a priest's musings on the journey

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do I Really Want to Follow Jesus?

A few years ago while I was living in North Carolina, I discovered an intentional Christian community in Durham called Rutba House. While I have flirted with some sort of monastic vocation for the last twenty years, this was my first exposure to "new monasticism", and as I read about this community's life, mission, and vision, "my heart was strangely warmed", to borrow Wesley's delicious phrase, and I began reflecting on what it really meant for me to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The immediate fruit of that prayerful reflection was an attempt and ongoing struggle to live a simpler life, to try and reduce my carbon footprint and live greener, and to be more intentional about finding and loving Christ in the poor and oppressed (read spiritual as well as physical poverty here.) The seed that is still gestating is a call or desire to take a bigger step toward reorienting my entire vision of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be Church, and what it means for me to be a priest. At the risk of sounding judgemental (and I suppose I am), there seems to be something missing in Church for me. Maybe I'm wrong, but I wish the Church would be more about living the Gospel and following the Way of Jesus, and less about playing politics and preserving an Institution that is more like the world than the vision of God's reign that Jesus proclaimed had come among us. (and I wish I could articulate that in a less acerbic and more grace-filled way).
Let me unpack that a bit: what do I mean by living the Gospel? As I understand it, the heart of the Gospel message is Jesus' new commandment to love God with all of one's heart, mind, soul,and strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. The context for knowing, experiencing, and giving and receiving love is community. Our baptismal incorporation "in Christ" is in fact an initiation into the "body of Christ", which is a metaphorical description of that community of disciples of Jesus Christ from all times and places, in heaven and on earth. And, our incorporation into Christ's Body is an incorporation into the life of God- an incorporation into the loving community of the Most Holy Trinity. I still remember when, through Henri Nouwen's help, I had an "a-ha" moment with Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity/Visitation of the Angels when I realized that the empty space in the circle was a space reserved for me (and you) to join in the sacred dance of eternal love between the members of the Divine Being. My Holiness roots had called this union with God, "sanctification", an idea similar to the Eastern Church's teaching on "theosis", the life-long(and beyond) process of becoming by grace what God is by nature. If then, we are united in Christ and are becoming partakers of the Divine nature (1 Peter 1:4), and if the Divine nature is in essence love- since God is love- (1 John 4:8), then how can we live any other way than the way of love- which is the way of God proclaimed by Jesus? For God love is sacrificial, self-giving, unconditional, unending, and available to all.
If we share in God's nature, then we are called to love the same way- which is real life terms means sharing our bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and healing the sick. It means taking the words of Jesus seriously when he said to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to turn the cheek, to forgive those who abuse us, to welcome the stranger,and to liberate the oppressed (and the oppressors). It means speaking out against injustice and working to tear down the powers of evil- both in ourselves and in the kingdoms of the Church and the world- which rage against the Reign of God and exploit the people of God. It means caring for the world and the environment, not just because God called us to be care takers of the world, but because a life rooted in love is a grateful life which respects God's creation and preserves it for those who will live on this planet after us.
Is this Gospel life the way of life that most Christians live? Is it the way of life that I live? Can I be (remain) a partaker of the Divine nature and not live this way? Can I claim to love God and ignore the plight of the poor? If I am becoming by grace what God is by nature, then shouldn't I be working to end poverty, and working to bring gender and racial equality? Shouldn't I be working to form a truly inclusive church where everyone really is welcomed as Christ without the General Convention or the Lambeth Conference telling me via a resolution that is ok for me to welcome them? Shouldn't I denounce the powers of consumerism and materialism that pull me away from God's Reign and cloud Christ's call to love my neighbor. Shouldn't I be praying for those in the Church who deny me a place at the Table of Grace and intentionally working for reconciliation (NB: cracks like "akinola- assahola" are not faithful expressions of the ministry of reconciliation. I'm pretty sure that's not what Jesus had in mind when he said "do good to those who hate you, pray for those who insult you and persecute you.." (Matthew 5:44).

