Three Years in Intentional Community- How Has St. Hilda's Changed Me?
So, this Sunday I'm going to be preaching my final sermon at Christ Church. It's put me in a reflective mood.
This is going to be one of my last posts on the Hilda's blog- maybe the last (not including the sermon, which will probably go up in a week or so). I hope it's ok, then, that I'm taking a bit of time to indulge a little deeper into this reflectiveness.
I've spent more time at St. Hilda's now than I spent at Oxford as an undergraduate- and if you total up the actual days spent on location, maybe more time than I spent at Oxford over the whole four years. This amount of time will provoke change, no matter what. I hope talking about that change might be helpful for the reader, whether you're interested in living in community yourself, generally interested in different forms of religious life, or just interested in what's happened to me over the past few years.
The first section is going to be the relatively concrete history of my time here. I'll then look at some of what actually happened over that time.
Basic Time Frames/Events
In exactly one month I will end my third and final year of Saint Hilda's House. This will first of all mean I can no longer make my favourite, and not at all overused, joke- that I'm currently in my third year of a one year programme. More importantly, it will mark the next arbitrary end-point in which I step from one location to another and mark it as a point of change (the fact that this change will involve a new job, marriage, new city, and all the rest is neither here nor there!).
The previous point of change was Thursday, August 30th, 2012. That's when the picture above was taken, as I spent the morning of my last day in Britain with my family on the Solent. The plan back then was to come out for a year to live and work at Saint Martin de Porres Academy as part of St. Hilda's, then apply for a job at a private school in England which had more or less been set aside for me.
The Sunday after I arrived, I wrote up a blog post detailing my first impressions of America and Saint Hilda's. Memory is a fickle thing, so it's illuminating to read it now, three years later. It's immediately obvious that my writing style hasn't changed a bit. I now know the story behind the man with one arm, who I actually met at Chapel on the Green again a whole year and a half after that post was written. Those strange Americans became some of my closest friends, and even the ones who didn't had a profound impact on my life. I'm not yet on my way to Canterbury, though I have seen many of the people I've lived with begin to take their first steps towards living for the Church in an influential way.
It took about a month of living at St. Hilda's for me to realise that going right back to Britain was a non-starter. The clearest problem for a number of the kids at SMPA was a lack of consistent adult presence, with high staff turnover and a relative paucity of reliable adult role-models (I will say, however, that this shouldn't be taken as a stereotype of our parents): I wasn't willing to leave after a year. Fairly soon after I'd secured the possibility of staying on, a consensus grew in the house (in no small part instigated by some wonderfully idealistic thinking from Rick and Carrie) that we wanted to have more time together in New Haven. Though the process was by no means simple, we worked with Father Robert to create a second year house. Seven of us stayed on as (what became known as) The Red House.
By this time I'd become committed to the belief that two years wasn't enough time either. I spent 2013-14 working half time for Forward Movement, the Episcopal Publisher, and half time for SMPA. It became clear as the year went on that the digital work I was doing for Forward Movement could be of immense benefit to St. Hilda's, so Seth and I applied for a grant to fund my current position as Digital Missioner. As the other members of the Red House moved on, some to seminary, some to employment, some to a different part of New Haven (huzzah!), I moved back into the central St. Hilda's community.
Still working half-time at SMPA (and the time there is still what gives my spirit life), I have spent the year trying to figure out ways to support to programme online and adjusting to living with a whole new group of wonderful, weird, and brilliant people. I got engaged earlier in the year as well, with Rose saying she wanted to spend the rest of her life with me. We're getting married on June 27th, in Oxford, to begin the next step (and all the other steps as well) together. It's all quite exciting.
What's Actually Changed?
These are the events. They can provide a framework for some of the changes which have occurred, but those changes are a bit further beneath the surface. Without going on too long, I want to spend a bit of time on them now- to suggest the kind of effect that living in community can have on people. My friends and housemates are actually better qualified to comment on what's changed in me (one thing which has not shifted is my general belief that those around me tend to know me better than I know myself), but I'll try to base most of this on what others have said.
