Secular Monasteries and Intentional Communities

I was reading a book review this morning in The Guardian about a book written by Tobias Jones entitled A Place of Refuge. Jones is also the author of a book entitled Utopian Dreams, described as a book “about communal living”. A Place of Refuge apparently documents his and his family’s efforts to found such an “intentional community” in England as “an  antidote to the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life”. And I was reminded of this same question and issue put to The Chrysalis’s readership by Don Salmon in the comments section to my post on “The American Civil War”.

Reading the review, and recalling Don’s question about forming “intentional communities”, brought back to mind earlier times when I had given fairly extensive thought to this matter, for it is really a question about how we form a successful “we” and why this is difficult for us to accomplish, especially in the West.

The original impetus for my musing about such “intentional communities” came from my supervisor at university. He was quite convinced that our civilisation was headed for another Dark Age and believed that something like “secular monasteries” would be necessary to serve as santuaries and to carry the fire — ie as refuges and conservators of the best values of civilisation as the religious monasteries had done during the stormy and dissolute centuries of the Great European Dark Age. In my reply to Don’s comment, I likened the old monasteries to ships on a stormy sea, and noted how they have had a significant influence even on the development of modern society.

My university professor wasn’t the only one to think so, either. The belief that our present civilisation is headed for a fall and another Dark Age has been pretty wide-spread, and that something like “secular monasteries” would be needed as an antidote to its decadence. Biologist David Ehrenfeld’s essay from Tikkun Magazine entitled “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology” (unfortunately, no longer available online) was echoed in Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead, and by others such as historians William Irwin Thompson, Morris Berman, and Tom Franks to name just a few, including Nietzsche’s anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”. It was also the theme of noted historian Jacques Barzun’s chronicle of the Modern Age he entitled From Dawn to Decadence.

It was in the context of this pessimism about the near future human prospect that my university supervisor contemplated the survival value of secular monasteries or such “intentional communities” as communal forms created under the pressure of an emergency. The religious monasteries were an antidote to the collapse and dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent anarchy, chaos, and brigandage of the Dark Ages until a new “we” was formed, ie “Christendom” or “Holy Roman Empire”, and that was pretty much the work of the monks, the nuns, and the monasteries. And every monastery had its “Rule” and its “Work”. Oro et laboro.

The monasteries were the salvages, and when Luther dissolved the monasteries and sent his nuns and monks into the secular world to make their way during the Reformation or “German Revolution”, it was because the monasteries had by then become an anachronism. They had served their purpose, and very successfully too. I liken that dissolution of the monasteries to botanical “dehiscence” — a flower, when it dies and disintegrates, broadcasts its seeds far and wide. Thus when the tens of thousands of monks and nuns left their monasteries, they also served as “leavening” to the secular order into which they entered, carrying with them into the workaday world The Rule and The Word and The Work. This was pretty much the beginning of the “secularisation of the Word”. We don’t acknowledge or recognise that very profound influence upon the formation of “modernity” because we have very, very bad historical memory.

The German novelist Herman Hesse provided a model of such a secular monastery in his Magister Ludi (also called The Glass Bead Game). And during the very troubled sixties and seventies, many similar but abortive efforts were initiated to establish “intentional communities” — communes, ashrams, cults, etc. — and which largely failed or became perverse and aberrant because our social “conditioning”, as it were, makes it difficult for us to know how to form a proper “we” out of a bunch of the hyper-individualised. We don’t know the secret of how to form a successful “we” — and that’s reflected in the breakdown of communities and in the rampant divorce rates, too.  “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, but nobody knows who this “neighbour” actually is. It’s quite true. I’ve read the works of people struggling to understand who the “neighbour” actually is.  It attests to our incapacity to form a “we” because of our excessive egoistic individualism.

