Summer/Autumn 2011 issue cover


Intentionally Unfinished

Offshore platform at sunset, photo by Eduardo Garcia. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Wendy McDowell ​

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
—Robert Burns, “To a Louse”

The monk answered my call with a standard enough greeting, “Can I help you?” but the cadence of his low, gravely voice was slow and drawn out, as if he was deliberately choosing each word, and actually intended to be helpful. I had phoned the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline to request permission to reprint a contemporary icon of St. Gerasimos and his lion that had been purchased from the monastery a while back by the Center for the Study of World Religions. Kimberley Patton suggested it might be a fitting illustration for her book review, and I agreed. It wasn’t just my imagination that made me feel the monk’s tone had an other-worldly quality to it—it didn’t seem to be in step with the fast pace and impersonality of so much of our day-to-day communication with one another. When I responded, I found myself slowing down my own speech and picking my words more carefully. It was disconcerting—but it was also refreshing.

This launched me into a reverie about intentional communities, such as Holy Transfiguration, versus the unintentional communities most of us belong to in our work and social lives. I had already been primed for such reflections by Zachary Ugolnik’s essay about working on an oil platform, in which he compares his experience with co-workers in the Gulf of Mexico to the time he spent in an Eastern Orthodox monastic community. I couldn’t stop thinking about a key distinction Ugolnik makes: “I was reminded that as monks, we experienced humility as a community. In the presence of others on the rig, I more often experienced humiliation.”

I thought back on communities in my own life and applied this litmus test: Did they foster humility, or did they inflict humiliation? I was surprised by what I discovered—some supposedly mission-driven workplaces, or well-meaning dialogue groups, were sites of hurtful or hollow interactions, whereas other more spontaneous settings turned out to be places of true community. Perhaps the best example of finding communion in an unlikely place was when I lived in New York City and walked my dog in Sakura Park. “Dog park” was a vibrant place with a diverse group (of dogs . . . and their people!). Maybe it was because we were outside together in all kinds of weather, or because most of us preferred spending hours in the park rather than being trapped in our tiny, roach-infested apartments, but I like to think that our sense of mutual support came from the purpose we shared in common—love for our dogs. A community based on care for another, especially for a more vulnerable or dependent being, is bound to engender camaraderie and humility.

Intentional means “done purposely” or “deliberate.” I’ve taken an occasional retreat at a Benedictine monastery, where the monks live by the very intentional fifteen-century-old “Rule of St. Benedict.” This set of precepts takes nothing for granted—its seventy-three chapters address every detail of food, clothing, communication, governance, and conduct—and there are clearly delineated punishments for pride or disobedience. But my favorite part is chapter seven, which spells out the twelve degrees of humility. The many, difficult facets of the first step would be enough for a lifetime, and yet there are eleven steps more, leading to the final one, in which “humility in the heart . . . is manifested to all who see the monk.” As is true throughout the Rule, the focus is on the other (“to see ourselves as others see us”), with an explicit preference for “the poor” and “pilgrims.”

I wonder if it might be possible to make our unintentional communities more intentional by asking ourselves, “On whom are we focused?” Which leads us to: “Who are we including, and excluding?” By our actions, or our inaction, who are we deeming to be worthy of our time, our attention, and our blessing? Many of the authors in this Bulletin want us to consider these very questions. Mark Pinsky encourages religious congregations to reflect on whether they are truly welcoming to people with disabilities and shares inspiring examples of inclusion. Jonathan Walton challenges us to not let “our ability to interpret, adapt, empathize, share . . . , cry, and care . . . be compromised by our desires for connection and convenience,” while Anne Robertson urges us to use Twitter to “allow the cries of a hurting world to have names and faces.” Cameron McWhirter describes the pursuit of history as having a mystical aspect, in which historians need “to commune with the dead, to understand on a human level the people about whom [they] are writing.” Chris Herlinger points out that Graham Greene always tried to focus his artistic attention on the “victims” or “underdogs,” and Kimberley Patton reveals how Christianity has tended to strain away from recognizing animals as worthy religious subjects.

St. Benedict’s Rule leaves no doubt that building and sustaining community is difficult, and our authors also caution us that efforts to commune may end up having unpredictable results. Jalees Rehman asks us to reconsider “our attempts to create authentic interfaith dialogue”; John McDermott provides a poignant description of the “unyielding, systemic loneliness” experienced by “the low-bottom alcoholic.” And yet, in spite of the perils, McDermott counsels us to “Make relations! Build, relate, and then reflect. Reflect, relate, and then build. . . . Above all, never close down.”

McDermott’s acute understanding that all attempts at relation will be transitional is an important point to remember: he embraces William James’s mantra, “ever not quite” but “so.” I suspect one main reason St. Benedict’s Rule has stood the test of time is that it is impossible to accomplish. Any community member following it must feel herself to be a work in progress, and any group must consider itself to be unfinished. This is as it should be. When a community believes itself to be complete, it runs the risk of becoming narrow-minded. “Never close down,” indeed.

I wonder if it might be possible to make our unintentional communities more intentional by asking ourselves, “On whom are we focused?”

Wendy McDowell is an editor of the Bulletin.

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