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Archive for the ‘Communal Living’ Category


David Janzen’s experience in Christian intentional community spans the greater part of four decades. In the early ‘70s, David and his family helped found New Creation Fellowship in Newton, Kansas. In 1984, they moved to Reba Place Fellowship, an urban, income-sharing community founded in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Since coming to Reba Place Fellowship, David has assisted in the community’s refugee asylum project, served on their leadership team, directed an affordable housing ministry, and is currently focusing his energies on mentoring the new generation of communities associated with the new monasticism movement. He is the author of two books, each the fruit of visiting and researching Christian intentional communities throughout North America: Fire, Salt and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America (Good Books, November 1996) and the forthcoming Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press, November 2012). The latter, due for publication this fall, reflects David’s responses to questions gathered from visits with contemporary communities, arranged in a developmental sequence according to the needs and concerns of communities at various stages of growth, including advice for those seeking community.

In our conversation, David and I discuss the three historical waves of North American Christian intentional communities to the present: from the energetic idealism and experimentation of the 60s and early 70s, to the less visible but more stable emergence of communities in the 80s and 90s, to the current generation of new monastics eager to learn from those who came before them. While all share a common bond in Christian faith, many inspired by the radical social and economic template laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and the description of the early Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles, each wave has its distinct characteristics, reflecting the social context and concerns of their day. David weighs in on the particular strengths of the current generation, especially their identification with the wider Christian communal tradition, namely monasticism, and their enthusiastic welcome of the help of their elders. On the other hand, deluged by the seemingly unlimited options of our hypermobile culture, and often enough coming from broken households themselves, the current generation tends to bear a woundedness and a reticence toward stable commitments that require special attention.

David also traces the development of three related networks of communities of which he’s been a part: the Shalom Association of Communities (1972-85), Shalom Mission Communities (1996-present), and his current work with the Nurturing Communities Project. The latter reflects the efforts of a dozen or so communities, in light of the needs of the current groundswell of new monastic communities, to establish new community-networks in order to provide help, encouragement, and accountability for one another. In fact, members from participating communities (approximately 50 people) will be meeting this September at Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to explore possibilities and learn from the monks who are hosting them.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Laird Schaub (community and consensus blog) and Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig (www.maikwe.net) are members of neighboring Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, respectively, in Rutledge, Missouri. Laird co-founded Sandhill Farm in 1974 as an egalitarian, income-sharing farming community, and is one of the creators and current administrator of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization committed to nurturing and promoting intentional communities worldwide. He has worked as a group process consultant for 25 years, providing training in consensus facilitation, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Ma’ikwe is author of Passion as Big as a Planet, which explores the connection between the inner and outer dimensions of ecological activism. She is a consensus facilitation trainer, often working together with Laird, directs Ecovillage Education US, and gives workshops on starting communities, leadership, and spiritual activism. She is the mother of a teenage son and expresses her passion for people and planet through helping Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage grow into its vision of a full-scale, ecologically regenerative village and center for research and education.

In our conversation, Laird, Ma’ikwe, and I discuss the consequences of communities lacking a common understanding and agreements around how to handle emotionally-charged conflict. We explore the strengths and weaknesses often exhibited in communities with a shared spiritual orientation, and the challenge of bringing the full range of human modes of knowing into the room—including emotional, kinesthetic, intuitive, and spiritual—in a culture that is heavily biased toward translating all forms of knowledge and experience into clear thinking. Laird talks about his experiences working with communities and the most common causes of group conflict he encounters, such as scapegoating (the contagious belief that “things would be better if only so-and-so would…”) and the tendency of groups to harden themselves around particular narratives. Finally, Laird and Ma’ikwe speak of the advantages Christian teachings offer in establishing healthy relational and communication habits in community, and of the spiritual benefits of consensus process and decision-making, and its congruence with a Christian sacramental worldview—of God in all things.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Photo by Scott Langley

Imagine Benedictine monasteries hosting conferences and providing help to lay people looking to incorporate monastic values and practices into their lives. Nothing new, you say. People have been flocking to such monasteries, especially over the past couple of decades, gleaning wisdom and guidance on contemplative prayer, Lectio Divinaliturgy of the hours, and other portable practices. For now, though, let’s reconfigure this image so that these particular practices passed on to lay people are first located in their monastic context. What might it look like, then, for monks and nuns to transmit the more foundational principles and practices of their way of life, such as common ownership and structures that break down inherited socioeconomic divisions between people?  In other words, what forms might such a monasticism-in-the-world take that, like Saint Benedict and the tradition he consolidated in his Rule, understood concern with economic realities to be as intrinsic to a life of prayer as prayer itself?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is Associate Minister at the historically African-American St. Johns Baptist Church, directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit organization that educates people in Christian community, and has authored a handful of books, including God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth GospelThe Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, and a contemporary paraphrasing and commentary to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Jonathan is also editor of the New Monastic Library Series (Cascade Books) and associate editor of the Resources for Reconciliation Series (InterVarsity Press).

In 2003, Jonathan and his wife Leah co-founded the new monastic community Rutba House in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina (the community is named after the town of Rutba, Iraq, where injured members of their Christian Peacemaker Team were given medical care in a hospital that had been bombed by U.S. forces only three days prior). The community at present consists of two houses and fourteen members (including four children) who share a common life of daily prayer, meals, mutual support, hospitality, and active peacemaking.  They live by a modified common-purse economy, working full or part time and contributing 30-40% of their income to the community. These shared resources in turn cover not only all household expenses (including a car co-op) but also enable them to provide meals, housing, and other forms of hospitality to homeless or struggling friends in the neighborhood.

