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Archive for the ‘Monasticism’ Category

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

—Dietrich Bonheoffer

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

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

Well, actually…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let me know how it goes.

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Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Joseph Abbey, Covington, LA

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

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

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

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

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

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“Renunciation is not giving up the things of this world, but accepting that they go away”                                                                                —Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

The last time I stopped in Gainesville on a bicycle tour almost 20 years ago, I didn’t leave till over three years later. I arrived without a strong religious orientation and left headed to a Zen Buddhist monastery. In other words, stopping in Gainesville, Florida, on a bicycle tour spells trouble if I’m invested in a certain religious status quo.

Over these past weeks, I chose to spend some time simply bicycling and camping because I know from experience that, not only do I derive tremendous satisfaction through this kind of simple, earthy travelling, but it also serves as a spiritual discipline: tuning out the voices of social expectation, personal idealism, and emotional attachments that no longer serve, and fostering a greater receptivity to spiritual intuition, even when this intuition seems to contradict my own desires. Hence, I believed that this time of biking would help me enter more deeply into the questions that resound in my own heart, and where these questions intersect with what I’m learning on this tour of communities. In fact, I got more than I bargained for.

I generally don’t seek to give something up or take on a new practice for Lent. The reason being, I have come to believe that God plays upon my life with often surprising attention to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. In other words, rather than giving something up, I’ve found that some kind of loss or disorientation usually sneaks up on me right about the beginning of Lent. I expend my energies through the Lenten season, then, navigating this un-asked-for loss, seeking reorientation and a deeper reliance on spiritual help. This Lenten season has proven no different, except that the experience of loss and disorientation has less to do with anything happening in my outer life and relationships and more to do with uncovering those questions and doubts that simmered below the surface during my previous three years of theological education.

I introduced “Pilgrim Reflections” in my last post intending a series of sharing more about what’s happening within me and the kind of questions that I am wrestling with on a more personal level on this journey. However, after a dozen or so attempts to sit down at my laptop and tap out the next post, I’ve since had a change of mind and heart. There are two reasons for this. First, anything I write at this point on such a personal level would be too raw and tentative for a public forum. Secondly, in trying to interweave my personal journey with reflections on communities, I’ve found that both become rather murky. Rather, focusing objectively on communities helps ground and anchor me in something outside myself on this otherwise solo venture, while attending to my inner life allows me to be more present and wholeheartedly engaged with the communities and people I visit. And in order to maintain a healthy balance, the inner journey has to be bracketed to some extent from bleeding through overmuch into my more objective reflections on communities.

That said, I do want to begin the considerations that follow by sharing that, in general, the questions that I’ve been wrestling with revolve around religious identity and my perennial difficulty in “finding myself” within conventional religious institutions and systems of organized belief. And at least in this sense, I find that my personal journey and what people have shared with me in interviews and private conversations dovetail perfectly. In fact, what has emerged as a kind of overarching narrative to the story of emerging intentional communities is that we are all engaged in a massive historical shift in what it means to live a deeply intentional religious life. This theme was addressed explicitly in my first three interviews. Both Mary Ewing Stamps and Ivan Kauffman, for instance, see this shift in terms of historical cycles of deep mutations in our religious structures every 500 years, with the implication that we should expect nothing less than that we are living in a period of time analogous to the upheavals of the Reformation. And Mary Ewing Stamps, Mary Forman, OSB, and Ivan Kauffman all affirm that what’s facilitating these tectonic shifts today is dialogue: ecumenical, inter-religious, inter-cultural.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”                      —Isaiah 43:19

In the case of Mary Ewing Stamps, the theme of following the promptings of the Spirit toward developing surprising new structures of religious life through dialogue becomes most explicit. Formed within established Benedictine houses while remaining true to her Methodist heritage, she has gone on to establish an ecumenical, non-residential Benedictine monastery embracing both celibate and non-celibate members. Arising from the evangelical end of the continuum, I am particularly impressed by InnerCHANGE as another new expression of ecumenical religious life. Also embracing single people as well as families, modeled upon the historical example of Saint Francis and his followers, among others, and embedded within the framework of the larger missionary organization CRM, InnerCHANGE is poised at the forefront of developing formal structures to nurture and give expression to this impetus toward what Ivan Kauffman calls lay intentionality: patterns of religious life for lay people analogous to the intensity of commitment and intentionality as historically embodied in formally vowed, celibate orders.

