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Posts Tagged ‘Commitment’

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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Church of the Sojourners 25th Anniversary Celebration

Debbie Gish is a founding member of Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco’s Mission District, a community of the Shalom Mission Communities network. She works as an adoption social worker and, with her husband Dale, is parent to two daughters, Annalise and Rebecca.

In our conversation, Debbie and I discuss the emergence of Sojourners as both church and community from a small collective of five young women and three older couples with children engaged in urban ministry in the mid-1980s. Debbie speaks of the community’s search for healthy balance and boundaries in their life and ministry together, which led to the development of a particular self-understanding as church that emphasizes loving one another well as the Body of Christ. This understanding manifests in a form of ministry and hospitality that Debbie describes as functioning primarily as the Inn rather than the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In other words, whereas much emphasis tends to get placed on ministry as going out to those in need, Sojourners’ role looks more like that of the Inn to which the injured are brought to heal. Such people are often integrated into the community, become family, so that the boundary between ministers and those ministered to dissolves. Debbie also shares about her own learning process through 25 years of communal living: from an exuberant honeymoon period, to a deeper realization of community as her way of living out her discipleship to God, the joys of living through the various stages of her life in the close company of others, and a grasp of the necessity of stability and commitment to human flourishing. Finally, since Church of the Sojourners is often identified with the New Monasticism, and Debbie and other members were present when the 12 Marks of the New Monasticism were developed, we spend some time talking about the strengths and challenges in this vital, emerging community movement.

As someone who appreciates contrast, I found going from spending time with Mark Scandrette to staying with Church of the Sojourners particularly illuminating (incidentally, they’re friends and neighbors). In my perception, whereas Mark emphasizes spiritual formation and building community within a highly fluid social environment, Sojourners places great value on stability and mutual commitment in the context of living together for the long haul. Not to exaggerate the contrast, since both overlap in their seeking greater intentionality as Christian disciples through caring, committed relationships. But I was struck by Debbie’s reflections on enduring commitment as the place wherein human beings grow and flourish, a truth our culture has largely forgotten, to the point where it’s difficult to even communicate this wisdom to others. Does our culture need pockets of strong counter-witness, like Sojourners, to excessive autonomy and mobility? I’m inclined to believe, yes, without diminishing the value of forms of community such as Mark’s that can accommodate mobility and flux.

(Tech lesson of the day: avoid recording interviews next to a refrigerator with a high-sensitivity mic in a high-ceilinged, uncarpeted kitchen…)

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

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“Community is not a good goal in itself but is a beautiful byproduct of seeking God’s kingdom together.”

-From a talk entitled “The Five Myths of Community” by Mark Scandrette, a man I hope to meet when I hit the San Francisco Bay (my interview with Mark here).

The “myth” that I resonate with the most in Mark’s talk is what he calls the myth of belonging—the insidious expectation that, if only I find the right community, my needs for companionship, direction, and growth will be met. This reminds me of a talk I attended years ago by Dorothy Maclean, co-founder of the Findhorn Community in Scotland. A young man stood up at the end of the talk to ask her a question: “My friends and I are interested in starting a community. What advice do you have for us?” Her response: if you’re interested in creating community for community’s sake, don’t bother. This is a recipe for disaster. A community bent on self-fulfillment will implode under the weight of accumulated disappointment, because this is not what community is for. Rather, a community must first be comprised of people with a shared intention that carries each out of themselves in some form of service. With so much talk of longing for community and meaningful connection in our day, I believe this understanding is crucial. And it would seem to present an odd paradox: in a sense, community as a goal must be aimed at indirectly, arising from the aspiration to serve rather than for the fulfillment of the legitimate personal need for community.

As anyone who has lived in community for any significant amount of time knows, this is not as simple as it may sound. Even with the best of conscious intentions, the unfulfilled needs and wounds of the past will insinuate themselves in the form of subtle or not-so-subtle demands on our community-mates. How we respond when this happens makes all the difference, especially in a dominant culture that may seem to exuberantly affirm us in our perception that our needs will be better met elsewhere, providing us with all manner of seductive images of greener pastures. And of course, sometimes it’s true—sometimes we simply need to move on. But when we do, we will as likely find ourselves haunted by the same unfulfillment in a different guise. The script remains essentially the same, only the actors and stage props change. What then?

