Diocese of California births new intentional communities

Living a Christian life can be incredibly challenging. In today’s world, the average person has seemingly unlimited philosophical, spiritual, and ethical options for how to live — and are inundated constantly with pleasurable distractions and stimulation. While these are not in and of themselves bad things, it can at times be difficult to hold Jesus front and center in their lives. Churches and individuals alike are struggling to adapt to this new environment and grow without losing the core essential values of Christianity. 

In response, many are deciding to live the Christian life together in intentional communities. In the past year several new intentional Christian communities have formed in the Diocese of California: the Community of St. John Cassian, a new Benedictine community based in Berkeley; the Companions of Dorothy the Worker, an ecumenical community working with LGBT communities in San Francisco; and the St. Chrysostom Community, an intentional community of young adults also in Berkeley. What is driving the formation of these intentional communities, and what can the presence of these communities offer the Episcopal Church in California?

At the root of the formation of these communities is a search for support and accountability in Christian living. The St. Chrysostom community formed when a group of four former Episcopal Service Corp interns decided that they wanted to continue living together in intentional community. “We want to become more like Jesus, and we know we can’t do it alone, so we do it together and help one another,” said Ethan Lowrey, a member of the St. Chrysostom community. 

So what does it mean to live in a Christian intentional community? When asked that question, Lowery said, “The intentional piece of it is tricky. I think it’s a community that is willing to lay out a covenant for how they want to be and live together and create a system of accountability to hold to it.” Lowery described how over time their Rule of Life has evolved from a comprehensive twelve-page document laying out how they planned to live to a 2 page set of principles that formed the ground of their communal and individual lives. 

Logan Rimel, another member of the St. Chrysostom community, thinks that discipline is essential in making an intentional community work. “There’s a reason discipline is considered a hallmark of intentional communities,” they said. “If we don’t plan, schedule, and decide to choose these relationships and the work of this community above other commitments, we won’t.” 

“At the same time,” Rimel said, “it is also important to leave space for the community to grow and change organically.”

Although Sunday Eucharist and the fellowship that comes from a congregational community is important, it usually doesn’t go far enough in forming day-to-day Christian practice. Living in a Christian intentional community, at its best, forces one to constantly orient oneself to Christ, whether one wants to or not. It becomes, in Rimel’s words, “an intense way of experiencing Christian life, in all of its failings.”

However, there remains much diversity in the shape that these communities can take. For example, while both the Community of St. John Cassian and the Companions of Dorothy the Worker live by a rule of life and require an intense period of discernment and formation for new enquirers, in practice this takes two very different forms. 

One of the forces behind the formation of the community of St. John Cassian was a desire to make practices of daily, contemplative prayer and the monastic way of life more common in The Episcopal Church. Br. Brendan Williams, prior of the community, remarked how he has spoken with numerous churchgoing Episcopalians who have no idea that religious orders of monks or nuns in The Episcopal Church. In drawing inspiration for this new community, Br. Brendan was powerfully drawn by the contemplative daily prayer found in Eastern Orthodoxy. This method of prayer, known as Hesychia or “stillness” over time becomes a way of life, leading to union with God. 

St. Benedict, writer of the famous rule of life that has served as the foundation of monastic communities in the West for centuries, was also shaped by many of these spiritual practices coming from the East, particularly the Desert Fathers. Br. Brendan describes the charism of his community in a similar way: “journeying into the East to find what we were doing as a church.”

The idea for the Companions of Dorothy the Worker began when the Rev. Diana Wheeler walked the streets of the Castro with San Francisco Night Ministry. She was surprised by the knowledge and love of Christianity and Christian spiritual practices among many in the LGBT community. “I was surprised to discover people who went to seminary, who had M. Divs…There’s a great love for the church and the spirituality of the church. People don’t love how they were treated and the fact that they are excluded. People want their church back. There’s nowhere to develop that.”

She realized that the communities she worked with were not being served or welcomed by traditional churches. Modeled after the Beguines, groups of women who worked among the poor in the Low Countries beginning in the 12th century, she envisioned an ecumenical community that would “strive to make God’s love felt in the queer community, by being active companions, living and participating with the people we serve; modeling Christ’s love.” Wheeler continued, “All our ministry is based on these principles, and you need to be formed by these principles.”

Yet despite their differences, what these communities share is a desire and a calling to be witnesses to both the church and to the world. Br. Brendan said that his community “hopes to be a quiet witness to Tradition and bring it back into the conversation.” A traditional monastic community based in an urban area like Berkeley can introduce and educate Christians and non-Christians alike on the values and virtues of the traditional monastic life. 

Sometimes witnessing to the Church means disagreeing with the established hierarchy. Wheeler said, “I have someone in discernment right now who I’ve worked with for a number of years, a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, Latino…he said, ‘I think I need to go back to church,’ and he went back to the Roman Catholic Church. At that point our job becomes supporting him in his choice. Because it’s beautiful…But as a professed member [of the companions] he has to be ready to witness TO the church.”

This speaks to some of the tensions that can exist between these new intentional communities and the rest of the Church hierarchy. Historically, monastic communities have been a large part of the regeneration of the Church, bringing back a spiritual and evangelistic focus when the episcopate has been caught up in the politics of the secular world. These communities model a different way of living the Christian life which can be both inspiring and incredibly discomforting. It’s certainly not for everyone, but as a witness to a different way of being, it sends a powerful message of an alternative way to live a Christian life.