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Archive for the ‘New Monasticism’ Category

Here’s a glimpse into how connected my world has become.

A few months ago, my girlfriend Lisa Washio, co-director of The Pink House in Fresno, California (an InterVarsity Urban Projects program that immerses young adults in a 10-month residential apprenticeship in biblical community, urban ministry, and leadership development) called me from a pub in New Orleans. She was hanging out with interviewees Mike Brantley of Communitas New Orleans (Episode 21) and Scott Bessenecker, InterVarsity’s associate director of missions (Episode 29), plus other members of Communitas. Also in attendance was our mutual friend Josh Harper of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, California (Episode 16), InterVarsity’s national coordinator for Urban Projects. As well, there were Phileena and Chris Heuertz, established leaders within the new friar organization Word Made Flesh, who are presently embarking on a new venture that I’m very excited about, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, through which they hope to help people integrate contemplative spirituality with social activism. In fact, I was eager to meet Phileena and Chris in my travels, but their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was too far from anywhere by bicycle!

So what am I doing now, six months after the journey’s end?

First of all, I want to say that it has been a journey in itself readjusting to ordinary pedestrian life after 14 months on the road. Thankfully, I had the close company of friends in Collegeville, Minnesota, to lighten the burden of transitioning. Even so, the visceral sense of not knowing who I was or what direction my life was headed was fairly acute for the first couple of months. In this condition, I found it extremely difficult to reengage theological studies at Saint John’s School of Theology for one last semester. Thankfully, I did manage to complete my classwork, yet my eye was more focused on where the real fruits of the tour were emerging. In previous posts, I’ve alluded to Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” as characterizing my own experience of being stripped and given new life in the process of making this bicycle tour. This sense of being given a new life only increased after the traveling ceased. In fact, in a fairly short period of time, I’ve gone from a dizzying sense of groundlessness to a new inner stability, interwoven with new relationships and opportunities, about which I will say more below.

Regarding my thoughts in response to what I learned and experienced on tour, I resonate strongly with a chapter I came across in an anthology of reflections on centering prayer, “Three Contemplative Waves,” by centering prayer teacher David Frenette (see Thomas Keating, et al, Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer [New York: Lantern Books, 2008], 9-55). Frenette’s basic thesis is that, over the past half century, the Christian contemplative tradition has undergone a profound renewal and transformation toward what he calls “incarnational contemplation”; that is, toward an emphasis on integrating contemplative practices such as centering prayer in the context of the everyday life concerns of work, marriage, family, and social justice. He identifies the first two phases of this renewal—firstly, developing new ways of understanding the relationship between contemplation and various areas of human concern, including integrating the insights of developmental and transpersonal psychology; and secondly, developing practice forms accessible to people living in the world—with the work of Cistercian monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Significantly, Frenette believes that we are currently on the cusp of a third phase of contemplative renewal, namely, the emergence of lay intentional communities that support and express these new patterns of contemplative living in the world.

Now, Frenette is writing from a different but related context than that of the majority of communities I’ve visited. Whereas the contemplative renewal Frenette traces has its roots firmly within the monastic tradition (most of its seminal teachers, for instance, have been monks—Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, John Main, et al), the new monasticism-new friars movements I’ve covered are emerging from outside the classic monastic and mendicant orders. Whereas incarnational contemplation until now has focused primarily on interior practices and personal transformation, the greatest strength of the new monasticism-new friars, as I see it, has been a deep commitment to embodying the radical social teachings of gospels, most often in poor urban neighborhoods. Whereas incarnational contemplation has thus far developed structures for local support groups and extended retreats, the new monasticism-new friars have focused on communal forms of social engagement. One other contrast that I believe is particularly relevant here is that of demographics: while both incarnational contemplation and the new monasticism-new friars are fairly diverse, their demographic centers of gravity split between older Catholics and mainline Protestants on the incarnational contemplation side of the coin, and younger evangelicals among the new monasticism-new friars.