Rutba House Members and Friends

In our conversation, Jonathan and I discuss the meaning of monastic social and economic relocation in the context of today’s largely urban, non-cloistered new monasticism movement, especially as lived at Rutba House.  For the 4th century monastics of the Egyptian desert, this relocation represented a physical flight from the dominant culture into uninhabited places, in order to focus unerringly upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and to confront more directly the spiritual forces at work in the world and in themselves. As an heir to this tradition, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia configured this relocation in the context of self-contained, cloistered monastic communities. For today’s new monastics, Jonathan believes, the call to relocation is not primarily to uninhabited regions or even to cloistered, celibate monastic communities, but rather to set down roots as families and single people living together in the ‘abandoned places’: those areas scarred by social, cultural, and economic marginalization.

Drawing on monastic sources as well as contemporary civil rights wisdom, particularly John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association movement, Jonathan speaks about how Rutba House has concretely sought to take the values of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution seriously. We discuss the community’s in-house economy and its outflow to the neighborhood, and the ways in which this outflow has fostered forgiveness and friendships based on trust, in place of suspicion. In fact, Jonathan uses the language of repentance to describe this deliberate movement of taking responsibility for inherited economic and racial privilege, and seeking to break down these barriers that divide the family of God. For Jonathan, this movement of small, inconspicuous, locally-rooted intentional communities embodies the kind of transformative social engagement, the leaven within the dough, practiced and prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels and by monastics in every age, according to the particular needs of their time and place.

Other people, places, and things mentioned in this interview: 12 Marks of the New MonasticismS. Margaret McKenna of the Medical Missionary SistersNew Jerusalem Laura; John Cassian on the Three Renunciations.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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In this second half of my conversation with Bren Dubay, we speak of the rich tapestry of relations Koinonia Farm now enjoys, with communities already mentioned in the previous episode (Jubilee Partners, Reba Place Fellowship, Church of the Servant King) as well as with the Bruderhof, an early 20th century addition to the Anabaptist communal family tree (which also includes the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, among others). Formed in Germany on the cusp of the rise of Nazism, the Bruderhof were expelled from their native country after refusing to allow Nazi teachers to instruct their children. Finding their way first to England, then Paraguay, the Bruderhof finally set roots in the United States with the help of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in the 1950s. Here, Bren tells the story of how this friendship between the two communities has recently, serendipitously been rekindled, and the intimate bond of mutual help and learning that’s rapidly emerging.

Koinonia Farm has also been adopted by the contemporary New Monasticism movement, who consider Koinonia one of its pioneering forerunners. In fact, Bren is part of a network of new monastic communities currently exploring how they might strengthen relations among themselves. She also expresses her strong conviction that this movement’s future lies not only in strengthened bonds with one another, but with the classic monastic tradition. To this end, the core members of Koinonia are currently engaged in a close reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict, with commentary by Joan Chittister, OSB, and plan to continue this practice of shared reading and discussion with other monastic literature. Several members also retreat at nearby Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA.

Members of Koinonia Farm with Bruderhof Friends

In addition to these topics, Bren and I discuss communication and trust in community, and how she looks forward to the collective maturity that comes only with time, longstanding commitment, and patience.

What excites me most about Koinonia Farm at this time in their history is this unique confluence of influences: of its own profound spiritual legacy interfacing with that of the Bruderhof, representing the classic Anabaptist tradition (what Ivan Kauffman refers to as the “old” new monasticism), and the younger generation of communitarians involved in the New Monasticism. Koinonia Farm also exhibits the strongest inclination I’ve seen thus far toward seeking ways to learn from and build concrete relationships with the classic monastic tradition. Taken together, these factors render Koinonia Farm a key community to watch as the New Monasticism movement continues to evolve and reach for greater maturity and stability.

Other people and resources mentioned in this interview: Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, School(s) for Conversion.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, was founded in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, with the intention of being a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” and helping the region’s poor, struggling farming families. Foremost among the biblical values they sought to embody were economic sharing among themselves and with their neighbors, racial equality and reconciliation, and compassionate nonviolence. Due to their pacifist stance during World War II and inter-racial composition, the community quickly gained a reputation as an irritant to the surrounding culture. In fact, during much of the 50s and 60s, Koinonia Farm endured all manner of persecution, including cross-burnings, death threats, gunfire, expulsion from local churches, fire-bombing, and a prolonged economic boycott by local businesses. Undaunted by these trials, in the late 60s, Koinonia Farm began the partnership housing movement, building affordable homes for low-income local families. Seeing the global potential of this movement, community members Millard and Linda Fuller went on to expand the endeavor beyond its local scale, giving birth to Koinonia’s most famous contribution, Habitat for Humanity International.

According to Bren Dubay, steward (vowed member) and current Director of Koinonia Farm, while the community enjoyed a certain kind of expansion and growth during the partnership housing era, the very forces underlying that expansion were at the same time subtly eroding the original communal vision. Short-term volunteers swelled the ranks through the late 60s and 70s, motivated more by a particular cause than by the aspiration to embody Christian koinonia, or community, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As one longtime member succinctly described the scene, “The tail began to wag the dog.” Finally, in 1993, with the decision to reorganize Koinonia according to a more conventional non-profit business model, what remained of the original communal pattern of life was dismantled. Consequently, Koinonia’s focus grew more diffuse, and financial losses were suffered in the process of moving from a common-purse economy to paid employees. By 2003, it was clear that a fresh vision and new leadership for the community were needed. To this end, the Board of Directors sought to hire a new Executive Director. That’s where Bren enters the story.

