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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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?”

“My key.”

“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!

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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.

With Mandy Creighton and Ryan Mlynarczyk, whose own bicycle tour of ecovillages inspired my tour of communities, at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Rutledge, Missouri

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.

What every community needs: Jesse working the bar at the Milkweed Merchantile, Daincing Rabbit Ecovillage

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.

Camp-Cat waits.

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!

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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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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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