From the point of view of the monasteries themselves, at least in the Christian West, there is the related phenomenon of the vitality of many monastic houses tipping more and more toward an engagement with the wider world. Many monasteries now have far more Oblates (lay people who commit themselves to living out the spirituality of the monastery in the world) than in-house monks and nuns. For example, at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California—of which I am an Oblate—there are presently approximately 50 Oblates for every monk. This widening gap underlies Ivan Kauffman’s conviction, which I share, that the future of monasticism in the West lies in the direction of celibate monastics forging new collaborative relationships with lay people.

So here is my reading of the situation in a nutshell: On the one hand, many monasteries—their numbers shrinking and median age rising—are leaning uncertainly into an unknown future, while some lay or “incarnational” contemplatives grope toward yet-to-be-determined communal forms of life. On the other hand, a vibrant, youthful network of mostly evangelical Christians is busy at work experimenting with structures for intentional community, seeking roots in ancient tradition while embodying fresh responses to present circumstances. And if there’s anything that I have to speak into this situation, after having explored communities on both sides of this equation, it is this: Monasteries and their associated movements stand to benefit profoundly from the youthful idealism, fresh perspectives, courage, and creative imagination that I see permeating the new monasticism-new friars. The new monasticism-new friars stand to benefit profoundly from the maturity, depth of prayerful interiority, historical rootedness, and accumulated wisdom of the classic Christian monastic and contemplative traditions. Hence, I see vast potential waiting to be tapped through forging enduring collaborative relationships among these various Christian movements, all of whom lay some claim to historical monasticism.

I have no general prescription for how this relationship-building might unfold, except to say that I believe that people like Phileena and Chris Heuertz, who are already rooted in both worlds, are in an ideal position to step into this creative overlap and make things happen; for surely, the Spirit broods over this field of possibility, awaiting willing hands and hearts. Phileena is especially well-positioned as someone steeped in the teachings and practice of centering prayer and widely respected as a leader within the new monasticism-new friars. As well, Lisa and I are already beginning to envision possibilities for a community or center of some kind in Fresno. We are both Camaldolese-Benedictine Oblates (or at least, Lisa will be shortly), and whereas my experience and training lie mostly in the classic monastic and contemplative vein, Lisa is more firmly grounded in urban ministry along the lines of the new monasticism-new friars. And, she has deep relational roots in Fresno. Hence, we intend to draw upon our many relationships in the area, maintaining close ties with nearby New Camaldoli Hermitage, to develop a way of life in community that integrates monastic rhythms and contemplative practice with service and hospitality to our neighbors.

At this point, our aspirations are in the early germination stage, and the specifics of what we decide to do will be the outcome of a long process of prayerful discernment and consultation; or, to paraphrase Scott Yetter of Nehemiah House, of listening for what God is doing in the neighborhood and how we can participate. For now, I am back at New Camaldoli Hermitage with a load of books underarm that I need to read for comprehensive exams in order to complete my monastic studies degree. Hopefully, I will finish by May and will then make my way to Fresno. I have no timeline to offer as yet for our endeavors, but I will check in periodically on this blog with updates (if you haven’t inferred this yet, I am an irregular blogger; hence, if you want to be kept informed, I would recommend signing up for an e-mail subscription at the top of the sidebar to the right).

In the meantime, I will continue to watch in wonder and gratitude at how God breathes new life into weary limbs and weaves meaningful connections out of what once appeared to be mere disjointed bones.

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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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Scott Bessenecker is Assistant Director of Missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational university student ministry, and has been involved with InterVarsity’s overseas mission projects since 1986. He has written numerous articles for publications such as RELEVANT and Mission Maker magazines, and is the author of New Friars; How to Inherit the Earth; and editor of Living Mission. Inspired by folks like Viv Grigg and others who see the need for a new kind of Protestant monasticism to take root to serve  urban slums, Scott developed the Global Urban Trek, through which takes young people overseas into slum communities to live with, to serve, and to learn from those embedded in poverty. In this way, Scott seeks to foster what he perceives the Holy Spirit doing in our day: inspiring a new generation of young Christians to bind themselves to the lives and struggles of the urban poor. Drawing a connection to the movement stirred up by Saint Francis of Assisi during the rapid urbanization of the 13th century, Scott refers these contemporary missional young people as “new friars.” He lives with his wife, Janine, and their three children, Hannah, Philip, and Laura, in Madison, Wisconsin.