Prior to her arrival at Koinonia Farm, Bren Dubay had worked and served as a spiritual director, retreat leader, playwright, Montessori educator, fundraiser, and development consultant. In May of 2003, she rather innocently took a group of students on a field trip to Americus, Georgia, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. As they were preparing to leave, she reluctantly accepted an invitation to take the students to Koinonia Farm, Habitat’s birthplace. Unbeknownst to her, this visit would trigger a series of events that have since turned her life in a surprising, radically new direction. Within a year, in May of 2004, Bren moved to Koinonia as its new Executive Director. Within another year’s time, she was leading the community in a retrieval of its original communal inspiration.

Koinonia Farm Members and Friends

In our conversation, the first of two podcast episodes with Bren, she tells the story of her entering the stream of Koinonia’s rich, diverse history, the decision to return to the original communal vision and how that process has unfolded over the course of 7 years thus far, challenges and mistakes made along the way, and her own sense of inner peace amid the difficulties. We speak of particular changes, such as restructuring the Board of Directors to include one member apiece from 3 other Christian intentional communities; namely, Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA (a community that welcomes refugees from war-torn countries, founded by members of Koinonia in the late 70s), Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, IL (inspired by Koinonia), and Church of the Servant King in Eugene, OR. Finally, Bren shares her joy in the revitalization of the community’s internship program as an expression of the founders’ intention that Koinonia serve as a “school of discipleship.” Through this program, and through other forms of hospitality, Koinonia Farm welcomes and feeds the spiritual hunger of a wide diversity of people, young and old and in between, of all manner of religious faiths or none at all.

What strikes me most in this part of my conversation with Bren is that hers is clearly a vocation story: of an unexpected invitation, of wrestling with the tension between wanting to say “no” yet knowing (without knowing why) to say “yes,” and of an underlying peace and mysterious satisfaction even through difficulties and trials. There’s humility and gratitude in the recognition of having received a graced opportunity to serve; and a posture of faith, even though the way forward may seem anything but clear at times. To my mind, these are the marks of true servant leadership, the branch grafted onto the Vine, and a vital sign of hope for Koinonia Farm’s uncharted future.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Mike Brantley returned to New Orleans, his native home, during Hurricane Katrina and, at the instigation of his wife Susanne, planted roots there a year later to pioneer Communitas, an ecumenical order of missional communities affiliated with InnerCHANGE and CRM. Up till this point, Mike had wrestled for years, as an Army officer and a pastor in various church contexts, with the fact that conventional models of “church” and “mission” simply weren’t reaching people in post-Christian Western culture. Influenced by the ancient Celtic monastic missionaries, the monastic orders, and a handful of people and communities involved in contemporary neo-monastic, New Friar, and missional movements (including some I’ve covered in this podcast, such as Church of the Sojourners, Mark Scandrette, and especially John Hayes and InnerCHANGE), in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans, Mike began to experiment in earnest with a model of church that integrates community and mission in a shared, committed way of life. At present, Communitas is comprised of residential communities embedded in three neighborhoods in New Orleans, and a fourth community in Valparaiso, Indiana. Mike is also known to be one heck of a lacrosse coach and is one of the most generous, warm-hearted people you’re likely to meet.

In my experience, Communitas typifies a model of church rooted in intentional relationships, with one another and with those in their neighborhoods. On the surface, especially to those of us accustomed to thinking of “church” as something that occurs in a place and time set apart from our ordinary daily round, and “mission” as applied strategies oriented toward re-making others according to our own religious convictions and ideals, this more diffuse, relational model may appear…well, kind of fuzzy. For instance, I spent one afternoon with a community member, Adam, who took me for a tour around town. We eventually settled in for deeper conversation at one of his “ministry spheres,” a local coffee shop. Better than any explanation he provided, simply watching how well he knew customers and employees alike, and how they spontaneously opened to him and shared about their lives, spoke reams of how a missional, communal church functions: real relationships, real caring, solidarity, and a posture of service and investment of one’s life in the lives of one’s neighbors. Whether or not such people choose to join the community for a meal or to pray, they know that the door is open, and are uplifted by authentic friendship. While members of Communitas may also participate in more conventional types of ministry, this overarching relational context renders them uniquely present and available, addressing real-world concerns through concrete relationships with those otherwise unaffiliated with Christian faith.

Adam also spoke in some detail of the formation he’s undergone as a member of Communitas, an aspect of their life that seems particularly thorough and well thought out. In fact, Mike attributes his past experiences as an Army officer with teaching him effective practices of formation that engender real transformation. He also draws upon a military analogy to explain the role of new communities and orders like Communitas in the church and world today: in the wake of ineffectual and outdated church structures, these pioneering communities are like the reconnaissance mission that forges ahead, tinkering, experimenting, and developing new systems and infrastructure for churches to come.

One concern that Mike brought to me involves finances. While some of the communities I’ve visited manage to meet most or all of their financial needs through support-raising (Servants Vancouver, InnerCHANGE Los Angeles), Communitas members work outside the community at least part-time. While this engenders a certain humility and provides a context for establishing themselves among and serving their neighbors, Mike laments that at present they’re not able to commit themselves fully to the mission to which they feel called, and as a consequence, their time and resources are often stretched to the hilt. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common challenge among lay intentional communities, with no easy solution.

