Well, it’s been over three years since my last post, and for those of you with faith enough to continue signing up for subscriptions, I commend you! Since that last post, I’ve graduated theology school, gotten married, and joined an intentional community, in that order—much to celebrate! Lisa and I got married in July of 2014 in Fresno, California, where we lived for two years (she had been there a total of a dozen), before moving to Casa de Clara San Jose Catholic Worker a little over a year later, in August 2015.

From the beginning, our aspiration had been to live communally, sharing prayer and living and serving among those on the social margins. We gave ourselves a minimum of a year before making that move, giving ourselves time to build our own “community of two” before joining with others. In March of 2015 we made our first visit to Casa de Clara and were inspired by the vibrant life we saw and felt in the many guests, friends, and volunteers we met, who were clearly nourished in their varied relationships with the community. We were inspired to join especially by the unique balance of prayer, hospitality, and activism: at Casa de Clara, our day begins at 7am for an hour of silent common prayer and ends with brief evening prayer, plus a Friday night prayer group and monthly Mass; we provide temporary housing for women and women with children experiencing homelessness, with whom we sit at table for dinner family-style each evening; and we participate regularly in peace vigils, protesting the manufacture and trade of weapons of mass destruction at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms Tablemanufacturer, among other activities that make up our daily round. In other words, we live a way of life integrated by and expressive of our deepest faith commitments: following Jesus’ way of solidarity with those on the social margins, economic simplicity and sharing in community, and nonviolent peacemaking.

We’re still neophytes, having only been part of the community a little over seven months now, still adjusting, sensing whether this is something to which we can commit for the long haul. Like any communal experience, depending on which side of the bed we happen to wake up on, the very things that seem so life-giving one day can feel unbearable the next: “We live where we work! We work together as spouses! Our schedules are flexible and malleable from day to day! We live with others in community!” Our first concern was architectural: how were we going to downsize from a rented 1200 square foot house all to ourselves, to a 130 square foot bedroom in a shared home? I had great fun designing our room and building a queen-size loft, floating shelves on the walls, and basically anything else I could think of to maximize space and build a comfortable nest. Having established physical space, we’ve been DSCN2024slowly easing in, finding our place in a core community of four (including ourselves) and a fluctuating community of 4-7 guests, including children! So life for us is good, challenging, hopeful, and we are grateful to have found a concrete way to live out our aspirations. We are clearly on the path I named in my previous post: integrating social action and contemplative practice in community.

And so, it is time to bring Emerging Communities Ancient Roots to a close. My life today is so shaped by what I learned and experienced, and by who I met on my tour of communities, that in some sense it hardly feels over and done. At the same time, I am living a very different kind of life from that period of mostly solitary itinerancy, punctuated by brief stays in communities—I am now married and seeking to plant roots in the kind of life that the tour inspired me to live. So, once again, I extend my deep gratitude to all of you who have followed, supported, hosted, befriended and shared your stories and wisdom with me along the way.

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.

While there’s a lull in the action (that is, a lull in blog-posting action, due to the fact that I am presently too mired in studies to think about much else!), I thought I’d take a moment to answer one of the more interesting questions I was recently asked about my tour by a fellow student. After I brushed off the seemingly mandatory first question, “Were you ever in any danger?” (to which my answer is, believe it or not, no!), I was then asked, “Okay, then what was the strangest thing you saw?”

Now that’s a great question! I have two responses.

The first occurred on the outskirts of Clarence, Missouri. Evening was approaching, which meant that I needed to begin my usual routine of filling my water bottles, then find a place to camp for the night. Just before reaching US-36, I spotted a gas station enfolded by a sprawling cemetery (if you’ve been following along thus far, you may recall that I find cemeteries to make excellent stealth-camping sites [stealth-camping—the legally ambiguous art of camping for free in tucked-away places otherwise not designated for camping]). Perhaps I should have read the gas station’s unusually snug proximity to the cemetery as a hint that something was a little…strange. But at the end of a blistering summer’s day of pedaling a 100-pound bicycle for 70+ miles, my mental reflexes were a little slow.