In our conversation, Scott outlines the similarities and differences between the new friars and their close cousins in the new monasticism movement. Both are ecumenical in composition, led largely by young, Western evangelicals who seek to learn from the classic religious orders; both embody a similar, downwardly-mobile, communal solidarity with the poor. Yet, while new monastics are most often drawn into local Western communities, emphasizing stability of place, the new friars tend to be drawn into the world as if by a centrifugal, outward-moving energy and global vision. Similarly, Scott distinguishes between the new friars and conventional Protestant missions. While the latter have tended to reflect a modern Northern European capitalistic, individualistic, product-driven value system, the new friars—valuing community, contemplation, and ongoing spiritual growth—are seeking to create new wineskins outside the old structures. In discussing his work with young people through Global Urban Trek, Scott emphasizes our need to detox from the spiritual sickness engendered by affluence in order to learn rightful dependence on Jesus Christ and to walk in solidarity with the poor. Scott also speaks of the rediscovery of contemplation and spiritual direction among Evangelicals, and the necessary reciprocal relationship between activism and contemplation. Finally, while recognizing that the new friars may remain relatively small in numbers, Scott voices his confidence that the movement will not only endure but have an impact far exceeding its size, helping urban youth develop a prophetic imagination for what God’s kingdom can look like in slum communities.

Organizations associated with the new friars movement: Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (see my interview with Craig Greenfield of Servant’s Vancouver); InnerCHANGE (see Catherine Rundle of InnerCHANGE Los Angeles and Mike Brantley of Communitas, New Orleans); Word Made FleshServant Partners; and Urban Neighbours of Hope.

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

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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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With Mother Hilary Crupi OJN

The Order of Julian of Norwich Monastery in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has been on my radar screen for some years now. In fact, when I entered the novitiate at New Camaldoli Hermitage, I took the name Julian after Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Englishwoman who lived as an anchoress, or solitary, attached to the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, England. Reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love had such a profound impact on me, especially in her portrayal of God as completely devoid of all forms of violence, that I realized that part of my life’s work was to live into her radically subversive vision of God’s love. Consequently, I was excited to learn of a monastic order committed to living out the vitality of this vision in the context of a shared life of contemplation, liturgy, and manual labor. Founded in 1985 by Fr. John-Julian Swanson OJN as a contemplative monastic order within the Episcopal Church, the Order of Julian of Norwich weaves various threads of traditional sources (Cistercian, Benedictine, Carmelite) under the guiding inspiration of the words, witness, and enduring spirit of Julian of Norwich.

I arrived at the monastery with no expectations other than to share prayer, a meal, and hopefully engaging conversation. Meeting with Mother Hilary after lunch, we quickly began talking about the life of the monastery and changes the community’s undergoing. Of course, we talked at length about Julian of Norwich. But she surprised me when I spoke of my tour and the new monasticism and she expressed her earnest desire to find ways to pass on the wisdom of the tradition to these pioneers who are building the next phase of the monastic movement. Having evangelical Christian roots herself, Mother Hilary understands some of the struggles and aspirations driving the many young evangelicals who are spearheading the new monasticism. In fact, she’s even taken this question of how to support these emerging communities to conferences with other leaders of religious communities.

Pedaling from the monastery, I felt nourished in body, mind, and spirit, inspired by Mother Hilary’s enthusiasm, openness, concern, and sense of responsibility for sharing the gifts she’s inherited. I hope this marks the beginning of a relationship that bears fruit.