In our conversation, in addition to topics already mentioned, Mike and I discuss the significance of being an order and learning from the classic religious orders; his hopefulness about younger generations; what he sees as the disintegration of Christendom and the opportunity for Christian communities to re-take their place on the margins as a subversive influence; what makes for healthy and unhealthy missional communities; the need for a greater emphasis on contemplative practice; and the satisfaction he takes in the risky venture of coloring outside the lines for the sake of the Kingdom. Typical of the relaxed, relational tone of so much of my experience of New Orleans, Mike and I lingered awhile outdoors over coffee, with a passer-by chiming in at one point, only to return to spontaneously lavish us with several loaves of bread on her next go-round.

Other people and resources mentioned in this interview: Stuart Murray; Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight.

—Dietrich Bonheoffer

I want to give voice here to a concern that’s been building in my mind. Two interviews that have had a strong impact on me, particularly in how I assess the relative structural health of a community, are my conversations with Lois Arkin on structural conflict, and with Lysbeth Borie on consensus process. Both interviews overlap in terms of content, but they especially converge on a common insight: that ideally, a core community should develop a clear self-understanding of its identity and mission as soon as possible, and develop structures (vision and mission statements, agreements and accountability systems, decision making processes, membership formation and discernment processes, etc.) that allow that self-understanding to grow and flourish, before opening its doors to newcomers.

Unfortunately, unless community founders have made a strong effort to inform themselves, or have extensive experience with groups analogous to an intentional community, they tend to begin with a flurry of idealistic enthusiasm and a boatload of naiveté. Which is to say, many communities don’t do the kind of necessary detail structural work at the beginning, and hence set themselves up for conflict down the road. For instance, most communities begin with sincere, passionate intentions. The buzz of shared chemistry and the excitement of a new, deeply meaningful venture may carry them forward to establish a seemingly-solid foundation. However, if by that time someone suggests that the community develop clear rules, boundaries, definitions, and so on, other members may balk. Too rigid, they say. Or legalistic. Or authoritarian, oppressive, repressive, etc. Besides, we all get along; we can work out our differences as we go, right?

Well, actually…

By the time a group has congealed around the impression that they’re on the same page, fired by the same aspiration, when the honeymoon-period abates and reality sets in and they begin to realize that they may not be as close to kin as they thought, the consequences could get ugly. At that critical threshold, if there aren’t clear, written agreements, if the vision and mission haven’t been spelled out in enough detail to ensure that everyone understands their meaning and implications, if there aren’t shared communication skills and conflict resolution procedures, if there’s no accountability to outside agents, if emotional maturity hasn’t been a primary criteria for selecting new members, then the consequences are likely to get very ugly indeed.

Now, contrast this unhappy picture with how a monastery functions. A Benedictine monastery, for instance, lives by a rule of life that regulates the daily round in some detail, leaving room for a certain autonomy and discernment on the basis of the culture, context, and temperament of a community, but nonetheless legislating a way of life that is extremely regimented and limiting by the standards of the dominant culture. Without this regimentation and limitation, however, the integrity of the charism, or spiritual intent of the community, would dissipate. Without clear limits and boundaries for the self-determining ego to bruise itself against, growth would be stifled. Contemporary sensibilities chafe at this idea, but that’s the point. Chafing against voluntarily chosen limitations for the sake of a way of life formed around higher principles, values, and intentions than impulsive freedom of choice engenders growth and maturity. Again, I do believe that this same basic orientation toward growth and maturity can function in a less formal community that makes decisions by consensus; I just think this option requires a lot more work and clarity of intention at the beginning than many people realize (see Lysbeth Borie).

When I entered monastic formation, I did not participate in the central decision-making body, the Chapter. In fact, because I had only taken temporary vows and left after four-and-a-half years, I never had the opportunity to participate in Chapter, which is reserved only for those who’ve taken permanent vows (a process that takes at least 5 years). In small matters, however, I participated in a weekly group process where I was able to share views and concerns. Still, by and large, the general structure of community life was predetermined, anchored by a codified body of tradition that spanned at least seventeen centuries. In this context, change does happen, but it does so only with careful discernment within the flow of this tradition.

What I experienced in myself and witnessed in many others who entered to be formed as monks during my stay was a fairly predictable pattern: as postulants (those in the first year of formation), we would arrive with varying degrees of enthusiasm and confidence. Typically, however, within our second year—the novitiate—some shift took place in our attitudes, sometimes dramatically. The channel of enthusiasm became gummed up with wads of negativity and a jaundiced eye. In reality, it was mostly our own unintegrated negativity that was bubbling up to the surface under the otherwise gentle, transformative limitations of monastic life; but of course, it never looks that way when you’re in the thick of it. Rather, this is what it tends to look like: the community’s doing this wrong, that wrong, failing at this, mediocre in that, and I know—I know—just how they ought to be doing it. And why don’t they listen to me? How can they do this to me? After all, this is not what I signed up for! The most dramatic illustration of the latter attitude that I’ve witnessed occurred when I went for a walk with a man who had been a diocesan priest for many years. This man had discerned a call to monastic life, had all his ducks in a row—years of counseling and spiritual direction discerning his vocation, extended stays in monasteries—and arrived certain that this monastery was it. No doubt. Two months into his postulancy, on his way out the door, he and I were sitting on a bench together, talking. He shook his head mournfully: “This just isn’t the community I thought it was.” Having seen this phenomenon before, I bit down hard on an irresistible urge to laugh, until I could shake it off freely with my novice director later. After all, the earnest mourner presently in my midst just wouldn’t appreciate the punchline: It never is the community you thought it was. It never matches your wish-dream. And no amount of prior discernment will keep you from having to cross that threshold of disappointment.

