My fascination with intentional communities began in graduate school. Aided with theoretical knowledge of the contemplative tradition and informed by my colleagues clutching their crumpled Wendell Berry books, I was pretty sure I knew what intentional community looked like. When I imagined it, community looked like peaceful walks, with hands gliding over bushes in bloom. It looked like enjoying a bracing cup of coffee while lounging in a rocking chair, perhaps with a lazy dog tail thumping a few feet off. It looked like an engaged community committing themselves to a rule of life, piously praying all the cycles of the daily office and the Psalter. All of these images have been true in one way or another during this past year: a gift I don’t have the language to properly acknowledge.
There was a crucial component missing in my imaginings of community: the part where you live with and for others. Those peaceful walks are sometimes a prescription for working through frustrations you have with others or that others have with you. Maybe the dog tail is thumping, but the dog attached is harrumphing at you to take him outside again so he can eat more grass and upset his stomach. Maybe you don’t do so well getting up for Morning Prayer as often as you should (my personal Achilles’ heel).
The first set of images are intimately tied to the second set of images. The work that goes into communities keeps you busy. When I read about contemplative communities, I imagined mostly slowing down, appreciating silence, and listening to the God who speaks through silence. Busyness, I contrasted in my mind, frustrates the goals of intentional community. Busyness, I had somehow learned, is a product of the consumerist culture that tells us to work, achieve, accomplish rapidly, to the neglect of spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Consumerist busyness exists, but it is not the busyness of St. Hilda’s House. The busyness of St. Hilda’s House is the busyness of Morning Prayer, commuting to non-profit work sites, grocery lists, community meals, house meetings, setting up for our Compline service, acolyte training for Anglo-Catholic liturgy, the list could go on. These don’t strike me as consumerism, but they definitely didn’t fit well into my imagined world of contemplative community.
When I re-evaluate contemplative literature with this new perspective, I start to see this busyness in the best of the contemplative communities. St. Teresa of Avila documents her mystical advance to the interior castle of the soul, the chamber where God in Trinity resides. She understands this journey as significant in that it enables her to wash dishes with more charity. In The Preface of Gildas on Penance, a monk too drunk to sing the Psalms is deprived of supper. I believe I even read in Thomas Aquinas a biting reference to a monk who leaves the bathroom window open when bathing. These frustrations, the busyness of community, seem on a matured glance intimately related to the work of contemplation.
This year has been busy. But I think it also has been contemplative. As Eliza, one of the Region Missionaries of ECCT, told us: intentional community is something like rubbing two stones together. After some time of friction, you find yourself oddly smoothed. The busyness of our schedule, the busyness of prayer, the busyness of checking in with other people, all conspire to trip us up into thinking about something other than ourselves. So it’s not the elaborate prayer routines: it’s how in saying the same prayers every day, the beauty of “through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,” finally dawns on my imagination. As we each go through our busy week, I notice how events that bring me a lot of joy bring others a lot of anxiety (and vice versa). And these unfolding complexities, whether of liturgy or of community life, have the tendency to unsettle and point me to something greater. And, thankfully, a contemplative community is there even when I am blissfully unaware of such complexities. The hope in a year of service is not to be found in the worksite, community meal, cycle of prayer, or laughter, but through them: the busyness for the sake of others can become the context through which God discloses the beauty of holiness, a community contemplating the work of God’s hands.
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