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Organic Development of Intentional Community

In the last podcast episode, Augustine Tardiff discussed the origin and spirituality of Madonna House. Among other interesting points, he explained that Catherine de Hueck Doherty never intended to found a community in Combermere! She thought that she and her husband were simply retiring to a secluded location, where they intended to live quietly with a friend of theirs. The community grew up naturally around her and became more formalized over time. Today the community is quite structured and intentional. It resembles a “lay monastery”; after a sort of novitiate, members promise to remain in the community for life. This structure, however, isn’t something Catherine dreamed up for a future community, but rather something that developed from the organic growth of the community. 

I’ve discussed this concept of organic development in earlier podcasts. For instance, in our second podcast episode, I said:

I believe that it’s important for community to be organic, to be unscripted and growing from local characteristics, local particularities …
One other reason that an organic community is essential, is that a lot of community building attempts that start in a more scripted fashion are over ambitious.

The communities I’ve interviewed since then, however, seem to present a contrast with this position; many are highly formalized, with vows, rules of life, and complex leadership structures. Is there a disconnect between the principle stated above and the communities interviewed by this project? 

I’ve always said that I didn’t start this project with all the answers. I’m learning from those I interview right alongside the listeners. To a certain degree, my earlier negative stance on more formalized forms of community has been modified by the many inspiring, highly formalized communities that I’ve discovered over the past months. 

I’ve noticed with interest, however, a certain pattern in stories guests tell about the development of their communities. The communities tend to have an organic stage of development that proceeds the adoption of formalized structures. For instance, the City of the Lord community and the Alleluia community both grew out of prayer groups. The Bethlehem community started out as a youth group. 

This makes it more likely that the eventual structure will be integrally related to the actual needs and shared vision of the group; it grounds the vision in the concrete and the real. 

Still, at some point, some individual or group has to consciously make the move toward more intentionality and structure, since a loose, organic group will tend to drift apart over time. There are certain spiritual risks in taking such a step; in particular, the risk of instrumentalization and the risk of blindness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. 

About instrumentalization, Fr. Simon Tugwell has this to say: 

“We can get into the way of thinking that everything that we do needs some kind of extrinsic justification. Asking “Why?” can become addictive. We have, by and large, become suspicious of people just doing things because they want to. When all else fails, we resort to curious pseudo-justifications, like going for walks “for the exercise” or riding a motor bicycle “for the experience”; worse still, we go all solemn and declare something to be “important”. So we decorate harmless occupations with high-sounding significances, like taking tea with someone “just to keep the contact” or “in case he wants to talk”… Our concern for purposes and importance is surely a serious way in which we can get out of tune with God… Enfolding all our conscious and even unconscious hopes and aspirations, there is the plan of God, and what we, from the point of view of our own limited purposes, regard as failures, maybe, from the point of view of God’s providence, important steps forward. It is so simplifying of our lives if we can truly grasp this point… This obviously does not exclude the possibility of our doing much that changes the world around us. That may well be a frequent consequence of our yielding ourselves to the act of God. But it does mean that we are required to take very seriously the gap between our efforts and any genuine achievement. Whatever we achieve in this life is itself only a kind of raw material, or perhaps a symbolic sketch of beatitude… what is important is what we are doing, not what we are trying to do.”

The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions by Fr. Simon Tugwell

I know that I am personally tempted toward this instrumentalization, toward seeing everything as a means. All too often, I see getting together with friends as a means toward some particular discussion or project, rather than enjoying the moment for what it is. One of the happiest times of my life was the week following a retreat, during which God gave me the grace to temporarily see everything as simultaneously trivial and yet wonderful. Unfortunately, my usual restless spirit of “getting something done” closed in again all too soon. 

Blindness to the Holy Spirit is closely related to instrumentalization. We may be certain that the Holy Spirit has inspired us to undertake a certain course of action, and we might think we know why. When the desired result is not forthcoming, we may become confused and disheartened, or press on stubbornly to an achievable goal. It may be that the inspiration toward a course of action was real, but that we did not understand the purpose behind the inspiration. Nor do we necessarily have to do so.

To avoid these two dangers as a group tries to achieve a certain end, it is important to live in the present moment, and to be open to diverse outcomes of any project or plan. Even more important is to value each step along the way for itself, not only for its instrumental value. For instance, St. Benedict’s monastic movement transformed European society in the centuries after his death. Benedict, however, didn’t set out to transform Europe or reform society. Rather he left a life of privilege to seek sanctity as a hermit. When others sought him out, he agreed to lead them in the spiritual life. As his group grew, he sent out his disciples to found satellite groups. He valued each step along the way for itself; living in a cave wasn’t seen as a “step” toward founding a monastery, let alone reforming European society. In many ways, the growth of the first Benedictine communities was very like the organic growth of Madonna House. 

There are many reasons for building Christian community, but the most fundamental reason is that community is desirable for its own sake. Christ calls us to share our lives with one another, and so community building should never be instrumentalized. As an organic community begins to move toward more intentionality and formalization, the community might need to plan in a more formalized way, but  the spiritual dangers of planning can be avoided by living in the present moment. 

Cover Image: Benedictine Monastery at Subiaco, over the original cave of St. Benedict. Image in the Public Domain

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