Of course, the same punchline holds true in less formal intentional communities. But here’s the rub: imagine if the kind of negativity that tends to arise, that’s actually meant to arise in the process of communal formation, had no defined limits, no boundaries to keep it in check, if the community lacked a clear self-understanding, in writing, that could serve as an anchor and shared point of reference. Imagine (and some of you don’t have to imagine; you can simply remember) such people, chafing at the negativity within themselves that they mistakenly displace onto the community, pouting and pleading and demanding, in often sophisticated-adult-seeming ways, that the community change. Imagine such people participating in the consensus process, even though they’ve been in the community less than a year. Even one such person, lacking the emotional maturity and mentoring to healthily navigate this transition, can easily sink the whole ship.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that a community cannot learn from the critiques of its newer members, or that there may be very real shortcomings in a community that warrant strong challenge, or simply the decision to leave. Rather, what I am suggesting is that real discernment, real commitment, cannot be attained until the threshold of disillusionment is crossed. When this isn’t understood, everyone loses.

So, based on my own experience in community and what I’ve learned thus far on the tour, here’s my advice to aspiring communitarians: before you move in together, or as soon thereafter as possible, hammer out in detail who you are and why, what you expect of one another, the rules and boundaries that will shape the integrity of the community you aspire to be. Choose how you’ll make decisions and get solid training (especially if your choice is consensus). Train as well in conflict resolution processes and make a commitment to resolving conflict a matter of policy. To draw an analogy from the monastic tradition, don’t be afraid to draw up a Rule of Life. The content of the Rule can and will change and adapt over time, but the importance of having as much clarity up front as possible is that it can save you from choosing members who really aren’t on the same page, and from the inevitable and potentially devastating conflict that will surely ensue. Once a core group has established such a “Rule,” then open the door to new members. Choose for emotional maturity. Choose those who, as best as can be mutually discerned, really do share your aspirations and intentions, and are willing to submit to the “Rule” because they genuinely value the creative restraint and responsibilities your way of life asks of them. And once a firm foundation is set, make sure new members have weathered their “terrible twos” (I use this phrase because, in my experience, the initial phase of disillusionment often occurs in the second year) before they’re able to make a permanent commitment or make decisions affecting the vision and mission of the community. Take permanent membership as seriously as you would marriage, and make sure this level of seriousness is communicated to those in the membership process (you can always have gradations of membership, such as associates, interns, temporary members, etc.).

And let me know how it goes.

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Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

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.

Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

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.

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My encounter with the Nehemiah House was one of those happy accidents one learns to treasure, and perhaps even rely on, during extended excursions on the road. I was biking down the Southern California coast with a still unformed idea of what I would do or who I would meet once I got to Los Angeles. Significantly, I didn’t know where I would stay. Fortunately, through friends at InnerCHANGE Los Angeles (interview here), I was put in touch with Sarah and Scott Yetter, who graciously offered me a futon in one of the adjoining houses that comprise the Nehemiah House community. Over the course of my time there, I grew to feel affectionately part of this bustling hub of friendship, mentoring, and prayerful presence in the historically troubled, predominantly Latino Pico-Union neighborhood.

The Yetters did not come to the neighborhood with the intention of starting a community. Rather, their journey began when Scott participated in a mission trip during college with Campus Crusade for Christ. During this trip, Scott not only fell in love with the neighborhood, but fell more deeply in love with the Lord and what the Lord was doing among the people he met. This inspired him to pick up and move into the neighborhood in 1997, working first as a high school teacher and then as a pastor for the First Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. While the intention or hope was that Scott and Sarah would draw local young adults to the church, God seemed to have something else in mind. In short order, Scott found himself flooded with children asking for help with homework, forming relationships with them, while comparatively little came of their outreach to young adults. Quite organically, these relationships with children and their families coalesced into an afterschool program affiliated with the S.A.Y. Yes! organization. Continuing to listen for what God was doing in the neighborhood, and needing physical space for this dynamic network of relationships focused on the afterschool program, Scott and Sarah facilitated the church’s purchase of the Nehemiah House in 2002, which became both their own home and the home of the teen center for S.A.Y. Yes! Pico-Union, Los Angeles.

Today, having purchased an adjoining house in 2009, Scott, Sarah, and their three young children are now joined by two local families who live with them, as well as a handful of interns volunteering with S.A.Y. Yes! and other local ministries for a year or more. Some of these interns, after completing their internship, have themselves chosen to move into the neighborhood also, providing a growing sense of cohesion and relational stability among children, families, mentors, and friends.

In our conversation, Sarah, Scott and I discuss how their faith and concrete relationships led to the forming of Nehemiah house, starting a family in the context of community life, and what they’ve learned living and working with an ever- fluctuating population of young adult interns. Finally, they speak of their hope of seeing today’s young adults shed negative cultural influences, grab hold of the values of discipline and commitment, and fully step into the lives God intends for them—a hope whose realization might be aided by learning from the monastic tradition.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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In this second half of my conversation with Lois Arkin, having introduced the general landscape of ecovillages and the Los Angeles Eco-Village in Part I, we now hone in on lessons she’s learned along the way. Specifically, Lois addresses the issue of structural conflict, reflecting on her own experience in light of the insights of ecovillage and intentional communities author, consultant, workshop leader, and conference presenter, Diana Leafe Christian. The concept of structural conflict points to the fact that, if a community or organization doesn’t adequately address fundamental issues of identity, values, and vision, and how these are to be implemented over time, conflict will most likely ensue, regardless of who’s involved. Given that communities are often founded with an exuberant mixture of idealism and naiveté, drawing on this very practical wisdom from those who have weathered first fervors, successes and failures, can be lifesaving.

