“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight.“
I want to give voice here to a concern that’s been building in my mind. Two interviews that have had a strong impact on me, particularly in how I assess the relative structural health of a community, are my conversations with Lois Arkin on structural conflict, and with Lysbeth Borie on consensus process. Both interviews overlap in terms of content, but they especially converge on a common insight: that ideally, a core community should develop a clear self-understanding of its identity and mission as soon as possible, and develop structures (vision and mission statements, agreements and accountability systems, decision making processes, membership formation and discernment processes, etc.) that allow that self-understanding to grow and flourish, before opening its doors to newcomers.
Unfortunately, unless community founders have made a strong effort to inform themselves, or have extensive experience with groups analogous to an intentional community, they tend to begin with a flurry of idealistic enthusiasm and a boatload of naiveté. Which is to say, many communities don’t do the kind of necessary detail structural work at the beginning, and hence set themselves up for conflict down the road. For instance, most communities begin with sincere, passionate intentions. The buzz of shared chemistry and the excitement of a new, deeply meaningful venture may carry them forward to establish a seemingly-solid foundation. However, if by that time someone suggests that the community develop clear rules, boundaries, definitions, and so on, other members may balk. Too rigid, they say. Or legalistic. Or authoritarian, oppressive, repressive, etc. Besides, we all get along; we can work out our differences as we go, right?
By the time a group has congealed around the impression that they’re on the same page, fired by the same aspiration, when the honeymoon-period abates and reality sets in and they begin to realize that they may not be as close to kin as they thought, the consequences could get ugly. At that critical threshold, if there aren’t clear, written agreements, if the vision and mission haven’t been spelled out in enough detail to ensure that everyone understands their meaning and implications, if there aren’t shared communication skills and conflict resolution procedures, if there’s no accountability to outside agents, if emotional maturity hasn’t been a primary criteria for selecting new members, then the consequences are likely to get very ugly indeed.
Now, contrast this unhappy picture with how a monastery functions. A Benedictine monastery, for instance, lives by a rule of life that regulates the daily round in some detail, leaving room for a certain autonomy and discernment on the basis of the culture, context, and temperament of a community, but nonetheless legislating a way of life that is extremely regimented and limiting by the standards of the dominant culture. Without this regimentation and limitation, however, the integrity of the charism, or spiritual intent of the community, would dissipate. Without clear limits and boundaries for the self-determining ego to bruise itself against, growth would be stifled. Contemporary sensibilities chafe at this idea, but that’s the point. Chafing against voluntarily chosen limitations for the sake of a way of life formed around higher principles, values, and intentions than impulsive freedom of choice engenders growth and maturity. Again, I do believe that this same basic orientation toward growth and maturity can function in a less formal community that makes decisions by consensus; I just think this option requires a lot more work and clarity of intention at the beginning than many people realize (see Lysbeth Borie).
When I entered monastic formation, I did not participate in the central decision-making body, the Chapter. In fact, because I had only taken temporary vows and left after four-and-a-half years, I never had the opportunity to participate in Chapter, which is reserved only for those who’ve taken permanent vows (a process that takes at least 5 years). In small matters, however, I participated in a weekly group process where I was able to share views and concerns. Still, by and large, the general structure of community life was predetermined, anchored by a codified body of tradition that spanned at least seventeen centuries. In this context, change does happen, but it does so only with careful discernment within the flow of this tradition.
What I experienced in myself and witnessed in many others who entered to be formed as monks during my stay was a fairly predictable pattern: as postulants (those in the first year of formation), we would arrive with varying degrees of enthusiasm and confidence. Typically, however, within our second year—the novitiate—some shift took place in our attitudes, sometimes dramatically. The channel of enthusiasm became gummed up with wads of negativity and a jaundiced eye. In reality, it was mostly our own unintegrated negativity that was bubbling up to the surface under the otherwise gentle, transformative limitations of monastic life; but of course, it never looks that way when you’re in the thick of it. Rather, this is what it tends to look like: the community’s doing this wrong, that wrong, failing at this, mediocre in that, and I know—I know—just how they ought to be doing it. And why don’t they listen to me? How can they do this to me? After all, this is not what I signed up for! The most dramatic illustration of the latter attitude that I’ve witnessed occurred when I went for a walk with a man who had been a diocesan priest for many years. This man had discerned a call to monastic life, had all his ducks in a row—years of counseling and spiritual direction discerning his vocation, extended stays in monasteries—and arrived certain that this monastery was it. No doubt. Two months into his postulancy, on his way out the door, he and I were sitting on a bench together, talking. He shook his head mournfully: “This just isn’t the community I thought it was.” Having seen this phenomenon before, I bit down hard on an irresistible urge to laugh, until I could shake it off freely with my novice director later. After all, the earnest mourner presently in my midst just wouldn’t appreciate the punchline: It never is the community you thought it was. It never matches your wish-dream. And no amount of prior discernment will keep you from having to cross that threshold of disappointment.
Of course, the same punchline holds true in less formal intentional communities. But here’s the rub: imagine if the kind of negativity that tends to arise, that’s actually meant to arise in the process of communal formation, had no defined limits, no boundaries to keep it in check, if the community lacked a clear self-understanding, in writing, that could serve as an anchor and shared point of reference. Imagine (and some of you don’t have to imagine; you can simply remember) such people, chafing at the negativity within themselves that they mistakenly displace onto the community, pouting and pleading and demanding, in often sophisticated-adult-seeming ways, that the community change. Imagine such people participating in the consensus process, even though they’ve been in the community less than a year. Even one such person, lacking the emotional maturity and mentoring to healthily navigate this transition, can easily sink the whole ship.
Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that a community cannot learn from the critiques of its newer members, or that there may be very real shortcomings in a community that warrant strong challenge, or simply the decision to leave. Rather, what I am suggesting is that real discernment, real commitment, cannot be attained until the threshold of disillusionment is crossed. When this isn’t understood, everyone loses.
So, based on my own experience in community and what I’ve learned thus far on the tour, here’s my advice to aspiring communitarians: before you move in together, or as soon thereafter as possible, hammer out in detail who you are and why, what you expect of one another, the rules and boundaries that will shape the integrity of the community you aspire to be. Choose how you’ll make decisions and get solid training (especially if your choice is consensus). Train as well in conflict resolution processes and make a commitment to resolving conflict a matter of policy. To draw an analogy from the monastic tradition, don’t be afraid to draw up a Rule of Life. The content of the Rule can and will change and adapt over time, but the importance of having as much clarity up front as possible is that it can save you from choosing members who really aren’t on the same page, and from the inevitable and potentially devastating conflict that will surely ensue. Once a core group has established such a “Rule,” then open the door to new members. Choose for emotional maturity. Choose those who, as best as can be mutually discerned, really do share your aspirations and intentions, and are willing to submit to the “Rule” because they genuinely value the creative restraint and responsibilities your way of life asks of them. And once a firm foundation is set, make sure new members have weathered their “terrible twos” (I use this phrase because, in my experience, the initial phase of disillusionment often occurs in the second year) before they’re able to make a permanent commitment or make decisions affecting the vision and mission of the community. Take permanent membership as seriously as you would marriage, and make sure this level of seriousness is communicated to those in the membership process (you can always have gradations of membership, such as associates, interns, temporary members, etc.).
And let me know how it goes.