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

—Dietrich Bonheoffer

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

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

Well, actually…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let me know how it goes.

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Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

I’ve been struck most deeply thus far on the journey by the recurring theme of commitment, especially in my earlier interviews. Craig Greenfield’s perception that so many community-oriented young people today seek a kind of “community without cost”—that is, without real commitment or sacrifice—became a kind of conceptual lens through which I reflected on my own life experiences. John Schwiebert’s likening the level of commitment required for joining an intentional community to that of marriage also left a deep impression on me. Finally, Debbie Gish’s reflections on what she learned about commitment in her years of living in Church of the Sojourners, especially her sensed inability to even communicate that experience of commitment to a world that was quickly losing any kind of analogous experience or conception, named the elephant in the room: I’ve been operating without an inner conception or clear analogy from my own life experience of what deep commitment to people and place requires; to some degree, I’ve unknowingly sought “community without cost” because I hadn’t been aware of an alternative. And the emotional ambience within which these self-revelations were unfolding was drenched by my grieving a painful disappointment in an intimate relationship for the first months of the tour. In short, I was learning, in a graphic, visceral way, that I had a lifelong habit of making poor choices around commitment, to my own detriment and at times to the detriment of others. And the communities and people I was now encountering on this tour were serving as gentle but firm mirrors to this habit. Or, to place this discovery process in a positive light, these communities, these people, were helping to establish in me a new imagination, a new sense of possibility, a new hope that I could begin to live differently.

What I recognize more clearly now is that I have brought at least two sets of motivations into the communities I’ve lived. On the one hand, I’ve come to community out of the mature motivations of seeking to co-create a life of spiritual practice and justice-making, personal and social transformation, companionship and collaboration, in the context of serving a common vocation or mission. On the other hand, I’ve been compelled by a child’s motivations to satisfy the ache of unmet needs of the past, of holding others responsible for meeting those needs, and of acting out in unhelpful ways when they don’t (and, of course, they never do!). And to the extent that I have lacked self-awareness around this inner dichotomy, or haven’t had the understanding or ability to engage others responsibly amidst these emotional tensions, I’ve suffered greatly and have caused others to suffer as well.

When I think of Lois Arkin’s strong admonition to select for emotional maturity when discerning whether a prospective community member is a suitable fit, I don’t think this means that such a person must demonstrate pristine psychological health and wholeness. Heaven forbid! Rather, I think first of having a healthy self-awareness of how the kind of dichotomy I describe above functions in their own inner and outer lives; secondly, I think of having an adequate skill set to responsibly navigate their relationships given their unique mixture of motivational centers. On the community’s end, like Lois, I think of the necessity of having clear agreements and accountability structures, vision and mission statements, conflict resolution and participative decision-making processes, and a general ambience of safety that encourages clear, honest communication.

When I probe more deeply into what commitment means to me, however, I am compelled to think in terms of the vows I made in my formation as a Camaldolese-Benedictine monk: stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia. While these vows were temporary and I have since left the Order, my reflections around the nature of commitment over the course of 3000 miles of bicycling thus far have brought me back to their profound meaning and formative potential, both within and outside a formal commitment to community.

These vows rest upon the foundational experience of discovering oneself called by God to a particular community, people, or way of life: “Listen, my son, to the precepts of the Master, and incline the ear of your heart” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue). Listening in a deep and sustained way to that call (the practice of discernment) leads to a consolidation of one’s energies toward a particular commitment, understood as a concretization of one’s “yes” to God’s invitation. To use Catholic language, this means that one’s actions, responsibilities, relationships, and the events of one’s life become imbued with a sacramental quality. One’s whole life is illumined as an ongoing conversation with God. When I remember to call these vows to mind, for instance, they still resonate with the power to reveal God’s presence and action as intimately woven into my daily round, imperceptibly guiding my steps, meeting me at every turn.

Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

In particular, stabilitas, or stability, functions as an anchor, reminding me that this moment, this place, this person or people, are sacraments of God. Perhaps especially given my history of relational and geographic instability, both growing up and in my adult life, my only hope for prolonged stability lies in my faith in the gravitational pull of God’s invitation; Christ’s love, the only love that could ultimately bind me enduringly to people and place. Why? Because without this transcendent, relational reference point, as I’ve shared above, I recognize that I am highly vulnerable to relating to people, places, situations, and events as ends in themselves. This kind of self-seeking always leads to disappointment and, often enough, harm or neglect of others. At the same time, without the concreteness of real-world commitments and responsibilities, faith is reduced to a mere wish dream.

The careful discernment of God’s loving invitation requires an intuitive listening beyond preconceived ideas and ideals, beyond habitual likes, dislikes, and emotional predispositions. Staying put in the dispositions of faith, hope, and love carries me beyond the reach of immature, self-centered motivations. Only through abiding in these dispositions can I hope to stay put through life’s inevitable disappointments, disillusionments, and the painful consequences of my own limitations and weaknesses and those of others.

Conversatio morum sorum, often translated as fidelity to the monastic way of life, ongoing conversion, or even (with a pinch of poetic license) conversation, reminds me of the dynamism inherent in staying put in God. Stability, manifested through concrete commitments, places me fixedly under God’s transformative, loving gaze. It’s ironic that I’m learning more deeply of my own need for stability, of rootedness in order to more freely move in God, while on a perpetual-motion bicycle tour. While itinerancy has its place, even its own form of stability in God and conversatio through its constant invitation to nonattachment and letting go, in the context of community, growth tends to happen through an ongoing willingness to carry forward the sacramental conversation; that is, through fidelity to one’s given relationships and responsibilities. Conversatio always flows away from immature, self-centered motivation, and accepts growth, change, loss, and death as nonnegotiables that can neither be run from nor fought. Through eyes of faith, I aspire to see these nonnegotiables as a participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery, death to resurrection, constant transformation. Through faith-filled, dynamic fidelity, life forms me for God, God forms me for love, and I am freed to hold life and other people lightly without demanding that they stay the same for my sake.

Obedientia, obedience, presumes that God is in the mix, which is not to say that a superior’s dictates are always imbued with the wisdom of God. Nor does it presume that I must simply comply with what I am told to do without question or recourse. Rather, the practice of obedience dis-locates my motivational center from the exaggerated need to have my way, unclenching heart, mind, will, and imagination for real love and creativity. While the word “obedience” strikes modern ears with more than a hint of infantile, oppressive connotations, it derives from the Latin obediere, which means “to listen, to take heed, to respond.” In the context of a sacramental worldview, wherein all-that-is communicates God’s presence and action, this responsive, attentive listening becomes an overarching posture toward life: remaining faithful to God’s invitation, stable in one’s commitments, surrendered to God’s transformative action through life’s rhythms, rests upon constant listening/response. Once again, for the Christian, God in Christ resides as the transcendent, relational reference point, made sacramentally present through concrete relationships and responsibilities. In the context of community, this entails listening and responding faithfully to a superior’s directions (Rule of Saint Benedict, Ch. 5), while also including a faithful listening and responding to one’s sisters, brothers, guests, and all who are received as Christ (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chs. 53, 71). As indicated by my interview with Quaker teacher Lysbeth Borie, this same posture of transformative listening and responding—beyond self-centered motivation, for the sake of love and a shared mission—can also be facilitated by consensus process and decision-making (just make sure you and your community receive solid training!)

I strongly believe that neo-monastic and other Christian communities have much to learn from the largely secular intentional communities movement, especially in regard to structures and practices that facilitate healthy relationships, communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making. These structures and practices help people move from immature motivational centers toward mature wholeness and generativity. This kind of basic, integrative health is a necessary precondition for fruitful, stable community. Additionally, I strongly believe that learning from and incorporating elements of the classic monastic tradition can help take such communities a step further, toward self-transcendence; that is, into the self-giving love that is the hallmark of Christian spirituality. In my experience, the vows of stabilitas, conversatio, and obedientia serve both ends. First, they teach and form me into a life of mature commitment and responsibility. Secondly, they propel me out of the orbit of self-concern in a more profound manner, placing God in Christ at the center, liberating me to live the teachings of the Gospel, whether in the context of community or without. While this tour has taught me something of how very far I am from the abiding, all-pervading commitment these vows imply, I am grateful that they continue to point the way home.

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“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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