In his Rule, Saint Benedict provides a startling contrast to the rootless search for fulfillment that has so many of us in its grasp. Everywhere we are confronted by a radical de-centering, from ourselves to the other who is Christ, especially as encountered in the person of the abbot or abbess, to whom is given willing obedience; in the stranger or guest, whose needs press upon the comfortable rhythms of the daily round; in the sick, who require our care and attention; in all our sisters and brothers, with their unavoidable foibles and weaknesses. At the heart of this Rule lies the 12-rung ladder of humility, outlining the descent of the self in terms that even many contemporary monks and nuns find jarring. Difficulties with language aside, this is actually my favorite part of the Rule. Why? Because if in my obedience to Christ whom I meet in others I can quietly embrace suffering in my heart, without weakening or seeking escape, in times of difficulty, dissatisfaction, or even injustice (fourth degree of humility), then I am no longer ruled by suffering, disappointment, insult, or injury. Pain no longer compels hand or heart. If I can be content with what is deemed the lowest occupations and pursuits (sixth degree of humility), and believe in my heart that I am nothing, a nobody (seventh degree of humility),* then I am liberated from the feverish pursuit of trying to be a “somebody”; liberated from the rivalrous game of comparison. Then, I am liberated from the allure of the whole array of symbols our culture (and subcultures) dangles before us as bearers of the rewards of prestige, security, power, love, fulfillment. Only then can I be free of the burdens of anger, lust, the urge to retaliate; free to forgive, to be an agent of peace and reconciliation, to love Christ above all else.

Of course, contemplating this “lofty” downward trajectory of the path of monastic transformation makes me painfully aware of my own radical insufficiency and failings. After all, I am attracted to this topic of cutting through the illusion of community as a source of self-fulfillment because I have been guilty of it time and time again. This is why I value such wisdom from the monastic tradition, not as a measuring stick to compare myself to an impossible ideal (which would be to create yet another symbol of self-fulfillment), but as the North Star pointing away from self-concern to the face of Christ who meets me in every person, every encounter, in the sacrament of this very moment. This, as I see it, is the way of Christian community, or any mature form of intentional community: a way that is not for “me.” And for those of us who are followers of Christ, we tread this way not because we choose it but because we first experience ourselves as chosen for it; not because we love but because we first experience ourselves as loved, with a love that increases in our hearts the more that we give it away.

*For those of you who may be cringing at this point or have cringed while reading this part of the Rule, what made the ladder of humility come alive for me as a vivid description of the path of spiritual liberation was a simple insight a teacher once shared with me. The humility being asked of us—for instance, believing in our hearts that we are the lowest among human beings—is not first a psychological reality but theological: we are made humble because of the growing appropriation of the insight of our “nothingness” before God. This living, transforming insight in turn radically reconfigures our relationships with other people, along the lines that Benedict and his sources such as John Cassian outline. It is intimacy with God, and the dethronement of self-centeredness that this entails, that underlies and permeates the ladder of humility, not self-loathing. Obviously, a pathological conviction that one is literally the lowest among all humanity is a gross inflation of self-preoccupation. Rather, to my mind, to believe in your heart that you are the lowest kind of human being is to see in yourself the potential to be what you most despise in others—that at heart you are no better than the rapist, the murderer, etc. And furthermore, God does not love you or anyone else the less for it. To see oneself as “good” leads to arrogance, hard-heartedness, and self-delusion. To see and accept oneself as in solidarity with the lowest of the low not only liberates from comparison but yields compassion, forgiveness, and creative action; or as Benedict assures us, yields the spontaneous love of God that is its own reward, uncompelled by fear or self-concern.

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John Schwiebert has served as pastor of the Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church of Portland, Oregon, since its inception in 1985, and is a founding member of the 18th Avenue Peace House, an intentional community that serves as the central gathering and worship space for the larger community and congregation.  In our conversation, John and I discuss how the community came to adopt the Quaker process of spiritual discernment, or “sense of the meeting,” after the consensus process they learned from their social activism endeavors failed to provide an adequate means of addressing serious differences among community members. We also talk about the community’s present process of discerning the future and living into the next generation as John prepares to step down from his leadership position. Finally, John offers strong words on the degree of commitment necessary for healthy, enduring communities, likening the decision to join a community to that of entering into marriage.

Metanoia Peace Community

The Metanoia Peace Community took its inspiration from the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, particularly the latter’s approach to intensifying and balancing both the inner (contemplative) and outer (sociopolitical) dimensions of Christian discipleship. In appropriating this model of radical discipleship, members of the Metanoia Peace Community commit to practices of resource sharing, common and individual prayer, peacemaking in the home and through acts of civil disobedience, participation in smaller discipleship groups that meet for mutual support and accountability, and, as a “Reconciling Congregation” within the United Methodist Church, welcoming and advocating on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.  For residents of the 18th Avenue Peace House, these commitments include income sharing and a more intensive sharing of daily life, prayer, and ministry together. In its ministry of hospitality, the Peace House has provided residential hospice care, particularly to persons with AIDS. The Peace House also functions as the hub for Grief Watch, which provides resources, publications, and support through the grieving process, especially for those suffering perinatal loss and the loss of children to murder or suicide.