And so it was that I drew closer and marveled that the cars in the lot all seemed to be from the 1950s, marveled all the more when I noticed that the single gas pump was also of vintage variety, and I was finally shaken out of my mental stupor when I noticed that the price-per-gallon on the pump was well under one dollar.

Yes, strange.

I took a closer look around this eerie gas station-cum-cemetery. The utter stillness among the graves also extended to the station itself, despite the fact that at first glance the place seemed to be bustling with activity. I looked into the windows of the antique cars. Yes, they were inhabited, but the inhabitants weren’t moving either! A closer look: they were mannequins! And not just any mannequins, but mannequins in giant monkey suits, and others with similar macabre distortions to their humanoid features.  Fully lucid now, I stood dumfounded, trying to absorb the meaning of this roadside-frozen-freakshow-museum-graveyard.  No matter how I strained my imagination, though, I couldn’t infer any meaning or purpose. Just…strange. Finally, I shook off the cognitive dissonance and vague uneasiness that had swept over me, pedaled to a real gas station a half-mile away, filled my water bottles, pedaled back to the cemetery, set up camp behind the graves, and slept like a…mannequin?

The second strange incident occurred on the 4th of July in Munson Township, Illinois. Now, on the previous night, I had done something I rarely do on bicycle tour: pay to camp at an actual campground. Big mistake. The place was crawling with four-wheel ATVs being driven in circles by drunk people shooting off bottle rockets long past bedtime. The next day, then, expecting more boisterous patriotic revelry, I determined to camp as far away from civilization as possible. And I was quite successful. On Google Maps I spied a small green dot with the label, “Munson Township Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve.” A cemetery AND a nature preserve? A stealth-camper’s dream! And the place was far from any significant town or road.

Arriving at the cemetery/nature preserve, I was quite happy to find an immaculate hilltop slice of wilderness, peppered with graves over a century old, overlooking an endless rolling sea of soybean fields. I felt so safe in this quiet, isolated spot that I didn’t even bother trying to hide my tent; I slept fairly out in open view of anyone who might happen to drive up. And in fact, as I drifted to sleep on what was by far the quietest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced, I was jarred to full consciousness at midnight by the glare of headlights drawing near. I prepared to get out of the tent and do what I always do in such situations: proactively approach people, introduce and explain myself. But I hesitated because the couple who parked a mere 15 yards from my tent hadn’t yet noticed me; their headlights hadn’t shined in my direction. I waited, listened, watched as the man got out and clambered into the woods in front of the still-shining headlights.

“It’s in a box. I know it’s here! Why can’t I find it!?”

After about 15 minutes of this midnight treasure-hunting, he gave up the search, got back into the truck, and drove away. They never discovered me. I continued to listen as the sound of the motor drifted off into the night, leaving behind only stark silence…and a handful of questions!

After waking the next morning, I conducted a little treasure-hunt of my own. In the place where the man had searched, I found an old toilet bowl and an assortment of rusty, abandoned farming equipment. But no box, nor any clue of the mysterious content of said box, nor a hint of why they chose the middle of the night on the 4th of July to come looking!


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!

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!

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.

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.

Laird Schaub (community and consensus blog) and Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig (www.maikwe.net) are members of neighboring Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, respectively, in Rutledge, Missouri. Laird co-founded Sandhill Farm in 1974 as an egalitarian, income-sharing farming community, and is one of the creators and current administrator of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization committed to nurturing and promoting intentional communities worldwide. He has worked as a group process consultant for 25 years, providing training in consensus facilitation, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Ma’ikwe is author of Passion as Big as a Planet, which explores the connection between the inner and outer dimensions of ecological activism. She is a consensus facilitation trainer, often working together with Laird, directs Ecovillage Education US, and gives workshops on starting communities, leadership, and spiritual activism. She is the mother of a teenage son and expresses her passion for people and planet through helping Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage grow into its vision of a full-scale, ecologically regenerative village and center for research and education.