I'm not going to focus explicitly on my faith- but I will say now that I hope an implicit theme in all that follows is my beginning to try and better employ the talents I've been given in the service of Christ. I will also say here how important prayer and worship have been in all of this- these were the places in which the formation took place, in (I hope) a similar way to Wordsworth's description of poetry. The context of prayer should be read under all that follows.
The first change is that I have become far less preoccupied with fixing things. I've been told that I'm a born problem solver- not so much as a matter of aptitude, but compulsion. This is what drove me to study philosophy at university, and it informs my basic way of approaching new situations. When listening to or observing something I will almost always look for the aspect which most suggests a problem, try and explore it as thoroughly as possible, then attempt to formulate a solution. It makes life a more or less constant experience of critical analysis, which can then underwrite a sort of cerebral Messiah complex. This is a great habit when it comes to evaluating intellectual arguments, and it can come in handy in other places too- all the same, the last three years have been an object lesson in when, how, and why this is a hugely unhelpful thing to do, then how to rein in this instinct without shutting down my critical faculties (which can still be set to good use elsewhere!).
The clearest examples of this lesson are, I hope, my interactions with the students of Saint Martin's. One way or another, I have always wanted to help solve other people's problems, whether by assisting them or just doing it myself. This informed both my teaching and my personal interactions with students. I was always ready to offer advice and ask questions pointing towards what I thought should be the moment of self-realisation. It could sometimes work too, and sometimes it was the right thing to do. Living in community, however- observing how much of what happens in such a confined space is problematic, insoluble, and eventually good- has made it clear how few problems I should ever actually try to solve. Many, especially those faced by our students, must just run their course- my job, meanwhile, is to be a presence in the world, one who is able to listen (when listening is needed), counsel (when counsel is requested), and tell bad jokes (whether or not they're needed or requested).
As such, I do very little explicit teaching these days. In fact, I don't actually do much at all- not on my own initiative at least. I mainly sit at a desk in a hallway, doing the slight official work of signing kids into grad support (and maybe playing them at table tennis), with a seat or two next to me available for any kid who wants to sit there. Sometimes all I do is read- other days I end up talking with three or four kids for forty minutes at a time. The kindest comment I've heard all year was from a student who asked me what precisely my job was- I answered 'sign people in and be eccentrically British'. They ended their semi-lengthy reply with 'so we know you're always there for us, and that makes life much better.' Small yet important moments, and not to be dwelt on for too long, but I think that three years ago I wouldn't have been satisfied with mere presence- I would have wanted to be praised for being actively useful. Today, the possibility that my passive presence might support the activity of another- even if only in some small way for some small number of people, and even if that support is in the form of an unrealised possibility- is more than blessing enough.
(Of course, I'm still a compulsive problem solver- and so I still need to work on reigning in that instinct when it is categorically unhelpful.)
When asked what I've learnt from living in community, my answer is almost always the same: I've learnt about the huge number of ways that I am unintentionally an asshole. Living in close proximity with other people who are wildly, wildly different to me has made me aware of how the habits I have which I don't even think about can be hurtful to others. Living in close proximity with other people who I love and who love me has made me aware that I can alter those habits without ceasing to be myself. And so the flipside of this answer, the positive side, is that I hope I have learnt to better love my neighbour.
To pick one example, and sticking with the problem-solving theme- I tend not to remark much on things which seem correct in the articulation of a thought. Instead, I will almost always pick up on what seems to me to be slightly off. My instinctive thinking is that not much needs to be said about the things which are working (because, well, they're working!), whereas the aspects which look slightly flawed are the ones we're most likely to learn something new from. I also find some of the greatest companionship in these kinds of discussions, because those small potential flaws tend to point towards genuine points of communication and miscommunication- the kind which, if explored in trust, can deepen not just thought, but friendship.
It is a testament to my general pig-headedness that it had genuinely never properly occurred to me that this mode of conversation could be hurtful to others- that people might hear my relative silence on the good as dismissive and my immediate questions as an attack or an insult. It is a testament to my pig-headedness that I a) found it hard to imagine why questions and criticisms could be hurtful, and b) seemed to think that I had an implicit right to expect people to distinguish my critical questioning of their views from a critical questioning of either their intellectual ability or personal worth.