When I first arrived at the Peace House, it was a bit of a culture shock: from Tacoma Catholic Worker in the midst of the inner city to a beautiful, spacious house in a relatively affluent Portland neighborhood. Nevertheless, in hearing stories (off-tape) about the community’s history—particularly risks taken financially and in their commitments as war tax resisters and peace activists—and the array of ministries that spin from its creative center, I was impressed. I geared my list of questions in the hope of eliciting some of those stories and John’s reflections on their significance, but in the actual interview he responded with quite different material. That’s not a bad thing, but if I was savvier, I would have tried to probe deeper into what he did offer than continue with the questions I’d preselected. For instance, John shared his thoughts on servant-leadership and his own role as leader within the community. But because this left me more confused than enlightened in regard to how his leadership interfaced with the community’s consensus process, I chose to leave that material out. In any case, the two topics that I found most engaging in this conversation were his reflections on commitment and spiritual discernment, the latter being the perfect segue for my next interview, which will focus exclusively on consensus process in community.

Metanoia Peace Community has built a strong foundation with its witness to Christian community and its dynamic ministries, but it’s also clearly a community with an uncertain future. As its original members age and its leader steps aside, it will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on what follows, since this is universally a sensitive pivot point in the life of any community.

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

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Servants Vancouver Community and Friends

Servants Vancouver was founded five years ago when Craig and Nay Greenfield sensed a call to take the model of community and mission they had lived in Cambodian slums and translate it into a Western, inner city context; specifically, downtown eastside Vancouver, an area known to be the poorest in all of Canada, overwhelmed by rampant drug addiction and the highest rate of HIV in the Western world. Here is where they have chosen to plant roots and integrate into the neighborhood, not as mere service providers but as friends, offering a sense of family and welcome to those often deeply scarred by broken, exploitive relationships and suffocating isolation. Furthermore, it is in this place that Craig and Nay have chosen to raise their two young children, Micah and Jayden, a topic Craig and I spend some time talking about in the interview (I think you might be surprised by Craig’s resounding enthusiasm for the advantages of such a way of life for children and families!).

Micah in the Community Garden

As  part of the larger mission organization Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, of which Craig is presently International Coordinator, Servants Vancouver models their life and ministries on the pattern of Jesus’ incarnational descent: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” shedding the privileges of divinity to take upon himself the human condition in all its implications. As the Father sent Jesus, so too does Jesus send his disciples into the world, to be the hands and feet and compassionate heart of God to those most in need. For Servants, this incarnational descent entails an immersion in the day-to-day life patterns, culture, and concerns of the poorest of the world’s urban poor. For Servants Vancouver specifically, this involves opening their home and their table to all manner of neighbors they call friends, offering them help, hope, and belonging though such ministries as “prehab”—providing a place for crack cocaine addicts to detox while they await eligibility for local rehab programs. This incarnational pattern also implies taking to task the political, economic, and social systems in which such people are enmeshed, working for justice through creative activism, as well as transforming two vacant lots into community gardens. While this may sound like a recipe for burnout, Servants Vancouver members are also intent on a regular rhythm of prayer and on valuing celebration, beauty, and rest.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay with the community but participated in an open dinner, toured some of the community’s ministry sites with Craig, and spent an evening with a group of interns. Despite the briefness of my exposure, I was deeply touched by their witness of neighborly friendship and welcome. Craig contrasts this incarnational approach to what he calls the patron-client model of the multitude of charitable organizations that pervade the area. This contrast struck home for me when, after enjoying a meal of grilled, donated hamburgers, salad, and veggies (according to Craig, approximately 75% of their food is donated, mostly overflow from charity organizations), I took out the compost to the alleyway behind the house. There, I saw an extraordinarily long line of mostly men in front a soup kitchen, shuffling in, shuffling out for a free meal but with no apparent, substantial relationship to those who feed them. In the meantime, I had just enjoyed a relaxed, family-style cookout with a highly diverse group of people and witnessed the real investment each takes in the others’ lives—a wonderful example of the healing power of neighborly care.

You can learn more about Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor on their website, as well as though an inspiring anthology of personal stories, The Sound of Worlds Colliding

Special thanks as well to Michael, Lisi, Travis, Leslee, Sara, and Ben of the Beehive House for their gracious hospitality in hosting me and for making my time in Vancouver all the more enjoyable.

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

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