In our conversation, Laird, Ma’ikwe, and I discuss the consequences of communities lacking a common understanding and agreements around how to handle emotionally-charged conflict. We explore the strengths and weaknesses often exhibited in communities with a shared spiritual orientation, and the challenge of bringing the full range of human modes of knowing into the room—including emotional, kinesthetic, intuitive, and spiritual—in a culture that is heavily biased toward translating all forms of knowledge and experience into clear thinking. Laird talks about his experiences working with communities and the most common causes of group conflict he encounters, such as scapegoating (the contagious belief that “things would be better if only so-and-so would…”) and the tendency of groups to harden themselves around particular narratives. Finally, Laird and Ma’ikwe speak of the advantages Christian teachings offer in establishing healthy relational and communication habits in community, and of the spiritual benefits of consensus process and decision-making, and its congruence with a Christian sacramental worldview—of God in all things.

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

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.

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.

60 miles out of Little Rock, by late evening I found myself on a horrendous, loose-gravel road just north of Kensett, Arkansas. I would precariously pedal for 50 yards or so before the front wheel would slip out from under me. At least half the time, this meant that I simply crashed to the ground since I couldn’t get my feet out of the clips in time. On the whole, then, in fits and starts, I lurched along at about four miles per hour. And each time I’d hit the ground, I’d let out a torrent of curses that would make an Italian sailor blush! Finally, wisely, after fighting for a couple miles, I gave up. I looked to my right and found a break in the woods between the road and the railroad tracks. I tucked in 30 yards from the road, out of sight, and a mere 30 yards from the tracks as well. Not a bad campsite overall, though I would have slept better were it not for the dozen or so trains that passed through the night and shook the ground beneath me like rolling bundles of thunder!

Incidentally, given that the principle virtue that engenders safe, satisfying stealth camping is discretion, strategically speaking, I wouldn’t recommend hurling hair-raising profanities into the dusk of a quiet rural community before settling in for the night.

The following evening I enjoyed some of the best riding of the tour through the foothills of the Ozarks. I glided effortlessly along a ribbon-route, dipping through forest and lake and then bobbing to the surface again to enjoy a wide-angle view of sprawling, jagged tree-topped waves of green. At one point, I passed a boy waving and shouting enthusiastically to me from his porch below. I looked and saw several adults with him, and so turned into the drive and asked if they could either let me camp on their land or recommend another place for the night. One of the men pointed me to a city park in Mount Pleasant a couple miles further. Arriving ten minutes later, I pitched my tent in a discrete spot behind the park, introduced and explained myself to a couple of locals who were running and lifting weights there, and enjoyed a quiet, restful night at last.

City Park, Mount Pleasant, Arkansas

(For parents who find the above image…well, somewhat troubling, let me assure you that it is exceedingly unlikely that there are bicycle tourers lurking in the underbrush behind your local playground! And in the rare case that there are, they should be departing early morning without leaving a trace.)

Poolside Camping, Lanton, Missouri

Upon crossing the Missouri border the following evening, I once again found myself cruising through pristine rolling hills with minimal traffic. Looking for a place to camp for the night, I spied a man, Peter, sitting beside a small catfish pond in front of a campground, enjoying the dusk. I rolled over the grass toward him and we chatted about hiking and biking and the like. A native of Austria, at 75, Peter still bikes 20 miles a day after years of hiking and mountain-climbing. At one point in the conversation, I asked him how much he charged for tent-camping. He said $20 but told me to name a price. I offered $5 but he wasn’t going below $10. We continued to chat awhile longer, and then I filled up my water bottles, intent to push on to find free camping. As I straddled my bike to leave, he invited me to camp for $5. I took advantage of the facilities, delighting in a hot shower (as opposed to sponge-bathing in the woods with a single water-bottle’s content of water [the other two being reserved for drinking and food-prep] while simultaneously shooing away mosquitoes)—a real stealth-camping luxury!

