Catholic Lay Community—No Easy Walk to Freedom

by Brayton Shanley —

Advent-2015-Agape-Community-D-Roberts-Kirk Agape is approaching its 34th year. We are dedicating this issue to the joys and sorrows of founding and living in intentional community. This past October our Francis Day theme comprised stories of Christian intentional communities devoted to nonviolence and service to the poor.

           Emily Jendzejec, our facilitator for this St. Francis Day, offered two questions for speaker response, which helped to frame their reflections: “What was the Yes that inspired you to begin your community?” and “What is the Yes that compels you to continue?” I begin this Servant Song edition with some stories of Agape’s beginnings.  

The Original “Yes”

In discussing the subject of Christian community we cannot overlook an unsettling historical fact. Those “strange” Amish, Mennonites and their descendants are the only tradition of family-based Christian Nonviolent Communities which have survived for more than a century in the U.S. These Christian communities that began in Europe are the only ones that are still in existence. My first notice of American Christian history came in the mid-70s when I was taking a course at Harvard Divinity School from Harvey Cox on “Religion and Socialism.” We studied the nineteenth and twentieth century histories of Evangelical Christian Communities throughout Northeast North America. I had already observed Integral Yoga Institute founded by Swami Satchidanada, a community in Pomfret, Connecticut where I would often take retreats. While in silence I carefully watched these Yogis and quietly said to myself, “Yes, it is possible that people with a common belief and faith can live together.” By the late 1970s, Suzanne and I became intimately familiar with Jonah House and Atlantic Life Community, a network of Christian communities with families that lived a calling to nonviolent civil disobedience and resistance to American materialist values and the weapons production that protected our money.  We were two years into a journey with Ailanthus, a Christian peace group in Boston which created a powerful community of formation in Christian faith and nonviolent action. For me, weekly meetings, even civil disobedience, didn’t include a necessary step of giving up all the advantages of our privileged socio-economics and education and throwing our simple living lot in with others in community life. The more we looked at nuclear proliferation and our violence-dependent culture, the more a radical lifestyle change was calling. We began to feel a call to intentional community because of Jesus. Like the first disciples, we were called by Jesus away from predictably secure jobs. I left the Learning Guild, a nonprofit educational consulting and programming organization and Suzanne left a position teaching writing at Simmons College in Boston. The “Religion and Socialism” class left the deep impression that there is an American history of people of faith “called away” from “secular” concerns of upward mobility within an insular nuclear family. But principally they were “called toward” religious community and a mission of peace and spiritual practice for Christian families living together. Suzanne and I were challenged by the witness and lifestyle of Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister and those at Jonah House, who supported themselves on painting houses in between jail stints. In Ailanthus we had the example of Paul Hood who left a lucrative job in business to work part time as a carpenter and witness for peace full time as a Quaker. Another example was Tom Lewis, one of the Catonsville 9, who taught art at a private high school and who chose to leave that secure livelihood to dedicate more time to his art, nonviolent activism and to start a Catholic Worker in Worcester. In March 1982, we followed our call, left our secure fishing nets like the first disciples, to follow Jesus into risk and uncertainty. We discovered that if you listen, Jesus will speak.    