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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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Having just come from Koinonia Farm and gleaned from conversations there that, among some in the New Monasticism movement, there is a growing interest in connecting more deeply with the classic monastic tradition, I was eager to bring “old-school” monastics into the conversation. Here I speak with Cistercian monk Michael Lautieri, OCSO, current vocation director of Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. In our conversation, I asked Michael how neo-monastic communities might better learn from monasteries and the monastic tradition. He offers two concrete possibilities—monastics living temporarily with neo-monastic communities as teachers, and core members of neo-monastic communities spending time in temporary monastic guest programs such as that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit. In regard to learning from monasticism, Michael stresses the need to actually experience monastic life firsthand in order to understand the monastic charism. And while he emphasizes monasticism’s adaptability and flexibility according to culture, circumstance, and religion, he’s also clear on what he considers the constitutive elements of any form of monasticism: prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community. Michael also shares his thoughts on what he anticipates for the future of monasticism (mirroring Ivan Kauffman’s conviction that the future of monastic communities lies in stronger bonds with lay people) and his enthusiasm over the broad interest among lay people today in incorporating a depth of spirituality into their lives through learning monastic values and practices.

Embedded in this interview are two questions that have come to the fore for me over the course of this tour of communities. The first question is, simply: what is monasticism? One concern I have is that the New Monasticism movement has been re-defining the very meaning of the word, often with little concrete input from or experience of the classic monastic tradition. While this re-definition process from a fresh perspective expands the monastic imagination, so to speak, sometimes I have difficulty understanding just what’s monastic about particular expressions of the New Monasticism. Hence, I want to carry this question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism into future interviews with monastics “new” and “old,” and especially into my Monastic Studies program at Saint John’s School of Theology upon my return this fall. Thus far, I’ve received three direct responses to this question: Mary Ewing Stamps, leader of the Methodist-Benedictine Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery, emphasized the structural elements of stability of place, a leader, and a rule of life (incidentally, even though much of her own formation took place in a Benedictine monastic guest program similar to that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit, she prefers the idea of monastics coming to live as teachers with new communities in order to preserve the importance of a sense of place). Camaldolese-Benedictine monk Cyprian Consiglio, speaking from the eremitical (hermit) tradition and from years of involvement in monastic inter-religious dialogue, named the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as comprising the core of monasticism. And here, again, speaking from within the Cistercian tradition, Michael identifies the essential elements of monasticism as prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community.

What these three monastics witness to is the fact that there is no definitive answer to the question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism. Rather, there are many perspectives from within a shared body of experience that constellates around certain key features, while allowing for much diversity. Hence, I think Michael makes a crucially important point here: that monastic life cannot be adequately understood from the outside; it has to be lived. And to reiterate an observation I’ve made in earlier posts, this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism contrasts with new expressions of Buddhist communities in the West, in so much as the latter have mostly developed directly from what has been passed down from Asian monastic teachers; the lineage of tradition remains unbroken. Which brings me to my second question, reflecting my conviction that the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism have much to offer one another:

How might this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism be bridged? And why? What does each have to offer the other?

Stay tuned…

Books mentioned or alluded to in the interview: Monastic Practice, by Charles Cummings, OCSOConsecrated Religious Life: The Changing Paradigms, by Diarmuid O’Murchu 

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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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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“Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away”                                                                                —Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

The last time I stopped in Gainesville on a bicycle tour almost 20 years ago, I didn’t leave till over three years later. I arrived without a strong religious orientation and left headed to a Zen Buddhist monastery. In other words, stopping in Gainesville, Florida, on a bicycle tour spells trouble if I’m invested in a certain religious status quo.

Over these past weeks, I chose to spend some time simply bicycling and camping because I know from experience that, not only do I derive tremendous satisfaction through this kind of simple, earthy travelling, but it also serves as a spiritual discipline: tuning out the voices of social expectation, personal idealism, and emotional attachments that no longer serve, and fostering a greater receptivity to spiritual intuition, even when this intuition seems to contradict my own desires. Hence, I believed that this time of biking would help me enter more deeply into the questions that resound in my own heart, and where these questions intersect with what I’m learning on this tour of communities. In fact, I got more than I bargained for.

I generally don’t seek to give something up or take on a new practice for Lent. The reason being, I have come to believe that God plays upon my life with often surprising attention to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. In other words, rather than giving something up, I’ve found that some kind of loss or disorientation usually sneaks up on me right about the beginning of Lent. I expend my energies through the Lenten season, then, navigating this un-asked-for loss, seeking reorientation and a deeper reliance on spiritual help. This Lenten season has proven no different, except that the experience of loss and disorientation has less to do with anything happening in my outer life and relationships and more to do with uncovering those questions and doubts that simmered below the surface during my previous three years of theological education.

