When I began my formation a decade ago at New Camaldoli Hermitage, I was torn. On the one hand, I felt a clear, persistent intuition that I needed to undergo the monastic formation process. On the other, I sensed that this formation would not lead to permanent vows. In fact, I sensed that the long-range-goal toward which I was being prompted was to live and serve in some form of lay community later in life. Having already lived in a Zen Buddhist community and an ecovillage, my imagination was ripe with a sense of possibility in that direction, and formal training in a Christian monastic community seemed an ideal next step. I discussed this tension with my monastic mentors and was assured that discernment was inherent to the formation process; I didn’t need confidence that I would finally take permanent vows, but I did need to keep an open mind and heart and remain faithful to where the process leads.
In the end, I spent 4 ½ years in formation, having taken temporary vows, and left at peace and in enduring friendship with the monks. In fact, I still consider New Camaldoli Hermitage my spiritual home and spend time there every chance I get. Now that nearly five years have passed since leaving the monastery, including almost seven semesters at Saint John’s School of Theology and this past year’s bicycle tour of communities, the goal of a lay contemplative community has never felt closer. Aside from New Camaldoli Hermitage, I take special inspiration from my year living at the Cambridge Zen Center, a community of primarily lay people in bustling Central Square, Cambridge, MA, equidistant from Harvard and MIT. The combination of intensive, shared contemplative practice, work, and service to the larger community I experienced there convinces me that a similar model could take root in Christian form. It’s no great leap of the imagination to envision the ethos and disciplines I learned in my Christian monastic formation flourishing in such a lay context.
Now a certain disconnect enters the picture: with the exception of the San Francisco Zen Center (which is Buddhist) and Hesed Community (which is non-residential), none of the communities I visited on this tour have a strong contemplative dimension (monasteries aside). There are at least two reasons for this choice. The first is the recognition that I’ve followed the contemplative thread quite deeply in my life, and now I seek to balance that with a social justice focus, which many of the communities I visited did embody. Secondly…well, I’ve often recalled the story I’ve heard attributed to the Sufi tradition, of a fellow searching vigorously for something on the sidewalk under a lamplight. Everything else around him is shrouded in darkness. Someone comes upon him and asks:
“What are you looking for?”
“Where did you lose it?”
“Over there in the dark street.”
“Then why are you looking under the lamppost!?”
“Because I can see over here in the light!”
In a sense, focusing so much on highly socially-engaged new monasticism/new friars communities as I did had a similar quality, of looking slightly off-center of where my own aspirations lie. I was attracted to these communities in part because they have a similar grass-roots, experimental feel that I’d known in the ecovillage. But really, these communities are simply where the action’s at. This is where the light is shining. This is where, I believe, the seeds of new forms of religious life have been fruitfully sown and are beginning to sprout. These community-sprouts, moreover, attract me as wonderful containers wherein shared lives of integrated action and contemplation can flourish. Therefore, putting together the pieces of valuing intentional communities as centers of education and formation, and the desire to strengthen the contemplative dimension of these new Christian communities, I am developing a contemplative curriculum that can be integrated into an intentional community’s formation process. I am presently honing the specifics of “the what” (the content) of this curriculum and “the where” it will be implemented (a specific community, hopefully). As I am still waiting to confirm certain possibilities, I can’t divulge details as yet. But I’ll leave you with a hint…
I’ll be in California for Christmas!