which means “to listen, to take heed, to respond.” In the context of a sacramental worldview, wherein all-that-is communicates God’s presence and action, this responsive, attentive listening becomes an overarching posture toward life: remaining faithful to God’s invitation, stable in one’s commitments, surrendered to God’s transformative action through life’s rhythms, rests upon constant listening/response. Once again, for the Christian, God in Christ resides as the transcendent, relational reference point, made sacramentally present through concrete relationships and responsibilities. In the context of community, this entails listening and responding faithfully to a superior’s directions (Rule of Saint Benedict, Ch. 5), while also including a faithful listening and responding to one’s sisters, brothers, guests, and all who are received as Christ (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chs. 53, 71). As indicated by my interview with Quaker teacher Lysbeth Borie, this same posture of transformative listening and responding—beyond self-centered motivation, for the sake of love and a shared mission—can also be facilitated by consensus process and decision-making (just make sure you and your community receive solid training!)
I strongly believe that neo-monastic and other Christian communities have much to learn from the largely secular intentional communities movement, especially in regard to structures and practices that facilitate healthy relationships, communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making. These structures and practices help people move from immature motivational centers toward mature wholeness and generativity. This kind of basic, integrative health is a necessary precondition for fruitful, stable community. Additionally, I strongly believe that learning from and incorporating elements of the classic monastic tradition can help take such communities a step further, toward self-transcendence; that is, into the self-giving love that is the hallmark of Christian spirituality. In my experience, the vows of stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia serve both ends. First, they teach and form me into a life of mature commitment and responsibility. Secondly, they propel me out of the orbit of self-concern in a more profound manner, placing God in Christ at the center, liberating me to live the teachings of the Gospel, whether in the context of community or without. While this tour has taught me something of how very far I am from the abiding, all-pervading commitment these vows imply, I am grateful that they continue to point the way home.