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Posts Tagged ‘Camaldolese Oblates’

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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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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Paula Huston has been an Oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage since 1999, after encountering the monastery during a period of acute spiritual crisis and having her life’s direction turned in an entirely new direction. She is the author of The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, By Way of Grace: Moving From Faithfulness to Holiness, Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving, and Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, as well as works of fiction. Her spiritual writing regularly appears in such journals as The Christian Century, America, Image, and Geez, in addition to websites like www.explorefaith.comwww.catholicexchange.com, and www.godspy.com.  She has four grown children plus small grandchildren, and lives with her husband in rural Arroyo Grande, California (full bio here).

This conversation is largely a response to my previous interview with Bruno Barnhart. Taking a decidedly different tack than Bruno’s vision of a new role for monasteries and the emergence of small, local experiments budding into new forms of monastic or quasi-monastic communities, Paula strongly defends the enduring validity and necessity of preserving ancient forms. In contrast to Bruno’s optimistic assessment of human creativity as a kind of revolutionary force unleashed by the Christ event, Paula sees, particularly in the Romantic Movement and the social upheavals of the mid-to-late 20th century, an unrestrained, destabilizing approach to both art and life that tends toward dissipation and broken relationships. Whereas Bruno suggests that the containment of the monastery often best serves as a period of training for a more creative kind of life, Paula sees the limitations imposed by a highly structured, disciplined life as the context wherein true creativity flowers. Not surprisingly, where Bruno sees the 1960s, and Vatican II in particular, as a time of grace, Paula paints a picture of the social fabric coming undone due to an exaggerated ideal of the good life as one without constraint or limitation. Paula also discusses her experience of the Oblate community of which she is a part, of how they’re held together in a bond akin to family with the monastery firmly at the center, and the liberating effects of learning to align their lives with the monastic values instilled by their relationship with the monastery. As regards the vocational crisis facing so many religious communities in the Christian West, Paula shares her belief that this is primarily a clash of cultures between modern and ancient prerogatives, a historical lull that actually gives monasteries greater opportunity to witness to something truly countercultural.

While these contrasting views might be caricatured as “liberal” and “conservative” (which I believe is an unfair simplification), I also see something else at play. The context for both interviews revolves around Bruno’s and Paula’s responses to the state of monastic institutions in the West, and New Camaldoli Hermitage in particular. As such, they appear to inhabit virtually opposite poles. I believe this kind of stalemate permeates much of the discourse around how to address what many see as a vocational crisis among monasteries today. Are changing cultural circumstances calling forth new forms of religious life? Do monastic institutions need to hold their ground as a countercultural witness and weather the crisis? Obviously, these are complex questions with no easy answers. What I find intriguing, however, is how different the context is among new evangelical communities that I’ve encountered. Because these communities have as yet no formal institutions of religious life of their own, there’s a spirit of freedom and spontaneity relatively unhindered by the kind of polarities one finds in Catholic circles. In other words, they’re able to draw from scripture, tradition, and human experience without bumping into overarching, longstanding structures, and hence do not suffer the kind of inertia that results from polarized reactions toward such structures. In fact, I would say that because of this freedom, the kind of small, local experiments Bruno foresees are actually happening now, though more often than not outside Catholicism.

My growing hope? That evangelical “new monastics” and Catholic monasteries forge stronger bonds, which would allow “new monastics” to establish deeper roots in history and tradition, and the “old monastics” to benefit from an infusion of youthful openness, enthusiasm, and spontaneity—the “many possibilities” of the beginner’s mind. This development leans more toward the less contentious idea put forward by Mary Forman, that we are entering a period of expanding diversity not unlike that which emerged in similar periods of cultural upheaval, a diversity fostered today by ecumenical dialogue and new relationships between monastics and laity.

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

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