Posts Tagged ‘Rule of Benedict’

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.

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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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I visited yesterday with Tim Soerens and Justin Mayfield of Parish Collective, a movement that connects churches, faith-based organizations, community groups and others on a neighborhood level to foster friendship, collaboration, justice-making, and vibrant local culture. Central to Parish Collective is the conviction that commitment to place and people is primary, that our God-talk must speak to and arise from local contexts, concrete relationships, and concerns, or it doesn’t speak at all. Loving one’s neighbor requires rootedness, and these rooted relationships in turn become the context in which we come to discover, discern, and participate in God’s creative presence in our midst. A second aspect to the work of Parish Collective is to create community not just at the neighborhood level, but to link local communities across a broad network, spreading the gifts, bonds, wisdom, and insights of local culture with a global view in mind. At present, there are established or emerging Parish Collectives in Seattle, Bellingham, Tacoma, Vancouver, WA, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Edmonton, BC, and Vancouver, BC.

Justin Mayfield and Tim Soerens from Parish Collective

Two things most impress me about Parish Collective. First, their intention to gather together and bring to bear in a concrete way the collective wisdom of local culture for positive social change stands in contrast to the way in which various groups and communities can live and work in the same area yet never substantially connect or collaborate. As a consequence, efforts toward justice-making and community-building in this fragmented context are often tackled piecemeal, from limited perspectives and narrow interests. The open, wholistic approach of Parish Collective strikes me as a refreshing antidote to such fragmentation.

Secondly, the emphasis on local stability as the abiding ground of commitment for discipleship and theological reflection poses a direct challenge to the present “keeping-my-options-open-indefinitely” sensibilities of the dominant culture. Craig Greenfield of Servants Vancouver also addressed this issue in our interview—the tension among today’s young adults between a hunger for community and an ambivalence toward commitment. In reality, you cannot have one without the other. Or to paraphrase Craig’s words, you cannot have community without the cost of commitment. Hence, it strikes me as particularly prophetic that Parish Collective begins and ends with commitment to place and people.

Rooted & Linked from Parish Collective on Vimeo.

Tim, Justin, and I talked a bit about this emphasis on local rootedness in light of the traditional Benedictine monastic promise of stability to a particular monastery and monastic community, intended as a lifelong commitment. The thought here is that Parish Collective is in some sense experimenting with the possibility of transplanting traditional monastic values and principles in the context of whole neighborhoods rather than insulated cloisters, and expanding the meaning and practice of “parish” in the process. Of course, while Saint Benedict wrote his Rule as a consolidation of the tradition he had inherited, he was also writing within his own unique cultural and historical context, for a particular community of men. The burgeoning monastic Oblate movement, among other models, affirms that Benedict’s insights and that of the larger monastic tradition can indeed speak to and enrich non-monastic contexts and cultures. I find it particularly heartening that stability, rootedness, and local stewardship are among those monastic values that seem to be having a transformative impact as counterpoints to disposable, rootless and uprooting cultural, economic, and social forces pervading our world and our neighborhoods today.

You can learn more about Parish Collective on their website.

I may publish an interview with a Parish Collective member down the road, but otherwise I am grateful for these new connections, budding friendships, and fresh inspiration. Thanks, guys!

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