I introduced “Pilgrim Reflections” in my last post intending a series of sharing more about what’s happening within me and the kind of questions that I am wrestling with on a more personal level on this journey. However, after a dozen or so attempts to sit down at my laptop and tap out the next post, I’ve since had a change of mind and heart. There are two reasons for this. First, anything I write at this point on such a personal level would be too raw and tentative for a public forum. Secondly, in trying to interweave my personal journey with reflections on communities, I’ve found that both become rather murky. Rather, focusing objectively on communities helps ground and anchor me in something outside myself on this otherwise solo venture, while attending to my inner life allows me to be more present and wholeheartedly engaged with the communities and people I visit. And in order to maintain a healthy balance, the inner journey has to be bracketed to some extent from bleeding through overmuch into my more objective reflections on communities.

That said, I do want to begin the considerations that follow by sharing that, in general, the questions that I’ve been wrestling with revolve around religious identity and my perennial difficulty in “finding myself” within conventional religious institutions and systems of organized belief. And at least in this sense, I find that my personal journey and what people have shared with me in interviews and private conversations dovetail perfectly. In fact, what has emerged as a kind of overarching narrative to the story of emerging intentional communities is that we are all engaged in a massive historical shift in what it means to live a deeply intentional religious life. This theme was addressed explicitly in my first three interviews. Both Mary Ewing Stamps and Ivan Kauffman, for instance, see this shift in terms of historical cycles of deep mutations in our religious structures every 500 years, with the implication that we should expect nothing less than that we are living in a period of time analogous to the upheavals of the Reformation. And Mary Ewing Stamps, Mary Forman, OSB, and Ivan Kauffman all affirm that what’s facilitating these tectonic shifts today is dialogue: ecumenical, inter-religious, inter-cultural.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”                      —Isaiah 43:19

In the case of Mary Ewing Stamps, the theme of following the promptings of the Spirit toward developing surprising new structures of religious life through dialogue becomes most explicit. Formed within established Benedictine houses while remaining true to her Methodist heritage, she has gone on to establish an ecumenical, non-residential Benedictine monastery embracing both celibate and non-celibate members. Arising from the evangelical end of the continuum, I am particularly impressed by InnerCHANGE as another new expression of ecumenical religious life. Also embracing single people as well as families, modeled upon the historical example of Saint Francis and his followers, among others, and embedded within the framework of the larger missionary organization CRM, InnerCHANGE is poised at the forefront of developing formal structures to nurture and give expression to this impetus toward what Ivan Kauffman calls lay intentionality: patterns of religious life for lay people analogous to the intensity of commitment and intentionality as historically embodied in formally vowed, celibate orders.

Perhaps the most dramatic of structural mutations I’ve encountered thus far, however, is that of San Francisco Zen Center, relative to its roots in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. In the context of developing new structures, Buddhist communities in the West have at least two advantages over Christian monastic, neo-monastic and other movements. The first is a far more flexible institutional framework that lends itself to an adaptability exceeding that of formal Catholic orders. Secondly, Buddhist communities are also largely unburdened by the kind of historical amnesia and dissociation from tradition that new evangelical orders and movements are in the process of remedying. Hence, it is my hope that Christian monastics and neo-monastics alike might learn from their Buddhist sisters and brothers during this time of transition and experimentation.