This is not the life that I am living... but I want it to be. That is not the life that I see the institutional church living- but if it doesn't awake from its slumber and "be" the hands and feet of Christ in the world- (pardon the awkward grammar) then it will become utterly irrelevant. (and maybe it already has... )

Luiz and I have mused on these thoughts for several months. We've also been reading Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution, which seems to be offering us greater clarity into what it might mean for us to follow Christ's way of love. While both of us have at various points in our Christian journeys considered monastic life, neither of us feel our vocation is to "leave the world" in order to serve the world through prayer. Don't get me wrong, I have tremendous respect and admiration for those who enter the religious life, and their contribution to the Church and the world is an invaluable service to the Kingdom of God. However, that does not seem to be the path that I am being called to take- at least in its intentional form. I am feeling called to an intentional ministry of transformation in the world- (again, cloistered monastic life also participates in the ministry of transforming the world; the various paths of living out discipleship are not better than another- only different). During our conversations we have reflected on how and where our vocations will participate in Christ's work of transforming the world.
We have been dreaming of creating our own "new monastic intentional Christian community." Although we still do not really understand what that will be like, our dream is to find a residence in an urban area, where 6-12 people would live in intentional Christian community, under an adapted Benedictine Rule. We would worship together daily, share meals in common, and work together with the poor and marginalized in the area. The core of our dream includes the creation of an art atelier which would train the poor in the visual arts, host exhibitions of their work, and manage a shop which would sell their work. The emphasis would be on the creation of liturgical arts- vestments, icons, statuary, paintings, sacred vessels, stained glass, etc.; but other forms of art would be encouraged as well. The atelier would also offer after-school classes for children and youth, and the community would assist the poor with food and access to medical care and spiritual formation. Our deepest dream would be to create a community that modeled greener living for the urban poor, by the creative planting of plants and vegetation, by designing urban gardens, recycling and re-purposing "trash", etc.

More needs to be fleshed out; I have no idea how this would work, where it could be, or how to get there. I envision myself working at least part time in a parish as well, and I would think members of the community migth also have jobs outside of the house. But, this is only in the dream phase. While both of us are excited about the possibilities and open to the Spirit, we will have to trust God to direct us from here. If this dream interests you, and you at least want to be a part of the conversation, contact Luiz or me, and let's talk.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 7:55 PM


Well, it might be a dream, but some dreams come true. :)
Blogger Luiz, at 8:56 PM  
Very exciting. Thanks for sharing this.

And I assume you'll have room for visiting friends who are kindred spirits :-).

Keep praying, keep dreaming.

Let's talk --or maybe I'll just listen (ha) next time we are in the same place.
Blogger Jane R, at 10:38 PM  
I'm less sure that it means leaving the institutional church behind altogether. For the great majority of people in history, parish life with all its squabbles has been a means of grace and a hope of glory.

However, I don't think that you are the only ones to feel the Spirit's breathe nudging you towards a new monasticism. I know that I am not called to community life of any kind, but I wonder whether what you are describing chimes in with the idea of a cathedral being the monastic heartbeat of a city, which has been mulling around in my mind for the last two years.

Come to Glasgow. Do it here.
Anonymous Kelvin, at 2:47 AM  
Rob+ You are exactly right and you have hit the nail right on the head. I have had a vision for such a community for a long time now. I have been reading similar comments in +Gene Robinson's new book In the Eye of the Storm. It will take me a few days to come up with a response but I will post it on my blog and we can keep the discussion going. I know there are more folks out there who share the same call.

Blogger Fr. Peter, at 2:10 PM  
Thanks Jane! I appreciate your supportive words- sometimes I think I just be a but crazy to entertain such dreams... I'll be in GSO in August... maybe we can chat then.
Blogger Padre Rob+, at 7:35 PM  
Kelvin, I agree with you. I can not see myself leaving the institutional Church- and I imagine this community will be deeply rooted in a parish community as well... and, yes, the idea of a Cathedral in Glasgow is a tempting one.... who knows where the Spirit will lead
Blogger Padre Rob+, at 7:37 PM  
Fr Peter, thanks! I can't wait to read your blog and continue the conversation.

Blogger Padre Rob+, at 7:38 PM  
I can't thank you enough for writing this....I was struggling to put this concept into words yesterday! Just what I needed to hear.
Blogger eric, at 1:20 PM  

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