Perhaps the most dramatic of structural mutations I’ve encountered thus far, however, is that of San Francisco Zen Center, relative to its roots in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. In the context of developing new structures, Buddhist communities in the West have at least two advantages over Christian monastic, neo-monastic and other movements. The first is a far more flexible institutional framework that lends itself to an adaptability exceeding that of formal Catholic orders. Secondly, Buddhist communities are also largely unburdened by the kind of historical amnesia and dissociation from tradition that new evangelical orders and movements are in the process of remedying. Hence, it is my hope that Christian monastics and neo-monastics alike might learn from their Buddhist sisters and brothers during this time of transition and experimentation.

And lest I get carried away by the apparent seamlessness of this emerging narrative, there’s Paula Huston’s critique of modernism and celebration of classic monasticism to interrupt the flow, or at least call it into question. Actually, I’ve been surprised by how many people have shared with me how much they appreciate her contribution. I say surprised because these are people who are highly sympathetic with newer movements but realize that the viability or potential viability of these movements lie in their ability to establish some formal connection or rootedness in ancient tradition. I see her critique less as a contradiction, then, as a potential warning or corrective to an overly enthusiastic embrace of change and the allure of novelty. In fact, it seems clear to me that this longing for ancient roots is part and parcel of what’s driving such movements at their best, embodying the creative tension articulated during Vatican II as a return to ancient sources while adapting these sources freshly to the unique needs, aspirations, and challenges of our moment in history. And if I can reiterate Ivan Kauffman’s strong admonition: the way forward is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—of new movements and communities establishing relationships with classic orders in an ongoing conversation of mutual learning and growth. Evangelicals especially seem susceptible to getting carried away by the apparent discovery of some liberating new insight, only to see this initial explosion of enthusiasm quickly fizzle and fade as a seed cast on rocky ground (I think of Debbie Gish’s chuckling over the extreme presumptuousness and naiveté of her and her community-mates at the origins of Church of the Sojourners: “We found Acts 2 and we were the first ones to get it. Like, how come no one else noticed this before!!??”). Hence, she and others laud the shift in the air among Christian communitarians today in deliberately seeking out and incorporating the wisdom of those who are heirs to traditions of Christian community living that span centuries.

In closing, since these reflections have been a comfort to me, I want to convey to those readers who also haven’t “found themselves” within conventional religious structures, who feel prompted by the Spirit to press forward into an unknown future, that you are not alone. Far from it. Thanks be to God, hopeful signs are abundant.

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I knew going into the interview with Paula Huston that she had a different perspective than Bruno Barnhart, and I was (and still am) glad to be able to offer listeners diverse of points of view on the subject of the current status and future possibilities of monasticism. What surprised me, however, was how stridently and single-mindedly she put forth her views. Whereas she sees the fruits of the Romantic Movement as continuing to exercise a corrosive influence on modern/postmodern culture, making the flourishing of traditional monasticism or any deeply committed, highly disciplined way of life all but impossible, I wondered if she herself wasn’t operating from an exaggerated idealization of monastic life. So I put the question to her and am publishing her response below, which I think is a clear, concise summary of her main point.

On a personal level, this interview perplexes me in so much as it’s likely the one thus far wherein I find the most to disagree with, while at the same time am sympathetic to her argument. Hence, while Paula and Bruno’s views on everything from art and creativity to theology and monasticism can seem diametrically opposed, I personally cannot take a side. Rather, I see Paula’s caution and skepticism toward new developments, and reverence for ancient patterns, a necessary compliment to Bruno’s dynamic, revolutionary approach. On a deeper level, this perception of complementarity reflects how this journey is stimulating my own wrestling with the tension between attraction to “emerging communities” on the one hand (dynamic, creative, spontaneous) and “ancient roots” on the other (depth, stability, historical continuity). Paula tips the scale strongly toward the latter and I welcome that contribution, even while I cannot give it my full assent.