And lest I get carried away by the apparent seamlessness of this emerging narrative, there’s Paula Huston’s critique of modernism and celebration of classic monasticism to interrupt the flow, or at least call it into question. Actually, I’ve been surprised by how many people have shared with me how much they appreciate her contribution. I say surprised because these are people who are highly sympathetic with newer movements but realize that the viability or potential viability of these movements lie in their ability to establish some formal connection or rootedness in ancient tradition. I see her critique less as a contradiction, then, as a potential warning or corrective to an overly enthusiastic embrace of change and the allure of novelty. In fact, it seems clear to me that this longing for ancient roots is part and parcel of what’s driving such movements at their best, embodying the creative tension articulated during Vatican II as a return to ancient sources while adapting these sources freshly to the unique needs, aspirations, and challenges of our moment in history. And if I can reiterate Ivan Kauffman’s strong admonition: the way forward is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—of new movements and communities establishing relationships with classic orders in an ongoing conversation of mutual learning and growth. Evangelicals especially seem susceptible to getting carried away by the apparent discovery of some liberating new insight, only to see this initial explosion of enthusiasm quickly fizzle and fade as a seed cast on rocky ground (I think of Debbie Gish’s chuckling over the extreme presumptuousness and naiveté of her and her community-mates at the origins of Church of the Sojourners: “We found Acts 2 and we were the first ones to get it. Like, how come no one else noticed this before!!??”). Hence, she and others laud the shift in the air among Christian communitarians today in deliberately seeking out and incorporating the wisdom of those who are heirs to traditions of Christian community living that span centuries.

In closing, since these reflections have been a comfort to me, I want to convey to those readers who also haven’t “found themselves” within conventional religious structures, who feel prompted by the Spirit to press forward into an unknown future, that you are not alone. Far from it. Thanks be to God, hopeful signs are abundant.

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I knew going into the interview with Paula Huston that she had a different perspective than Bruno Barnhart, and I was (and still am) glad to be able to offer listeners diverse of points of view on the subject of the current status and future possibilities of monasticism. What surprised me, however, was how stridently and single-mindedly she put forth her views. Whereas she sees the fruits of the Romantic Movement as continuing to exercise a corrosive influence on modern/postmodern culture, making the flourishing of traditional monasticism or any deeply committed, highly disciplined way of life all but impossible, I wondered if she herself wasn’t operating from an exaggerated idealization of monastic life. So I put the question to her and am publishing her response below, which I think is a clear, concise summary of her main point.

On a personal level, this interview perplexes me in so much as it’s likely the one thus far wherein I find the most to disagree with, while at the same time am sympathetic to her argument. Hence, while Paula and Bruno’s views on everything from art and creativity to theology and monasticism can seem diametrically opposed, I personally cannot take a side. Rather, I see Paula’s caution and skepticism toward new developments, and reverence for ancient patterns, a necessary compliment to Bruno’s dynamic, revolutionary approach. On a deeper level, this perception of complementarity reflects how this journey is stimulating my own wrestling with the tension between attraction to “emerging communities” on the one hand (dynamic, creative, spontaneous) and “ancient roots” on the other (depth, stability, historical continuity). Paula tips the scale strongly toward the latter and I welcome that contribution, even while I cannot give it my full assent.

St Catherine’s Monastery © 2007 Christopher Chan

Paula Huston: “The word “romanticism” is another term that in common usage has been robbed of its original meaning, or at least its literary meaning, and has come instead to serve as simply another way to say “idealization.” As I said, I was using it during the interview in this much narrower literary sense. Though the British romantics did indeed idealize the past, particularly the ancient pagan world and high Medievalism, they did so for a different reason than the one at work in my own high view of the past. They sought (or created out of thin air) previous cultures that seemed more passion-driven and connected to the earth than their own. Much of this was driven by a rejection of the preceding era, the Enlightenment, which looked to Reason for salvation. The goal of these young romantic rebels was to follow their passions wherever they led, which put them in direct conflict with the wisdom of the classical Greeks and ancient Christians, who BECAUSE they had such great respect for the power of the passions (and their ability to fragment us and destroy our lives), stressed self-discipline as the path to self-preservation. Obviously, monasticism has its root in this second view. Monastic ascetical practices would have been anathema to the high Romantics (and especially the most romantic of the 19th century philosophers, Nietzsche). What the romantics bequeathed to our era were 1) an automatic resistance to moral and spiritual authority, 2) a rejection of traditional wisdom about the dangers of unrestrained passion and desire, 3) an almost religious worship of “the natural” vs. the institutional or dogmatic, 4) a strong focus on the self and its perceived needs as opposed to focus on the community and its needs, and 5) a belief that truth is individual and to be found “within” rather than in any exterior or transcendent form. Actually, they bequeathed a lot more to us, but these points constitute the essence of my beef with them. This romantic attitude toward life, coupled with the unbelievable technological mastery we’ve become heirs to in the 21st century, has created, in my mind, a culture that suffers from an extreme form of what the ancient Greeks would call hubris. We have been convinced that we need to look no further than our own selves for wisdom and truth. Modernism, to a large degree, is about self-worship.

