Waiting for the Provision and the Power of God to Move Things Forward

"Should We Begin a New Religious Order?"

 

This is the question that 11 men were asking during the spring of 1539. It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. They spent almost 4 months in a process of discernment which included days of prayer and discussion in accommodations somewhere in the middle of Rome. These men had come to Rome after almost 10 years of friendship together during which they helped each other discern the will of God for each of their lives. 

      Jesuit Church, Bratislava, Slovakia (photography credit: Lubos Rojka)

He was just a member of the group, hoping, listening, awaiting the sign of God’s presence through the voices of his friends.
— Goras, Jose. Ignatius of Loyola: The Pilgrim Saint. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1994. 420.

What they had discovered along the way was that God was seemingly knitting them each not only to the companionship of Jesus, but also to each other. The question about whether or not to found a new religious order was before them in part due to the reality of the life they had chosen together, a life of poverty and chastity and service. They came to Rome in order to offer their lives in service of the church at the discretion of the Pope. They had already discerned and chosen their state of life, but the exact form of life, and the means through which they would live it out, was yet to be determined. They conversed together at the end of long days of teaching in the Universities, in the public square, and begging for their daily food. 

The short accounts of the founding of The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) will often begin with, “The Society of Jesus was founding in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola…” If you dig a little deeper you’ll see a decade of thinking, praying, and discerning by 7 or 8 of his closest friends (1529-1540) with a lot of hopes and dreams that never came to fruition. Ignatius did not impose his will on the others. "He was just a member of the group, hoping, listening, awaiting the sign of God’s presence through the voices of his friends.”  Ignatius was not a leader that set the course for what was ahead. He stewarded those whom God brought his way.

He waited for the provision and power of God to move things forward. 

Over the past several months our work with The Order of Sustainable Faith has felt a little like the unseen work of those men during that long decade. I hesitate to make a comparison to the work of the early Jesuits. It feels more than a little presumptuous. But, I must confess that I find solace in knowing the full story behind what would eventually gain a great deal of momentum. Our work with The Order feels slow. And while this is often on purpose, I feel the awkwardness of the slowness in that I’m attempting to model after 16th century sentiments while clearly being someone who has 21st century habits, surrounded by people with 21st century expectations.

As much as I sometimes wonder what it means, we know clearly that God has asked us to begin a new religious order. This statement brings out a lot of questions in people who are wondering what a 21st century monastic expression looks like. We often wonder the same thing, though we trust that God is leading the process. People are being drawn to The Order from all over the country. They are beginning to meet with spiritual directors for the first time, and they are beginning to discern what it might look like to respond to the invitation that God is clearly drawing them into.  We’re doing our best to pay attention to the people that God is bringing our way who are expressing interest in our Non-Residential Expression. 

In Invitations & Commitments, the Rule of Life for The Order of Sustainable Faith (OSF), we lay out what it means to become a non-residential member:

3.4 Non-Residential Membership 

3.4.1 Non-Residential Members will meet with a spiritual director once a month during Postulancy, and every three weeks during the Novitiate Experience. The Rule of Life will be the basis for conversations and spiritual direction. 

3.4.2 Non-Residential Members should commit to living this Rule of Life in their present location and context with the ongoing support of a spiritual director and participation in the life of a local church. When possible, participation in the life of a Residential Community during holiday or vacation, is encouraged. 

3.5.2 Every member will begin with a 6-month postulancy as a Non-Residential Member. 

3.5 Entering into Membership 

3.5.1 A Request for membership of the Order will consist of a discernment process between the applicant and the applicant’s spiritual director and/or pastor.

3.5.3 During postulancy, members will review the Rule of Life, meet with a spiritual director, and continue to discern one’s desire for membership within The Order of Sustainable Faith. 

As we continue to work and pray our way toward planting a monastery and residential expressions, we're putting our hands to the work of spiritual direction and helping people discern how God might be leading them to join us in membership. 

Why Are We Starting a Monastery? (part3) #theordersf

Being in the World with Intention 

We are starting a monastic expression because true formation requires a set of practices and habits in order to point our hearts in the proper direction.