Agape is Born

As a couple we had been pursuing the prospect of community with Charlie and Mary McCarthy, their nine children and Steve and Nancy James and their three children. After a year of prayer and discernment, the James’ decided to return to their medical missionary roots and live in Haiti as a nurse and a physician. At that point Suzanne and I moved to Brockton, Massachusetts to join the McCarthys and begin this leap of faith. We purchased a two bedroom Cape house, formerly condemned and without a clear title for $23,000 which had been occupied by a woman suffering from mental illness and hadn’t been cleaned in years.   For a year, we painted, wall-papered and insulated this 200 year old un-insulated farmhouse, combining our entire savings, plus Suzanne’s retirement from teaching and put down $20,000. Our mortgage was $30 per month, just about what we could afford with no predictable income. We quickly discovered that little or no mortgage payments were keys to simple living. The transition from mainstream middle class living to under taxable self-sustaining community life requires at least some livelihood. For the first year of community, Suzanne worked as a part time professor at Bentley College, and I worked for $75 a week, part time, at Pax Christi in Cambridge. After a year or so, we left those jobs to create an Agape teaching ministry in nonviolence. What Charlie, Suzanne and I had in common was the experience and passion for teaching. Charlie had been an accomplished college professor in Theology at Notre Dame but followed the radical Jesus away from tenure to teach his greatest passion: gospel-inspired nonviolence. The three of us joined in what we would define as the Agape Community’s evangelical call to teach the biblical Jesus’ command to nonviolent love. I found it enormously telling that for all of the implications of Jesus’ radical message of unconditional love, not one hierarch from Pope to parish priest has ever told us: “You are wrong, Jesus was not non-violent.” But if we were damned by faint praise, it was because these men in authority were not ready to preach and follow this raw gospel at face value. Many parish priests declined to attend our classes or promote our work. At the same time, were it not for the support of the Catholic Church, from (some) Bishops, to some of the more radical and renegade priests, to many women religious, down to countless laity directing CCD programs, this Catholic community start up would not have lasted beyond its first year.  

What Makes a Community Intentional?

The first move by those pursuing intentional Christian community is to leave the conventional ambitions of livelihood and to join with others who are unrelated to you, who are smitten by a similar spiritual awakening and a singular drive “to live it out.” This counter-cultural force field must be strong enough to disengage those called from who they thought they were—an advanced degree future professional who would marry, move to a suburban town with good schools and raise beautiful, intelligent children—to a new way of being. Many of us in the so-called “Christian left” might scoff at such a vision of Americana, yet this model of a successful life occupies the deepest recess of our imaginations. To become someone “new” takes a good deal of undoing and revelatory conversion. Thomas Merton once wrote “if you are going to a place you have never been before, you must go by a way you have never been before.” Because we were not following any model of traditional Catholic community we were down to relying on a “seat of our pants” native instinct. Like an artist in front of the canvas, the decision process was a new design and purely creative. The first challenge was learning to live family life with little surplus income and begin to rely on donations. Our foundation stone: teach classes and retreats on nonviolence from high school to adults for a modest livelihood; then learn to share limited resources communally, and finally, most importantly, do not forget to pray… on a daily schedule. Early on, we saw that establishing a day to day rule of work, prayer, and leisure in community would take a lifetime just to accomplish a rudimentary ­­­­­footing in a culture that prizes the entrepreneurial individual and not the common good. We spoke to each other and dreamed. Even from the original conversations with the McCarthy and James families, what came to us was an image of the rural life. The country offered advantages of simple living, growing one’s own food, and cutting wood for heat. The raw material resources of the rural life helped maintain a life on a reduced income especially for families. This dream for our group was a stretch because Mary McCarthy was the only one who grew up on a serious farm in Iowa. I might have imagined a back-to-the-land, contrarian community. But—this combination? Pacifist, Catholic, rural, voluntary poverty for families? It might begin to look like a Catholic Worker farm that I first learned about from my Uncle Joe McDonald who started one in the 1930s. But it did take us a good five full years of building community in Brockton before finally moving to a rural setting. As our community vision continued to form, certain influences became dominant. Our Ailanthus group began to meet in Haley House Community, a Catholic Worker in Boston. Over the next years, many in our fold became good friends with its founder Kathe McKenna. We began to read up on the Catholic Worker origins and Dorothy Day. For a decade Suzanne and I had been singularly formed by Asian Religions, the practice of yoga, vegetarian diet and Buddhist methods of meditation. Daily silence, solitude and regular retreats became cherished yearly habits, giving our lifestyle a lay contemplative look. For me, another central influence in a commitment to living nonviolence was the life and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. This attraction to Gandhi began with my experiences in India and Hindu mysticism and led Suzanne and I to attend Quaker Meeting in Cambridge. The mysticism of Quaker Thomas Kelly’s writings and Gandhi accompanied us as we eventually headed back to our Catholicism. We continued to grow closer to the Catholic Worker model of lay Catholics in a pacifist community, living in solidarity with the poor and embracing the challenge of voluntary poverty. Like good spiritual elders, the writings of Peter and Dorothy scolded and encouraged us.  

