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Posts Tagged ‘Communitas’

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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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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