This is what I meant when I said that contemporary monasteries are engaged in a death struggle with modernism. Within the modern framework, there is absolutely no place for a philosophy or religion that depends upon sources of moral and spiritual authority outside the self. This is why people come to the monastery, are briefly intrigued, then drift on to something else more interesting. They are in the business of “experiencing” life, the business of discovering their own wants and pleasing themselves rather than seeking to break out of this narrow cocoon of self-absorption in order to actually find their place in the Body of Christ. The two worlds represented in this culture clash are so far apart at this point that it really does require crossing a great and frightening gulf to be willing to live in this radically alternative, monastic way. And, as a side note, this is why I don’t have a lot of optimism about the current new monastics. Just as all of us are in the post-modern world, they (and we) are absolutely soaked in the philosophy of self-pleasing. Self-sacrifice is a completely foreign concept. And so (of course) they will be tempted to set things up in a way that’s comfortable for them, that doesn’t challenge them in any real way, that doesn’t get at the core of self-worship. They will call this way of skirting the hard work required of real monastics (and real Christians, for that matter) “creativity.” The hard stuff, the truly challenging, soul-changing stuff, is too “rigid” or “authoritarian”–or it is simply “not me.” Hence my sincere admiration for people who are called to traditional monastic life and actually stick it out–the long, boring, confining years when it seems as though life has completely passed them by and they are dying on the vine–but they stick it out because they can look back over 1700 years and read about people who did the same and not only survived but were transformed. It is SUCH a hard life, if it is truly lived this way, that I know I could not do it myself. But I can certainly honor it and do my best to defend it when I’m asked for my opinion.”


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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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Bruno Barnhart is a Camaldolese-Benedictine monk of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and was one of my primary teachers during my own monastic formation. He is the author of The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center, Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity, The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity, and co-editor of Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions.

What might happen if a monastery, whose Oblates (nonresident lay associate members) outnumber the monks within by a 50 to 1 ratio, embarked upon an experiment in renewal that altered the very form and function of what conventionally comprises a monastic community?

This interview is actually the tail end of a much longer conversation, wherein we had discussed such topics as wisdom, evolution, poetry, and especially the exhilarating, irrepressible, revolutionary impulse at the heart of Christianity. Our primary guides were the restless, Christ-possessed, future-oriented Apostle Paul, and the 20th century Jesuit scientist, theologian, and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially in their understanding of the Cosmic Christ. Also relevant to the interview, we spoke of literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and his distinction between the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope (applied by Emerson particularly to political parties but ultimately seen as forces in tension underlying all human affairs) and Owen Barfield’s notion that the Christ event fundamentally shifted the trajectory of human history from a position of receptivity and learning to one of creativity or co-creativity with God. What emerges is a hope-filled vision of a divinely-charged human creativity flowing from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, with a preference for the innovative and experimental.

At the point at which this interview actually begins, I bring the conversation down to earth by asking, in essence: what does this have to do with monasticism? That is, how would this dynamic, creative, future-oriented perspective change a monastic culture that tends to focus its energies on conserving and recapitulating the past? From there, we begin to sketch what such a new monasticism might look like in the present day; the role existing monasteries would play in this transformation; and how this might actually take shape in a monastery like Bruno’s own. Since New Camaldoli Hermitage’s situation—of a flourishing life outside the cloister, yet seeming diminishing life within—is by no means unique, the ideas expressed here have a potentially broad applicability for a new monasticism and new monasteries.

(For a critical response to this interview, see Paula Huston)

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

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