St Catherine’s Monastery © 2007 Christopher Chan

Paula Huston: “The word “romanticism” is another term that in common usage has been robbed of its original meaning, or at least its literary meaning, and has come instead to serve as simply another way to say “idealization.” As I said, I was using it during the interview in this much narrower literary sense. Though the British romantics did indeed idealize the past, particularly the ancient pagan world and high Medievalism, they did so for a different reason than the one at work in my own high view of the past. They sought (or created out of thin air) previous cultures that seemed more passion-driven and connected to the earth than their own. Much of this was driven by a rejection of the preceding era, the Enlightenment, which looked to Reason for salvation. The goal of these young romantic rebels was to follow their passions wherever they led, which put them in direct conflict with the wisdom of the classical Greeks and ancient Christians, who BECAUSE they had such great respect for the power of the passions (and their ability to fragment us and destroy our lives), stressed self-discipline as the path to self-preservation. Obviously, monasticism has its root in this second view. Monastic ascetical practices would have been anathema to the high Romantics (and especially the most romantic of the 19th century philosophers, Nietzsche). What the romantics bequeathed to our era were 1) an automatic resistance to moral and spiritual authority, 2) a rejection of traditional wisdom about the dangers of unrestrained passion and desire, 3) an almost religious worship of “the natural” vs. the institutional or dogmatic, 4) a strong focus on the self and its perceived needs as opposed to focus on the community and its needs, and 5) a belief that truth is individual and to be found “within” rather than in any exterior or transcendent form. Actually, they bequeathed a lot more to us, but these points constitute the essence of my beef with them. This romantic attitude toward life, coupled with the unbelievable technological mastery we’ve become heirs to in the 21st century, has created, in my mind, a culture that suffers from an extreme form of what the ancient Greeks would call hubris. We have been convinced that we need to look no further than our own selves for wisdom and truth. Modernism, to a large degree, is about self-worship.

This is what I meant when I said that contemporary monasteries are engaged in a death struggle with modernism. Within the modern framework, there is absolutely no place for a philosophy or religion that depends upon sources of moral and spiritual authority outside the self. This is why people come to the monastery, are briefly intrigued, then drift on to something else more interesting. They are in the business of “experiencing” life, the business of discovering their own wants and pleasing themselves rather than seeking to break out of this narrow cocoon of self-absorption in order to actually find their place in the Body of Christ. The two worlds represented in this culture clash are so far apart at this point that it really does require crossing a great and frightening gulf to be willing to live in this radically alternative, monastic way. And, as a side note, this is why I don’t have a lot of optimism about the current new monastics. Just as all of us are in the post-modern world, they (and we) are absolutely soaked in the philosophy of self-pleasing. Self-sacrifice is a completely foreign concept. And so (of course) they will be tempted to set things up in a way that’s comfortable for them, that doesn’t challenge them in any real way, that doesn’t get at the core of self-worship. They will call this way of skirting the hard work required of real monastics (and real Christians, for that matter) “creativity.” The hard stuff, the truly challenging, soul-changing stuff, is too “rigid” or “authoritarian”–or it is simply “not me.” Hence my sincere admiration for people who are called to traditional monastic life and actually stick it out–the long, boring, confining years when it seems as though life has completely passed them by and they are dying on the vine–but they stick it out because they can look back over 1700 years and read about people who did the same and not only survived but were transformed. It is SUCH a hard life, if it is truly lived this way, that I know I could not do it myself. But I can certainly honor it and do my best to defend it when I’m asked for my opinion.”