In this vein, we spend time talking about membership processes and how these have evolved for the Los Angeles Eco-Village, becoming more narrow and restrictive over time. Earlier, Lois spoke of ecovillages as having porous boundaries, neither closed nor wide-open to the world of which they’re a part. Membership requirements, discernment, formation, education, etc., play an essential role in ensuring that these boundaries, and the integrity of a community’s identity, purpose, and common life, remain healthy. Membership is also an area sure to become highly contentious and problematic for all if these criteria and processes aren’t clear from the beginning.

How does a community clearly impart to new members and communicate to the world its own ethos, while integrating new energies and ideas from without and within? How does this fluid communal organism remain open while retaining its distinctiveness? For a start, through building on solid footing by alleviating structural conflict as soon as possible.

Other resources mentioned in this interview: Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community and Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities by Diana Leafe Christian, and Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making by Tim Hartnett

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Church of the Sojourners 25th Anniversary Celebration

Debbie Gish is a founding member of Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco’s Mission District, a community of the Shalom Mission Communities network. She works as an adoption social worker and, with her husband Dale, is parent to two daughters, Annalise and Rebecca.

In our conversation, Debbie and I discuss the emergence of Sojourners as both church and community from a small collective of five young women and three older couples with children engaged in urban ministry in the mid-1980s. Debbie speaks of the community’s search for healthy balance and boundaries in their life and ministry together, which led to the development of a particular self-understanding as church that emphasizes loving one another well as the Body of Christ. This understanding manifests in a form of ministry and hospitality that Debbie describes as functioning primarily as the Inn rather than the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In other words, whereas much emphasis tends to get placed on ministry as going out to those in need, Sojourners’ role looks more like that of the Inn to which the injured are brought to heal. Such people are often integrated into the community, become family, so that the boundary between ministers and those ministered to dissolves. Debbie also shares about her own learning process through 25 years of communal living: from an exuberant honeymoon period, to a deeper realization of community as her way of living out her discipleship to God, the joys of living through the various stages of her life in the close company of others, and a grasp of the necessity of stability and commitment to human flourishing. Finally, since Church of the Sojourners is often identified with the New Monasticism, and Debbie and other members were present when the 12 Marks of the New Monasticism were developed, we spend some time talking about the strengths and challenges in this vital, emerging community movement.

As someone who appreciates contrast, I found going from spending time with Mark Scandrette to staying with Church of the Sojourners particularly illuminating (incidentally, they’re friends and neighbors). In my perception, whereas Mark emphasizes spiritual formation and building community within a highly fluid social environment, Sojourners places great value on stability and mutual commitment in the context of living together for the long haul. Not to exaggerate the contrast, since both overlap in their seeking greater intentionality as Christian disciples through caring, committed relationships. But I was struck by Debbie’s reflections on enduring commitment as the place wherein human beings grow and flourish, a truth our culture has largely forgotten, to the point where it’s difficult to even communicate this wisdom to others. Does our culture need pockets of strong counter-witness, like Sojourners, to excessive autonomy and mobility? I’m inclined to believe, yes, without diminishing the value of forms of community such as Mark’s that can accommodate mobility and flux.

(Tech lesson of the day: avoid recording interviews next to a refrigerator with a high-sensitivity mic in a high-ceilinged, uncarpeted kitchen…)

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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From childhood, Mark Scandrette was taught a highly intentional form of putting the teachings of Jesus into practice in everyday life. In the ensuing years this practical intentionality has grown into a lifelong habit of sensitive discernment and active response to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, in dialog with the personal, social, and global realities of our time and place.  Mark now shares this practical wisdom as founding director of ReIMAGINE!, a collective that engages people in integrative spiritual experiments and practices. He is the author of  Soul Graffiti and Practicing the Way of Jesus , and contributing author to Community of Kindness , The Relevant Church, and Emergent Manifesto of Hope. He lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his wife Lisa and their three teenage children (read Mark’s full bio here).

In my experience, spiritual formation has tended to be a rather introspective and private affair, centered on meeting regularly with a spiritual director, discerning God’s presence and action, and making decisions based on this shared reflection. And even though this often occurred within a community, it was not a deliberately communal process as such, nor did it necessarily draw concrete connections between spiritual development and local/global social, economic, and political concerns. Hence, I was attracted to Mark’s work because of his ability to integrate personal transformation with community building and social action. He does this through shared experiments he calls “learning labs,” which may involve such practices as activism aimed at ending human trafficking, applying Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions to personal and group finances, addressing addictive and compulsive behaviors, or sharing silence and contemplative prayer. From these experiments in faith emerge small communities or “tribes,” who make vows together annually, continuing to love, support, challenge, and hold one another accountable through successive experiments aimed at living ever more fully into the Kingdom of Love Jesus proclaimed.

One aspect that makes this model of community unique is its plasticity. According to Mark, about one third of his tribe move away each year, as other members join, which is only slightly higher than the degree of transiency in San Francisco generally (every year, approximately 20% of the population leaves). Amidst this high mobility, a core group remains, while those who depart may form similar communities where they land. Furthermore, because members of the community engage in an ongoing process of shared action and reflection, this allows for a flexibility that can discern best practices that endure over time, while providing a framework for addressing new challenges as they arise (as an example of the latter, we talk about online social media, the pervasiveness of which  could not have been anticipated 8 years ago, yet has now become a central and even consuming part of many people’s lives in a very short time).