A New Kind of Catholic

  We felt that we were returning to Catholicism because of the nonviolent Jesus we had not known growing up Catholic. We also returned gratefully to the downward mobility status of laity to follow the humble way of Agape love expressed in the Sermon on the Mount in community. Because of our nonviolent activism and our reading of scripture we were “Public Christians” who often “worshiped” in the streets of protest actions, supported by a network of faith based activist friends and life lived communally. A question pulsated as we began the journey: “What does Catholic mean anyway?” Rank and file Catholics I observed were devoted to receiving the sacraments; baptism, confirmation, and then marriage. Aside from devotion to weekly Eucharist and these periodic sacramental rituals, Catholic faith life appeared undefined and void of day to day moral challenge and practice. The legacy of Catholic laity can end up in a kind of confused, agnostic uncertainty: so few radical demands are made on us, no risky choices, few, if any, modern prophets or moments of “fire” to turn to. Many adult baby boomers like us were rejecting their parents’ understanding of faith. People of my stripe were following their interest in religious practice, breathing in the power of World Religions. Many of us in our late 20’s began entering schools of theology to study religion, faith practice and its history but had no particular call to religious life. We found the study of religion spiritually compelling and were drawn to teaching and ministry. Theological studies became a new form of credentialed lay formation. Looking back, Dorothy Day may be one of the best, yet rarely known exemplars of this “new Catholic”—a well-educated single mother choosing voluntary poverty, not called to traditional celibacy but actively forming a nonviolent religious way of life with daily spiritual devotions that were Catholic. Dorothy’s faith was socially active and uncompromisingly nonviolent. Our relationship to church authority and church tradition grew to be horizontal, not vertical. Having no traditions of lay community and daily spiritual practice for families, we adopted some Catholic tradition from the monastics and religious life– fidelity to a daily schedule of communal prayer. We read the daily scriptures, the Divine Office of Psalms and chants, paused for periods of silence and meditation throughout the day. A daily pattern of communal work and common meals Monday to Friday eventually followed with Sunday evolving into an inviolable day of Sabbath. We longed to live this daily rhythm as lay householders with families. Would Jesus bless an authentically lived contemplative life exclusively for celibate saints and monastics? It was clear that we were entering the age of the laity.  

The Divine Feminine and the New Catholic

  During our first year, Charlie, Suzanne and I were sitting and talking about “the Church” with a close friend. The subject of women came up and he became enraged, saying “women in the Catholic Church are oppressed. They can’t become priests, they are not even allowed on the altar. How can we have anything to do with this church of such unconscionable injustice?” It struck me then that the future church was to be very different from the past one. In the lay community we envisioned women would be equal to men by definition. Lay women sought to be free enough of the direct line of obedience to church authority, to discern what was true about the doctrine of this faith and what needed to change. Can lay women and men have the courage to stand on their own two feet, discern what is true and still be Catholic in the one church? To achieve this authentic faith, we are more inclined to listen to our own leading of the spirit within ourselves and our communities and take cues on how to live the Gospel from our pilgrim brothers and sisters dedicated to peace and justice. Too often priests and their sermons did not speak to the experience of women and laity. It took five years to establish a secure footing for our new Agape experiment. From these early years of community formation, it became clear that we first generation communitarian Catholic pacifists and lay people had a great deal to learn about the forces of patriarchy, materialism, individualism and reluctance of American church people to live the cherished Catholic value of “common good.” From these humble beginnings we saw that common good living would take generations to evolve as an authentic lifestyle choice especially among younger people. As beginners in our thirties we would have many decades ahead of us to fathom how to make this community successful in American culture. For now we were content to dig in, beg God for help and persevere against all odds.