South of Houston, Missouri

The next night proved to be one of the more dramatic of the tour. I’ve learned that, if you want someone to stop and give you directions in a decent-sized rural town, just stand at the intersection of the town-center looking confused. So I planted myself on the corner of Main Street and U.S. Hwy. 17 in Willow Springs, MO, and waited. Within a minute or two, Jim parked his motorcycle next to me and offered his services. After learning that I study theology, he excitedly removed his helmet, dismounted, and told me he spends 8-9 hours a day with his New King James Bible and Strong’s Concordance. An unusual conversation on biblical history and interpretation ensued. Finally, we got down to business. He gave me some great advice for a route and even recommended a place to camp. Eighteen miles later, I found the turnoff he suggested, leading to a creek below. I set up my tent and was satisfied. However, as I was getting ready to sleep, I checked the weather forecast. 30-40% chance of scattered thunderstorms! And because I anticipated a hot and muggy night, I had left the rainfly off. I peered into the night sky. Clear. I’d take my chances and enjoy the cool breeze without protection. Ten minutes later, I noticed flashes of light from the north playing on the trees above. I was in no mood to get out of the tent, so I tried to apply the psychology of denial. “It’s just my eyes adjusting to the dark…no…it’s the headlights of northbound traffic,” I tried to convince myself. But of course, it was neither. Resigning myself to reality, I crawled out of the tent, ran up to the road to survey the situation (naked except for shoes!) and caught an utterly fantastic electrical storm dancing in the clouds headed my way. I ran back down to the tent and, rather than put on the rainfly, simply dragged everything under the bridge. The rain came, the wind howled, lightening and thunder struck, but I stayed dry.

After sulking out of the tent the next morning on very little sleep, I set off and pedaled another sixty miles. Upon arriving in the city of Rolla, I spied a large park run by the Lions Club: frisbee golf, a large lake with a fountain and bridges, gazebos, multiple playgrounds, walking trails, covered picnic tables galore with functioning electrical outlets, porta-potties, and as I was to discover later, unsecured Wi-Fi blanketing the whole park! A veritable stealth-camper’s paradise! I was preparing dinner in one of the picnicking areas when a local named Don approached me. I asked him what he thought of my camping for the night in the park, and if he had any advice. He thought it was a fine idea and, after talking with me, took the matter to one of the “lions” lounging about the place. He returned shortly thereafter to relate to me that the lions don’t care, but the police who patrol the park at night might, so just keep out of sight of the road. Later that night, having set up my tent tucked in along the tree line of the park, the patrol came shining bright spotlights into the park’s nooks and crannies. And they were thorough!

Hobbit Hideout, Rolla Lions Club Park

Now, here was the problem—my tarp still lay out in the open grass and would likely be seen. With no time to hesitate, spotlights already raking dangerously close to the spot, I ran for the tarp, grabbed hold, ran back and dove into the woods, crouching in the dark while the spotlights sprayed the trees. In truth, both I and my tent were well hidden, but the imagination reeled! Think hobbit running from orcs in The Lord of the Rings! Think human hiding from Agents in The Matrix! How exhilarating! In fact, I was so in love with this place that I took the following day off and spent a second night. I tried to stage another close-call near-chase scene but no such luck. The patrol never came round a second time.

You see, when I talk about stealth camping to non-tourers, their first thought is that I’m placing myself in danger. But the fact is that, over thousands of miles, I’ve never met with any trouble worth mentioning. Surprisingly, I felt most vulnerable on this tour while house-sitting alone in a rural home. Here I was, after all, in a large structure that virtually screamed to all comers, “He’s in here!” In contrast, the majority of my stealth-camping sites render me invisible. In fact, even if a person knew in general where I was camped, they’d still have a very difficult time locating the specific place even if they tried. Of course, there’s always a twinge of insecurity while searching for a site each night, but by the time I get settled in, I usually feel very secure as far as humans are concerned. Animals may be another story, but aside from being kept awake by the occasional inquisitive armadillo or other harmless creature, the worst animal experience I’ve had is having a raccoon eat my granola. In the absence of real excitement, then, I found it refreshing to be able to manufacture at least a moment’s high drama in the shadow of the lions.

As for the lions themselves, they didn’t care.

Coming soon: a highly thought-provoking podcast interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, on relocation, redistribution, and economic repentence.