Among other topics, Mark and I discuss spiritual formation in this context of an often dizzying mobility and social fragmentation (of which San Francisco is but a highly condensed microcosm). Against this backdrop, Mark shares his perception of a new consciousness rising, a longing for wholeness in ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and our world. In Mark’s view, this new consciousness has profoundly impacted young Christians, who today tend to be more concerned with issues of justice, community, ecology, and creativity—of a whole way of life—than traditional roles of priest, pastor, or missionary. As emerging communities seek to embody this new consciousness, integrating body, mind, and spirit and the personal, social, economic, and political dimensions of life, traditional models of formation may not be completely adequate. “Learning labs” that give rise to, shape, and sustain community offer one possible, complimentary approach of ongoing engagement in the cycle of action and reflection, catalyzed by a steady gaze upon Jesus’ vision of Kingdom of Love.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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S. Barbara Hazzard, OSB, entered religious life in 1954 with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Oakland, California. In the wake of the ferment following Vatican II, S. Barbara left her first religious community in the early 1970s to embark on a search for a deeper life of prayer both for herself and those to whom she ministered. This period of searching took a decisive turn when she discovered the work of the late Benedictine Fr. John Main in 1982. Visiting John Main’s experimental urban monastery in Montreal shortly thereafter, S. Barbara found a model of contemplative community that resonated with her own aspirations and the needs she perceived in the wider church. Upon her return to Oakland, she formed the Hesed Community along similar lines, as an expression of the Benedictine monastic tradition (Hesed is affiliated with Saint Benedict’s Monastery and Saint John’s Abbey, neighboring Benedictine communities in central Minnesota) committed to the teaching and practice Christian meditation.

John Main, OSB, was a pivotal figure in the revival of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer in the late 20th century. Similar to the paths of Trappist monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main’s exposure to the spiritual traditions of the Far East compelled him to dig deeper into his own contemplative heritage as a Christian monk.  Rediscovering the teachings on Christian meditation as taught by John Cassian in his Conferences (compiled in the 5th century as a synthesis of the Egyptian desert monastic tradition, foundational to Christian monasticism East and West) and the anonymous author of the 14th century book of instruction in contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, John Main developed and taught a practice of Christian meditation accessible to those leading busy lives in the world. Today, his teaching continues to nourish many through the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Hesed Community makes this contemporary expression of the Benedictine contemplative tradition available to those who, in the midst of the frenetic pace and excessive stimulation of urban life, thirst for silence and spiritual depth. In fact, S. Barbara believes that this model of contemplative community in the city represents one prominent path for the future of monasticism, making monastic values more present and available to the world. In this regard, Hesed has developed varied forms of participation and commitment—extended family members, brothers and sisters, and Benedictine Oblates—as well as being open to the public, to accommodate a diverse range of people’s needs. Significantly, as a community, Hesed has remained non-residential, with S. Barbara being the only full-time resident. A unique take on Benedictine living, S. Barbara shares her conviction that, because the community comes together primarily for shared silent prayer, this has led to a depth of intimacy and caring that a more complex, intensive living arrangement might make more difficult, especially for those already raising families and juggling multiple commitments.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Lysbeth Borie of the Alpha Institute has been involved in consensus decision making for over thirty years, including 10 years of daily practice at the Alpha Farm community in Deadwood, Oregon, and has worked as a consensus trainer, both privately and in partnership with her mentor Caroline Estes, since 1988. In our conversation, among other aspects of consensus process, Lysbeth and I explore how consensus process done well enriches the culture of communities, fostering growth, intimacy, and clarity of discernment; how it functions best when approached as a personal and collective transformational practice; the elements that go into healthy consensus process; and the role of consensus in the organic stages of group development.

While this is one of my longer interviews, I believe it’s well worth your time if this topic holds interest for you. What I most appreciate about Lysbeth’s reflections is the sense of consensus process as able to integrate the material, personal, social, and spiritual concerns of a community and use them as the raw material for mutual growth on all of these levels. This raises further questions that might be worth exploring more in depth at a later time. For instance, underlying this process is a worldview relying on a systems or ecological perspective that emphasizes the interrelationship and interdependence of those within the system, as opposed to a hierarchical worldview that implies the necessity for a clear chain of command. This contrast in worldviews in turn affects how we conceive of God and God’s action in the world, determines the forms of institutions that we develop, and the pattern of relations with one another and the planet.

Interestingly, the Rule of Benedict, while tending strongly toward the hierarchical (with the embodiment of Christ’s authority centralized in the person of the abbot), does not neglect the horizontal, or “that of God in all people.” For instance, as outlined in the third chapter of the Rule, the abbot should consult the whole of the community before making important decisions because “the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.” While the brothers in this instance play only a consultative role, there is nonetheless an acknowledgement that no one person, not even the abbot, can presume to have access to the whole truth but must patiently listen for God potentially speaking through each and all.

For me, this raises the further question of whether consensus process can adequately account for differences in levels of maturity and the appropriation of the ‘charism’ or calling of a community. Especially in a monastery or neo-monastic community, where the intent is to form its members according to the wisdom of a centuries-old tradition, there would seem to be a need to integrate both hierarchical and egalitarian approaches, though this ought to look different in our day than it did in Benedict’s sixth century context.