All of our lives are aimed, consciously or unconsciously, at a particular vision of what we see as the “good life.” Whatever vision of life we imagine as the kind of life that we want, this vision ends up pulling us toward a way of behaving and making decisions. The kind of clothes we wear, the kind of watch we buy, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the vocations we choose—these are efforts to get what we want. If you want to find out about someone—ask them what they want, not what they believe. 

"Toward the monk the coal burner was deeply reverent."     
-Daniel Carter Beard. Pen & ink. 

In the first chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the rule of life that has governed the majority of Christian monastic expressions for the past 1500 years, Benedict describes four types of monks. 

1. The first type, Cenobites, are monks who live under a rule of life, and an Abbot. This is the kind of monasticism that Benedict set out to form at the beginning of the 6th century. It was Benedict who had the vision for solitary hermits to come together under one roof and share a life together—a life of prayer, study, and bodily labor. 

2. The second kind of monk, according to Benedict’s rule, is the Anchorite, or the hermit. Benedict thought that the only way one should go out into the wilderness by himself, is after a long period of living with others and receiving their encouragement, exhortation, and strength. 

3. The third kind of monks are the Sarabites. These are the worst kind of monk. These kind of monks have never submitted themselves to anything. They don’t live under a rule. They don’t submit to a leader. They aren’t willing to be molded by others. And as a result of this, “…the pleasure of their desires is to them a law; and whatever they like or make a choice of, they will have to be holy, but what they don’t like, they consider unlawful.” Benedict says these kind of monks have a character that is as soft as lead. There is a loyalty to the world, says Benedict, that makes one’s commitment to God seem like a lie. 

4. The fourth kind of monks are the gyrovagues. These are the drifters. They are one’s who refuse to stay put and be formed by a particular people. They are constant guests while traveling from one place or another. 

Benedict goes onto say that it is better to keep silent about these last three kinds of monks. He just passes them by and launches in on his plan for the strong kind, the cenobites. 

With no disrespect to St. Benedict, I can’t resist making some observations about the kind of life that most of us are content in living. 

If everyone was a monk—most of us would be Sarabites. It's in our nature. We, all of us, are naturally directed by our desires. We find ways of calling the things we want, “good.” And this happens without us even realizing it. The power of our desires end up shaping the little decisions in our life, and before we know it, the habits of our everyday life are pointed and aligned in a specific direction. This is why you can learn most about a person by asking them what they want, rather than what they believe. What we want ends up pulling towards the kind of life we are trying to get at.

But what happens when we discover that the things we want, and thus, the direction of our life, aren’t really all that great? We can try to change the things we want, but it doesn’t work that easily. If you have ever tried to give up a bad a habit, you may rememberer that it’s not often that you stop wanting the thing you are trying to quit. You want to quit that afternoon cup of coffee, but 1pm comes around, and you want coffee. Changing what we want is actually really hard. 

In his wonderful book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith leads us through a discussion of how we all have an implicit picture of the kingdom of God. Smith argues that our primary orientation in the world is governed by our loves and our desires. You should read his book. There are few books that really have the power to re-orient. This is one of them.

We are starting a monastic expression because true formation requires a set of practices and habits in order to point our hearts in the proper direction. This doesn’t happen only through the institution of a monastery, of course. There are a multitude of ways to be formed and habituated toward a certain way of being in the world. We are formed, for better or worse, by our habits and practices. What monasteries have done throughout history is provide a way of life–a forma vitae–not a list of rules and regulations that we super-impose on life, but rather, a doing and living with a level of intention that eventually trains our hearts to do the things we set out to do in the first place. 

In short, once our hearts are trained toward the kingdom of God, the rule of life that we have chosen to come under nearly becomes obsolete. A rule of life is there to hem us in when needed, but it works more like a marriage vow than a daily operative. In marriage, the vow only comes into sharp focus  when the heart has become trained away from the commitment. The marriage vow is a reminder of  the commitment to be formed (in one’s love) toward a particular person, and in a particular way. The vow is what you return to. But it isn’t the vow that does the heavy-lifting on a day-to-day basis. What operates on a day-to-day basis is the doing and living of marriage–hopefully, the kind of living that is in line with the commitment that the vow holds. It's in this doing and living where our flaws are exposed. This is where we learn about grace and forgiveness. This is where we receive the gift of another person’s constancy. This is where turn to another with a deep reverence for the work of mirroring back to us the capacity of who we are.