Next stop: Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage/Sandhill Farm in Rutledge, Missouri.

“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” —Ezekiel 37:4-6

Here’s how it happened.

I arrived at Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, on Holy Thursday, and found myself in the midst of an Easter Triduum retreat. That evening I attended a talk given by one of the monks and was pierced to the heart. It wasn’t precisely the content of what he said but in what was behind the words: over 60 years in monastic vows, in touch with the latest developments in theology and cosmology, able to spontaneously weave those insights into a lively, engaging conversation—in short, his words and his bearing bore witness to a longstanding, loving commitment to the gift of his vocation. My experience of this encounter prodded and clarified something I’d been wrestling with throughout this tour, and immediately after the talk I sought out the resident spiritual director while the matter was still fresh.

You see, in the retreat house of this monastery there is a room. And within this room sits a woman quietly knitting until someone takes a seat beside her and initiates a conversation. And although she is physically blind, I am convinced that her role within this monastery is analogous to that of the Oracle within the Matrix—the one who sees! I entered the room, poured out my heart, spoke of my longing for that inner wellspring of stability, as well as its outpouring in stable relationships and commitments, and she responded, simply and confidently, “You need to stop. You need a time of stability. You’ve been Martha for so long that you need to take time to be Mary simply sitting at the feet of Jesus. You need to listen to what the God who loves you is communicating to you through all of these experiences.” Specifically, she suggested the monastery’s monastic guest program, wherein I could stay on a month-to-month basis in a work-exchange arrangement, living the monastic rhythms and steeping myself in prayer, silence, community, and simple labor.

At first, I balked at her suggestion. After all, I had responsibilities! I had communities to visit and a podcast to produce! In fact, I had a handful of audio files begging for my attention. How could I let all of that go for even a single month? But the seed had been planted, and after successive visits with her throughout the weekend, on Easter Sunday I decided to take the plunge and spend a month at the monastery. In the meantime, I would have to leave and return in a week. Amazingly, a friend serendipitously offered a house-sitting gig in a small rural town 60 miles away for just that amount of time! I bicycled to her empty house that day, settled in with plenty of coffee, lentils, and rice, and got to business transcribing and editing the last 4 podcast episodes, scheduling their publication in advance, one episode per week, while I remained off-line in the monastery—the first time I’d been able to unplug in a whole year!

In both personal reflections and reflections on community, I’ve kept returning to the themes of stability and commitment. And indeed I think these are the key lines of intersection between the tour of communities and personal pilgrimage, issues that I and so many in our culture struggle with in our lives and relationships, that are so integral to community living. To speak more personally about my own struggles, by my seventeenth birthday I had been placed for adoption twice, endured two divorces in two unrelated families, and for all intents and purposes had no real family left to call my own. I was primed, then, for life in hyper-flux, without stable points of reference or relationship. Ten years later, while on a Zen meditation retreat, all the various living situations I’d had since leaving home began parading themselves before my mind’s eye, and I decided to count them. I was stunned: between the ages of 17 and 27, I had moved 27 times. Yes, I realize that sounds like a virtual mathematical impossibility, and I really don’t know how I managed to move approximately every 4 ½ months. But I did. And this realization was a wake-up call. I needed to learn to live differently.

In the years since that meditation retreat, while I haven’t stayed in one place, I am satisfied that I’ve learned to move more mindfully, and discern wisely where I choose to live and why. However, that moment on retreat wouldn’t be the last time this alarm would ring to alert me that something was amiss in my life, that I needed to change my way of living. In fact, that alarm has been sounding throughout this journey.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t plan to suffer a major loss and disillusionment just before setting out on this tour. I didn’t anticipate that this disillusionment in a personal relationship would spiral inward and, with surgical precision, expose layers of self-delusion, self-defeating motivations, and fantasies that have dominated my life. I could not have foreseen that this journey of self-knowledge would open a seeming abyss beneath my feet, revealing a continuing pattern of a lack of commitment, stability, and intentional engagement that is in fact far more subtle and interior than merely learning to stay in place. And I could not have foreseen the degree to which the communities I’ve visited and the people I’ve met on this tour would serve as intimate mirrors throughout this process, exposing areas of pain and longing in my own life, while pointing to a more fulfilling and fruitful way to live.

