This is the second installment in our series on intentional communities, where we invite writers to reflect on what we can learn from this movement. In this essay, Julian Washio-Collette writes about how living in community has fostered his spiritual journey, moving him from individualism to solidarity. To read last week’s essay on what the church can learn from New Monasticism, click here.
Everywhere in these days people have… ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light.
My attraction to intentional community living has been at the heart of my life’s aspirations since I first got my hands on the encyclopedic Intentional Communities Directory in my late teens. Pouring through the directory’s exhaustive community listings and articles, I populated my imagination with an immensely colorful, diverse sense of life’s possibilities beyond the horizons of my suburban middle-class upbringing. Looking back, I can sense an interweaving of motivations at work. On the one hand, having lived through two parental divorces, I endured a shattering degree of relational disruption and instability. No wonder that I longed for a life that was more relationally whole, stable, meaningful, dependable. Yet, instinctively, I also recognized a deeper level of fragmentation.
As a family, broken as we were, we were further isolated by the modern social and economic structure of the nuclear family: we were consigned to our fourth of an acre as to a private kingdom, complete with all the technological conveniences to render good neighborliness and interdependence, and intimacy with the natural world virtually superfluous. Apart from home, my own young life was consumed with school, while my parents’ lives were consumed with work. We weren’t a family of faith, but if we were, “church” would have been yet another relatively independent, loosely interlocking sphere in a life without a clear, galvanizing center of meaning or coherence. The idea of intentional community, then, spoke not only to my longing for relational wholeness, but also to the possibility of a radical restructuring of relationships and the stuff of life—work, education, leisure, culture, economics—to reflect a unity of values and purpose.
By the time I came to Christian faith, I was in my early thirties and had already lived in two intentional communities, a Zen Buddhist meditation center and an eco-village. Based on this history, I was quite naturally attracted to monasticism within the framework of the Christian tradition. In fact, I would say that monastic life represented the epitome of what I had been seeking all along: an all-encompassing way of life ordered around deliberately chosen values and priorities, not meant to be a mere earth-bound utopia but open and oriented to the transcendent. Following this attraction, I spent four and a half years in formation as a monk in a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery. Ultimately, however, I decided that married life in community was my true vocational path. In other words, I sought to live “monastically” as a married person.
Cumulatively speaking, I am now in my eleventh year of living in an intentional community, though only nine months into living and working at the Casa de Clara San Jose Catholic Worker, together with my wife and two other Catholic Workers. As a community, we provide hospitality to single women and women with children experiencing homelessness. We distribute food to economically struggling families in our neighborhood, help local churches and households with a room to spare temporarily shelter individuals and families, and provide resources and a listening ear to people who come to our door. Integral to our mission and vision, we begin our days with an hour of shared prayer, meditating on scripture and waiting on God in silence, and end with evening prayer.
Every evening at six, we gather at table, family-style—Catholic Workers, guests and friends, the poor and the privileged— to share a meal. Of all the aspects of living at Casa de Clara, I’ve come to value this simple, ordinary, yet radical and boundary-transgressing table fellowship the most. Whatever impulses first drew me to intentional community, I now recognize that I have been on a long and challenging journey from our culture’s rugged individualism to embodying a living faith that calls us to real solidarity across all manner of social boundaries. And nowhere is this solidarity more apparent than in the improbable, ragtag group of us talking about our days’ joys and struggles over a home-cooked meal.
In the fifth century, documenting the lives and practices of the early monks of the Egyptian desert, John Cassian wrote of three stages of progress in monastic life that correspond to three renunciations. In the first, the aspiring monk leaves behind his or her possessions and the tightly knit relationships, expectations, responsibilities, and resources of village or city life, to enter nakedly into the desert. Once there, exteriorly liberated from many of the encumbrances of worldly life, and in community with others, the monk embarks upon a rigorous process of further leaving behind the vices of behavior and the more subtle habits of the heart acquired in his or her former way of life. Finally, through years steeped in prayer and a disciplined life, the monk reaches a third and final stage, wherein his or her whole being has become utterly transparent and responsive to the presence of God.
While my own life now looks quite different than what John Cassian had in mind, I appreciate his stages of growth, and especially its starting point of physical, social, and economic relocation. In our age of “self-help” and a decidedly privatized, individualistic approach to spirituality, it’s easy to miss how thoroughly we are formed by the common, value-laden structures in which our lives are embedded. In contrast, the monastic tradition reminds us that a more holistic approach to the context of faith is possible. I have found that living in intentional community has provided me with this important foundation of a more fruitful, integrated context for shared Christian discipleship, personal transformation, and the central human task of learning to love.