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

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

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

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

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

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S. Barbara Hazzard, OSB, entered religious life in 1954 with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Oakland, California. In the wake of the ferment following Vatican II, S. Barbara left her first religious community in the early 1970s to embark on a search for a deeper life of prayer both for herself and those to whom she ministered. This period of searching took a decisive turn when she discovered the work of the late Benedictine Fr. John Main in 1982. Visiting John Main’s experimental urban monastery in Montreal shortly thereafter, S. Barbara found a model of contemplative community that resonated with her own aspirations and the needs she perceived in the wider church. Upon her return to Oakland, she formed the Hesed Community along similar lines, as an expression of the Benedictine monastic tradition (Hesed is affiliated with Saint Benedict’s Monastery and Saint John’s Abbey, neighboring Benedictine communities in central Minnesota) committed to the teaching and practice Christian meditation.

John Main, OSB, was a pivotal figure in the revival of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer in the late 20th century. Similar to the paths of Trappist monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main’s exposure to the spiritual traditions of the Far East compelled him to dig deeper into his own contemplative heritage as a Christian monk.  Rediscovering the teachings on Christian meditation as taught by John Cassian in his Conferences (compiled in the 5th century as a synthesis of the Egyptian desert monastic tradition, foundational to Christian monasticism East and West) and the anonymous author of the 14th century book of instruction in contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, John Main developed and taught a practice of Christian meditation accessible to those leading busy lives in the world. Today, his teaching continues to nourish many through the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Hesed Community makes this contemporary expression of the Benedictine contemplative tradition available to those who, in the midst of the frenetic pace and excessive stimulation of urban life, thirst for silence and spiritual depth. In fact, S. Barbara believes that this model of contemplative community in the city represents one prominent path for the future of monasticism, making monastic values more present and available to the world. In this regard, Hesed has developed varied forms of participation and commitment—extended family members, brothers and sisters, and Benedictine Oblates—as well as being open to the public, to accommodate a diverse range of people’s needs. Significantly, as a community, Hesed has remained non-residential, with S. Barbara being the only full-time resident. A unique take on Benedictine living, S. Barbara shares her conviction that, because the community comes together primarily for shared silent prayer, this has led to a depth of intimacy and caring that a more complex, intensive living arrangement might make more difficult, especially for those already raising families and juggling multiple commitments.

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

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Victoria Austin is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. She has practiced for forty years mostly at San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. She has also taught Iyengar yoga for more than 25 years.

In our conversation, Victoria and I discuss how the Soto Zen tradition Suzuki Roshi transplanted from Japan took root in fresh ways in the United States. In particular, Victoria speaks of an emphasis on everyday life as the field of practice, of lay people moving from a supportive to a creative, participative role, the rise of women leaders, and the development of more communal structures of leadership. We also talk about the emergence of San Francisco Zen Center’s unique constellation of City Center, an urban, residential meditation center; Green Gulch, a rural farm for families and others; and Tassajara, a more traditional monastery in the remote Ventana Wilderness, inland from the Big Sur coast, which opens to guests during the summer months.

Several features of this conversation I find worth highlighting, especially in light of previous interviews. San Francisco Zen Center represents a unique translation of a monastic tradition that exhibits great flexibility, while retaining ancient practice and teaching forms. To my mind, this illustrates a wonderful “middle way” between what I see as the institutional inertia of classic Christian monasticism, and the relative lack of continuity or rootedness among communities identified, for instance, with the fledgling New Monasticism movement.

The integration of lay and ordained, monastic and householder, and the flexible permutations among these categories, along with the fluid variety of practice and lifestyle options the three Centers foster, provide a striking example for  Christians seeking new forms for an emerging “new monasticism.” This model comes very close to the “concentric circles” concept for monastic communities Bruno Barnhart and I began to explore. Furthermore, this model also provides cues to what cultural and institutional support for lay intentionality (an intensity of commitment and participation analogous to that of monastic orders) might look like, which Ivan Kauffman insists Christian churches urgently need to develop.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise (street ambiance provided by local afternoon traffic, corner of Page and Laguna.

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