I think people are searching for a way of life. Our cultural hindrance in the West is that we have been taught that we ourselves can provide that way of life. We have been taught autonomy. We have been taught that we can read scripture, by ourselves. That we can worship, by ourselves. That we can work, by ourselves. And while we can do those things on our own-it’s a fools errand to believe that we can change without the constancy of other people. We have been conditioned to embody the spirit of a Sarabitic monk, and this makes for a long road toward true formation. 

We are starting a monastery because we want to invite people into the joy that comes from a willingness to be molded by something outside of oneself. There is a great freedom in obedience. This is the foundation of historic monasticism–that in the humility of obedience, we walk into a way of life that more closely aligns with Jesus. 

 

*This post is the third in an ongoing series. Here is Part 1 where I talk about what happens when we seek our life in God. And, Part 2, where I consider why people have never considered a monastic vocation.

Beginning

Seventy years ago this month, the monks of the newly formed Monastery of the Holy Spirit moved into their temporary chapel. It was December 7th, 1944, and twenty-one monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani celebrated the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception. 

The previous March,  these twenty-one monks–ranging from an old German priest who was just about to celebrate his 40th year as a Trappist, to a new novitiate who had made his simple profession just a month or so prior– said goodbye to their brothers in Nelson Country, Kentucky. They made their way to Honey Creek Plantation, which was about 30 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia. They left the hills of Kentucky on the day that marks the Feast of St. Benedict. They celebrated on that day the anniversary of the Abbey at Cîteaux, which had been founded nearly 850 years before. Gethsemani was then almost a hundred years old, and they were taking their first steps south toward establishing a new foundation, as Thomas Merton called it in The Waters of Siloe, that would one day be The Monastery of the Holy Spirit. 

First Steps

The monks at Gethsemani sent out these 21 brothers along with a builder from New Haven, KY. The instructions for the builder were “to clear out the hayloft of a big brick barn and try to make it habitable for some twenty Trappist monks and brothers.” These brothers made their life in the loft of a barn and began construction on a chapel, using wood that they timbered and cut with a newly purchased sawmill. On December 7th, 1944, after 9 months of hard labor, they moved into that chapel to pray the hours of Vigils. “That morning the water had frozen in the cruets while the priests were saying mass for the last time in the hayloft.” (Thomas Merton, Waters of Siloe). Their new chapel was ready just in time for the onset of winter.

This past weekend we visited the land where we will be building a monastery for the 21st century. We brought along with us an architect, a civil engineer, and a structural engineer to look at the existing structures, which includes a barn built nearly fifty years after the founding of the Abbey of Gethsemani (1848). It is in this barn where our daily life of The Order of Sustainable Faith will begin. I snapped a picture of the straw-shed, which, as it seems, will one day be a chapel. (I’ll post more about our visit later this week). 

Future Chapel

Future Chapel

All beginnings are hard...You cannot swallow all the world at one time.
— Chaim Potak, (In the Beginning)

It’s true, all beginnings are hard. Look at the history of anything and you’ll see hardship. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, to be sure. 

The work of God is almost always slow. This is why the kingdom of God is likened to the growing of a mustard seed (which goes deep first), and the work yeast does on a lump of dough. It’s slow. It takes some time, but eventually it works its way through. 

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Some say, “It’s too much work. The vision is too big.” But it strikes me, today at least, that it shouldn’t be any other way. We are doing our best to embody the work that has gone before us. Planting monasteries has always been slow. The brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit lived in that barn, and worshiped in the hay-loft, for almost all of the nearly 15 years it took them to complete their main building projects. They had a forest, a sawmill, and were guided by faith, laboring with love. 

They had help and support too: volunteers, financial resources, and a rich history of others having gone before them. We need those things too. We’re not ready for volunteers quite yet. Regarding a rich history–we’re standing on the back of the religious orders that have gone before us, and within a stream of renewal for the church.

As for resources, we do and will need some help along the way.

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