Today we kick off a four-week series on the subject of intentional communities, which have grown in popularity over the last several decades. We reached out to a variety of writers who have experience with intentional communities, asking: what can we learn from this model of living? Check back on Thursdays in September for a series of diverse and interesting responses to this question.
At the beginning of her delightful and insightful book, Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe, Erin Lane confesses that she wants to belong but doesn’t know how. In this she gives voice to a truth not just about her or her millennial generation but about the time we live in. We are awash in connections of all sorts, probably more than humans have ever known, yet we don’t feel we belong and don’t even know how to get started.
At heart, this yearning to belong is also a yearning for community. As consultant and author Peter Block explains in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, community is not just something we might belong to; it is the very “structure of belonging.” But to define community in terms of belonging only renames the problem. As with belonging, we yearn for community and use the term for all sorts of groupings and associations, but it is not at all clear we know what community is or how to do it. What must we have in common? What kind of commitment is involved? What can I expect of others in this community and what can they expect of me? Uncertainty about community is only complicated by our pervasive distrust of institutions: government, education, media, church, even marriage. We are wary—for good reason—of precisely those groupings (communities?) to which people have traditionally belonged.
We need to understand the emergence of a growing number and variety of intentional Christian communities over the last few decades in the context of such uncertainty, wariness, and questioning. Such communities are responding to a yearning to belong and an ignorance of how to do it. They offer not just a clearer idea of community but a concrete experience of community—actual, imperfect people in actual, imperfect places making commitments that establish real expectations of one another. Intentional communities teach us how to belong.
Important as learning to belong is, the goal of intentional communities is not finally community for its own sake, which can devolve into a kind of group egoism. Those forming or joining these communities are seeking in them a means to live out their lives as disciples of Jesus Christ in an intense way, through a community chosen and not only inherited, and in a community of daily intimacy rather than a community of periodic gatherings. In this spirit, some of them, children of the Reformation though they be, refer to themselves as a New Monasticism, a conscious claiming of the ancient practice of men and women coming together to live in community as a way to seek God and follow Christ. They aspire to be in a new way what St. Benedict set out to establish with his Rule for the oldest family of intentional Christian communities: a school for the Lord’s service. In the school of these communities one learns how to be a disciple. This is a learning in the ancient sense of paideia and ascesis—a formation and training of the person, of character, not just the mind. Again, these communities provide not merely an idea of community and discipleship but a formative experience. From experience understanding emerges.
The school of these communities forms disciples. They are a profound witness to the Gospel and a leaven for the kingdom in church and society, as such communities have always been—or at least aspired to be. They teach us how to belong to each other, to the community, and to Christ, all of which are belongings that constitute the organic whole of Christian life. It is deeply encouraging and a true blessing to the church that a growing number of people, particularly young adults, are willing to commit themselves to these communities and this schooling for some period of their lives.
Theologically, these intentional communities need to be understood as part of the broader community that is the church. Community is central to the Christian life in itself, not just to Christian life lived in intentional communities. Community is rooted in the Christian understanding of God, human nature, and our way of being in the world. Christianity sees God, the underlying reality of the universe, as Trinity—a community of persons who are distinct and different yet one. As humans we are made in the image of this Trinitarian God. The Christian life is ultimately nothing less than a participation in this Trinitarian way of being. Christians are called to live as a community of disciples, to be the People of God, the church.
Grand, even cosmic as our theology of the church can be, we must not get lost in the abstraction, as if we could live in some disembodied, gnostic idea of church or community. This church, this participation in the communion of God, lives sacramentally in concrete local communities, primarily parishes and congregations. But it also lives in Bible study groups, soup kitchens, Catholic Worker houses, schools, and so many other ordinary yet extraordinary communions. The church is this web of concrete communities. Intentional communities are part of this web. They have a distinctive contribution to make that is different than that of a congregation. A monastic community, new or old, is not a model for a congregation. Even a congregation that is a vibrant, authentic community of disciples and an effective witness to the Gospel should not expect or be expected to provide the same kind of connection or commitment as an intentional community.
However, the emergence of these intentional communities in our day may be a pertinent diagnostic fact teaching us something significant about the current state of community in our parishes, the yearning to belong, and the desire for challenging discipleship among our fellow Christians. May we listen and learn.