Much food for thought.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise

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“Community is not a good goal in itself but is a beautiful byproduct of seeking God’s kingdom together.”

-From a talk entitled “The Five Myths of Community” by Mark Scandrette, a man I hope to meet when I hit the San Francisco Bay (my interview with Mark here).

The “myth” that I resonate with the most in Mark’s talk is what he calls the myth of belonging—the insidious expectation that, if only I find the right community, my needs for companionship, direction, and growth will be met. This reminds me of a talk I attended years ago by Dorothy Maclean, co-founder of the Findhorn Community in Scotland. A young man stood up at the end of the talk to ask her a question: “My friends and I are interested in starting a community. What advice do you have for us?” Her response: if you’re interested in creating community for community’s sake, don’t bother. This is a recipe for disaster. A community bent on self-fulfillment will implode under the weight of accumulated disappointment, because this is not what community is for. Rather, a community must first be comprised of people with a shared intention that carries each out of themselves in some form of service. With so much talk of longing for community and meaningful connection in our day, I believe this understanding is crucial. And it would seem to present an odd paradox: in a sense, community as a goal must be aimed at indirectly, arising from the aspiration to serve rather than for the fulfillment of the legitimate personal need for community.

As anyone who has lived in community for any significant amount of time knows, this is not as simple as it may sound. Even with the best of conscious intentions, the unfulfilled needs and wounds of the past will insinuate themselves in the form of subtle or not-so-subtle demands on our community-mates. How we respond when this happens makes all the difference, especially in a dominant culture that may seem to exuberantly affirm us in our perception that our needs will be better met elsewhere, providing us with all manner of seductive images of greener pastures. And of course, sometimes it’s true—sometimes we simply need to move on. But when we do, we will as likely find ourselves haunted by the same unfulfillment in a different guise. The script remains essentially the same, only the actors and stage props change. What then?

In his Rule, Saint Benedict provides a startling contrast to the rootless search for fulfillment that has so many of us in its grasp. Everywhere we are confronted by a radical de-centering, from ourselves to the other who is Christ, especially as encountered in the person of the abbot or abbess, to whom is given willing obedience; in the stranger or guest, whose needs press upon the comfortable rhythms of the daily round; in the sick, who require our care and attention; in all our sisters and brothers, with their unavoidable foibles and weaknesses. At the heart of this Rule lies the 12-rung ladder of humility, outlining the descent of the self in terms that even many contemporary monks and nuns find jarring. Difficulties with language aside, this is actually my favorite part of the Rule. Why? Because if in my obedience to Christ whom I meet in others I can quietly embrace suffering in my heart, without weakening or seeking escape, in times of difficulty, dissatisfaction, or even injustice (fourth degree of humility), then I am no longer ruled by suffering, disappointment, insult, or injury. Pain no longer compels hand or heart. If I can be content with what is deemed the lowest occupations and pursuits (sixth degree of humility), and believe in my heart that I am nothing, a nobody (seventh degree of humility),* then I am liberated from the feverish pursuit of trying to be a “somebody”; liberated from the rivalrous game of comparison. Then, I am liberated from the allure of the whole array of symbols our culture (and subcultures) dangles before us as bearers of the rewards of prestige, security, power, love, fulfillment. Only then can I be free of the burdens of anger, lust, the urge to retaliate; free to forgive, to be an agent of peace and reconciliation, to love Christ above all else.

Of course, contemplating this “lofty” downward trajectory of the path of monastic transformation makes me painfully aware of my own radical insufficiency and failings. After all, I am attracted to this topic of cutting through the illusion of community as a source of self-fulfillment because I have been guilty of it time and time again. This is why I value such wisdom from the monastic tradition, not as a measuring stick to compare myself to an impossible ideal (which would be to create yet another symbol of self-fulfillment), but as the North Star pointing away from self-concern to the face of Christ who meets me in every person, every encounter, in the sacrament of this very moment. This, as I see it, is the way of Christian community, or any mature form of intentional community: a way that is not for “me.” And for those of us who are followers of Christ, we tread this way not because we choose it but because we first experience ourselves as chosen for it; not because we love but because we first experience ourselves as loved, with a love that increases in our hearts the more that we give it away.

*For those of you who may be cringing at this point or have cringed while reading this part of the Rule, what made the ladder of humility come alive for me as a vivid description of the path of spiritual liberation was a simple insight a teacher once shared with me. The humility being asked of us—for instance, believing in our hearts that we are the lowest among human beings—is not first a psychological reality but theological: we are made humble because of the growing appropriation of the insight of our “nothingness” before God. This living, transforming insight in turn radically reconfigures our relationships with other people, along the lines that Benedict and his sources such as John Cassian outline. It is intimacy with God, and the dethronement of self-centeredness that this entails, that underlies and permeates the ladder of humility, not self-loathing. Obviously, a pathological conviction that one is literally the lowest among all humanity is a gross inflation of self-preoccupation. Rather, to my mind, to believe in your heart that you are the lowest kind of human being is to see in yourself the potential to be what you most despise in others—that at heart you are no better than the rapist, the murderer, etc. And furthermore, God does not love you or anyone else the less for it. To see oneself as “good” leads to arrogance, hard-heartedness, and self-delusion. To see and accept oneself as in solidarity with the lowest of the low not only liberates from comparison but yields compassion, forgiveness, and creative action; or as Benedict assures us, yields the spontaneous love of God that is its own reward, uncompelled by fear or self-concern.

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