If this sounds unbearable, I'm sure it was and is. It is, of course, a practise which comes out of a few very specific contexts- one of my fondest memories as a child, for example, was reading my father's comments on a small collection of poems I'd written, where he'd been beautifully honest in his critical assessment. I was lucky enough to know that neither his love nor his estimation of my (10 year old!) ability was ever in doubt, and I remember being uniquely happy as I attempted incorporate his criticisms into the poems.
It's moments like this which have made my love language that of critical questioning- I rarely feel more naturally loved and respected than when someone takes the time to conscientiously and methodically criticise something which I have attempted to articulate. Oxford was the perfect place for this. And my housemates at Saint Hilda's were the perfect people to gently and lovingly teach me the limits of this language. These are limits which I'm still learning, but the lesson is (I hope) there- that the ways I instinctively try and show love can in fact be hugely counterproductive, and that the proper response to this is not resentment or shame, but instead to listen carefully to how people want to be loved. I've only just begun to learn this, and am still pretty bad at it- all the same, living in community has changed me insofar as it has stopped me retreating into myself and actively trying to entrench my habits. It has, I hope and pray, equipped me for this slow process of learning.
It is still a hard lesson to learn: that though we are commanded to love one another, this is actually a really hard thing to do. It is hard to learn that the ways we try to show love might be unappreciated or hurtful, not because of a moral failing on anyone's part, but because of the irreducible diversity of human existence. It's also easy to just get angry or bitter when our efforts at love fail- we can either resent the person we're trying to love, or resent ourselves for doing the most important thing badly. These responses are harder to have, however, when your failure is set in the context of a community which has promised to love each of its members without condition- and so a community which can nurture its members as they learn the difficult, and endless, lessons of how to love God and neighbour.
None of this can capture all the vivid details of these three years. Even the two thousand or so photos I have from my time at St. Hilda's (I like taking photographs) couldn't do that. The final change I'm going to write about, then, is my beginning to learn just how wide the wide world is- how many details there are which cannot be captured or conveyed in writing, even if writing can be used to point in their direction.
I have lived with 15 people over these three years- Laurel, Kayla, Rick, Connor, David, Carrie, Neil, Sam, Emily, Suzie, Will, John, Shancia, Kalekye, Megan. I have encountered over 100 students at SMPA, not least my 5th graders (who are now in 7th grade). I have lived in another country, been lucky enough to get to know a good number of people at Yale Divinity School, and made several friends at the Owl Shop (my lunch time haunt- it doesn't sell owls, unfortunately). I have read more widely than at any time in my life, though still around the same basic subjects.
In the grand scale of the world, this is nothing- and I'm not about to go all 'gap yah' and talk as if all this has only served to make me a more enlightened, superior being. I will say, however, that it has been an unambiguously good thing to encounter and live in community with people whose world views and experiences were totally, utterly, and radically different to mine. It has been an unambiguously good thing to realise how little I knew before I came out here, because this reminds me just how little I know now. All the experiences, all the little moments, all the joy, happiness, conflict, acrimony, love, all the people- all of this has been an inestimable blessing. I hope, for my part, that my presence in the midst of it all has been a good one overall.
So, after three years, where am I? More or less exactly where I started, I think- perhaps a person broadly the same, with some small but important changes in character and direction. I know that there's a lot to do, a lot to learn, friendships to maintain, new friends to make. I miss home more than I could possibly write, most especially the friends and family who I see just a few days a year- but the next step is Denver, Colorado, where I hope I'll be able to take some of the lessons I've learned about community and put them to good use. I will eventually go home, however.
One thing I'm convinced of- three years isn't enough. I've moved about so much for most of my life that I am practically a tourist in all the places that I go. I do not want my relationships to be that of a tourist, however- one where I observe, learn, and move on, perhaps to tell stories later. The work of intentional community which we start at St. Hilda's should be the kind of work you can support for a lifetime, without the need for monastic vows or the giving up of family. I hope we're able to figure out how to support this kind of life for the long term, so that it can actually be a kind of life- not a year or two taken out of one. We'll see. Whichever way, these have been three wonderful years filled with wonderful people, and I am enormously grateful for all of it.