Odometer reading at the end of the tour: 5037.4 miles.
Yes, I am home! In fact, I arrived in Collegeville, Minnesota, a month ago. I’ve refrained from telling you until now because my brain has felt like it’s just been abruptly removed from a washing machine. I’ve wanted to say something that might sum up the journey but my thoughts have been rapidly moving targets, and any attempt to pin down a coherent perspective quickly bursts into a kaleidoscope of fluid impressions. I originally intended this month before my last semester of theological studies to be one of thoughtful reflection on what I’ve gleaned over this tour of communities. I’ve found instead that the best I can do is to let the psychic tumult, after bringing 14 months of living on the road to a sudden halt, to settle by itself, without my interference, into patterns of understanding, and questions and aspirations that spur me to explore further. Practically speaking, this has meant long walks and long naps more than hard thinking. Fruitful dormancy.
I needed to stop. Actually, I could have kept on bicycle-camping. I grew so comfortable with the predictable yet always unique daily rhythms that they became interwoven with my sense of identity. I bicycle-camp, therefore I am. The community visits were becoming exhausting, however. I am highly sensitive to physical and emotional environments, and so with every new community my psyche was hard at work beneath the surface, constantly sensing, adjusting, and readjusting. This subtle activity often made sleep difficult. And just as I was growing accustomed to one community, I was off to the next. Yes, exhausting.
Now, after a month of stability, the dust is settling, patterns are beginning to emerge, and aspirations are stepping forth to lure me into the future—a future, in fact, that begins next Wednesday, with the first classes of the new semester. For simplicity’s sake, I want to name three themes that stand out most to me at this time: economy, education, and contemplation.
Community and Economics
Of all the interviews that touched on this subject, I was most moved by my conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the example of his community in Durham, North Carolina, Rutba House. In this regard, I think of David Janzen’s reflection that there are two basic motivations that draw people to community: a vision of a better way to live than what the dominant culture presupposes, and/or the desire to heal amidst communal bonds and a meaningful way of life. I have certainly been drawn to community by both of these motivations. In terms of the first—the aspiration to live into a particular vision of life—I think it’s quite common for people to subject themselves to somewhat narrow parameters of possibility because too many structural elements that make up their lives are taken for granted. For instance, while it’s true that monastic spirituality has been spilling over the cloister walls and monastic practices are being appropriated into lives that include family and work and the general round of worldly responsibilities, rarely does this appropriation sink so deep that social and economic structures are changed in significant ways. Monastic (Benedictine) Oblates, for instance, may incorporate liturgy, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, some degree of community, yet still remain relatively autonomous (like the majority in our society) in their socioeconomic status, alone or with their families. This, in spite of the fact that the Rule that is their guiding inspiration prescribes a radical sharing of goods, to the extent of naming private ownership a grave evil!
Communities like Rutba House take the appropriation of monastic practices to this more fundamental structural level, of sharing goods in common (a modified common purse) and using those shared resources to love their neighbors and rejuvenate their neighborhoods in concrete ways. As I see it, this may be the particular gift of the new monasticism to the evolving monastic tradition, especially as it expands beyond the cloister to include families and others deeply engaged in the wider community: the development of new structures of shared living that take the material, social, and economic dimensions of monastic life as seriously as prayer and spirituality. In fact, they are doing something quite profound: demonstrating that prayer cannot be separated from economics, that spirituality has no meaning without being a force for breaking down social barriers. Hence, I am inclined to agree with Mike Brantley who perceives new communities such as Rutba House and Communitas, and new orders such as InnerCHANGE, as the “reconnaissance mission” wending their way through new territory, laying down the systems and structures that will allow those who follow to function and flourish in new forms of religious life.
Community and Education
On the cusp of reengaging classes after over a year of highly organic, improvised, practical learning, I’ve been thinking a great deal about education. Let me just march out my bias up front: I don’t believe school is a very good place to learn for most children and adults, and especially in terms of learning a subject like theology that cuts so close to identity, purpose, and matters of ultimate meaning. I recognize that many will disagree with me, and I accept that there are those who do thrive in a holistic way in academic environments (meaning, they’re enriched and transformed by academic study as whole persons). In a superficial sense, I also thrive. I am good at school. I get good grades. I know how to jump through the right hoops. But inwardly I am painfully aware of how little this flurry of activity penetrates the surface. In fact, I spent 19 years before arriving at my first college class after high school. Yet I was not idle during that extended hiatus. Far from it! I was highly engaged in my education, though you wouldn’t know it by my resume. Rather than school, I instinctively sought out learning experiences that were as practical as they were reflective, and that were embodied in a way of life. In other words, I sought intentional community as a context for education because I instinctively knew that context educates more than content.
When I wanted to pursue my love of creation, I spent 2 ½ years in an ecovillage. I had little desire to study “ecology” as a compartmentalized subject. When I wanted to deepen my meditation practice and live according to Buddhist values, I spent a year in a Zen Buddhist meditation center. Emphasizing intellectual study in this regard would have been, in the words of one Zen teacher, like “scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.” Now, with 3 years of graduate studies under my belt, I can safely say that my learning in community has been more profound in its own way than what I can glean through school. I simply don’t learn well unless intellectual reflection is closely tethered to and integrated with doing and seeing and hearing and tasting and smelling and immersion in a whole way of life.
Contextual education in community that organically integrates action and reflection, with room for self-direction and spontaneity—that’s my aim, both as a lifelong learner and as an aspiring educator. And the person whose work has inspired me the most in this regard through the course of this tour is Mark Scandrette. I find his model of “learning laboratories,” and the insight that learning Christianity needs to be like learning a martial art that requires practical training, deeply resonant with my own thoughts on what makes for meaningful education. Additionally, many of the communities I’ve visited have various forms of internships, apprenticeships, and formation processes. At the same time, I sense that many communities are looking to grow in their capacity to form and educate their own members and those who come to them seeking to learn. Hence, I see tremendous potential in this new generation of Christian communities to develop as centers of education and formation, perhaps even affiliating with academic institutions.
Alright, it’s late and I need to go to bed soon, so I will leave community and contemplation and thoughts on where I go from here for another day. I’ll post what I’ve written so far because…well, a month after I’ve completed the tour that’s been the scaffolding of this whole endeavor, I have to say something!