I was aware of this emerging inner tumult from the start, and in fact have taken occasional time off the road or from communities, seeking space for reflection, prayer, and guidance. But in each of those instances, the timing seemed somehow off-the-mark, and in any case I was still involved with the podcast and blog.  Now, however, at the monastery, rather than relying on my own initiative, I had responded to an unexpected invitation from a spiritual guide to come and rest in God, and with such auspicious liturgical timing! In fact, I do believe that this past Easter Triduum has marked the end of a certain kind of momentum that had been propelling me, and the beginning of a new stage of the journey.

The month in the monastery was a wonderful reprieve from the constant improvisation, adaptation, and unpredictability of the tour. I reveled in the unhindered periods of silence and solitude, while simple manual labor and friendship with the monks provided a necessary, nourishing balance. And of course, I continued to receive wise spiritual guidance throughout. As the time drew nearer to set out on the road again, I had begun to obscurely sense what the whole self-stripping process of this tour has been leading me toward all along: a gentle invitation to entrust myself in faith, hope, and love to the One who had led me though being reduced to a mere pile of disjointed bones, and who was now prepared to weave me back together.

Throughout this journey, I had been under the assumption that the tour of communities was the primary story and the personal pilgrimage the underlying subtext. In truth, the order has been the reverse. I would even go so far as to say that I was likely responding more to the divine invitation to transformation when I began the tour, whether I realized this or not, than to my interest in exploring intentional communities. At the same time, these two aspects of the journey have been deeply interwoven in ways that I anticipate will bear surprising fruit in the months and years to come. However, at this point I cannot anticipate the forms this fruit will take and can only relax into the invitation to trust the wisdom and love that has enfolded these travels all along.

You may be inferring at this point that the tour is over, and if so, you are perhaps partly correct. What has ended, at least this is my hope, is the restless grasping for what-I-do-not-know that has possessed me till this point. What remains is a more playful, open-ended tour of just a handful more communities that I am eager to visit, with no expectations or problems to solve, but with a posture of curiosity and the anticipation of discovery. What remains is a walk in the dark.

On Pentecost Sunday, I pedaled from the monastery with hopefully less baggage than when I arrived. And so the journey rolls on.

I pray…

Lord, thank you for sending your Angel of Disillusionment and the Vultures of Self-Knowledge as my faithful companions throughout my travels. The Angel has ensured that I’ve been stripped of all sense of direction apart from that of unknowing faith, while the Vultures have stripped my flesh to the bone, not even sparing the ligaments.

Lord, thank you for reducing me to a pile of dry bones. I trust that you have something more in mind than that I return from this journey a mere pile of bones on a bicycle seat. Rather, in ways that I cannot see or comprehend from my narrow perch in this strange and fragile human life, I trust that even now you are weaving a new garment of flesh and a new heart, animated by your Breath.

Lord, apart from you I am nothing, can do nothing, can know nothing. You are the question and the response that haunts me in the dark of night. You are the Ray of Darkness that illumines my steps even when I appear to be faltering.

Lord, all that I have and all that I am is yours, and into your hands I entrust all.

Ever since my first major bicycle tour 20 years ago, bicycle touring has become a central recurring theme in my dreams. In fact, I find myself bicycle touring in dreams so often that from time to time I’ve wondered whether my dream-self is simply on bicycle tour all the time, and that the places I dream of are places I’ve arrived at by bicycle. The other night, in my dreams, I was in such a place, a stopover on a bicycle tour. In this dream, my dream-self was enjoying incredibly vivid, sensuous memories of previous places passed through on bicycle tour. And as I began to wake, still in that liminal space between dreaming and full waking consciousness, I continued to savor these vivid memories, never doubting their validity, until I realized with a start that I had never actually been to these places that, just a moment before, I had “remembered” with such stunning clarity and realism.

But my dream-self, tracing its own contiguous route through elastic landscapes, recognizes these places, these memories, without doubt.

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.