Egoistic individualism and the “pursuit of rational self-interest” has presented us with all sort of obstacles and difficulties and confusions in that respect. It’s not just that we can’t form such “intentianal communities” or “secular monasteries” in those terms. We can’t even successfully form a coherent “society”. And if today, we are concerned to evolve “the integral consciousness” it’s largely as an antidote to this emergent anarchy of egoistic individualism. Socialism, of course, appeals to the isolated and lonely and vulnerable individual trying to find his way back into a community of common interest, but very frequently — in fact, all too frequently — socialism, too, does not understand the secret of forming a successful “we” any more than capitalism (or egoistic individualism). The result is, as Gebser pointed out, both collectivism and individualism have been utter failures — and have become “deficient” in his terms — because they have both lost the link to the vital centre.

The Rule and the Work is the secret to forming a successful “we”. “Back to Nature” just isn’t sufficient as a Rule. The monastic orders were formed around The Rule and the Work (the observance of the Rule). Every monastic order had its Rule, and it was clear and unambiguous, and represented the common and shared consciousness and purpose of its adherents. “Back to Nature” can’t do that because “Back to Nature” is highly ambiguous. A “We” is a group which is devoted to a common task in full and clear consciousness of why it does so, where each individual effort contributes to the realisation of The Rule.

It was monasticism that provided the template for science, in fact. The Rule is represented in Descartes “cogito, ergo sum” or Bacon’s “scientia potens est“. The imperative contained, but hidden, in the Rule is, of course “Think!”. Thou shalt think! because by thinking and reasoning, we shall overcome — by thinking, we will become “masters and possessors of Nature”. That is The Work. Science has been very successful, in that respect. But it has forgotten and even disavowed its own roots in the monastic model.

That Rule and the Work has served its purpose and science well, but must now undergo a “dehiscence” of its own. The Rule, as represented in Descartes’ and Bacon’s formula, has become inadequate and insufficient. By Luther’s time, the monasteries had become a drag and drain on communal life, rather than as before, the redemption and salvation of communal life during the Dark Ages.

Today, we have swung too far in the other direction and the pursuit of self-interest and egoistic individualism having become “the culture of narcissism”. It has become aberrant, so we need once again to discover the secret of the monastic life — not a matter of religious “revivalism”, but of how to successfully form a “we”.



14 responses to “Secular Monasteries and Intentional Communities”

  1. donsalmon says :

    I guess I should comment:>)

    Thanks for this very interesting post. I’ll try to remember to keep y’all posted as to our investigations – Western North Carolina is a hotbed of experimental communities. I’ve always been partial to the idea of a community within the city, and there’s several developing here in Asheville.

    I remember in the early 70s, several buildings in the barrio by the East River were occupied by “squatters” (nobody cared, because it was the barrio, of course – so they were left alone to flourish). they put a windmill on the roof, and generated so much energy, Con Edison had to pay them each month for the energy generated.

    Almost everyone we’ve talked to in WNC is aware of the “we” problem. I would guess quite a few readers here have heard of ‘sociocracy” and “non violent communication.” I have not been that impressed so far with what I’ve heard, though. Most of these techniques are basically what any first year psychotherapist learns.

    Before anyone leaps too quickly to badmouth therapy (there’s much that’s bad about it!) the basic Carl Rogers’ insight (drawn largely from his study of Taoism and phenomenology) is that one must enter into the experience of the “patient” (“client” – he called them; terrible term, but better than “patient”) with great care and compassion.

    Subsequent research over the decades has established (as much as any “scientific/statistical” research can establish anything about human beings) that the quality of the relationship of therapist and patient – particularly the level of trust and caring – is FAR far more important than the technique.

    In the Indian spiritual tradition, it’s generally understood that there’s a much deeper level of connection, that what really happens is the essential unity of all beings “shows through” (or “”radiates” – perhaps a better term) in any caring relationship.

    I think we in modern times have become so literally frightened of this “radiance” from the depths, that it makes it very difficult to recognize our essential Oneness.

    Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written beautiful and inspiring essays about this (look up his name and “Pope Francis” for a stirring commentary on the encyclical). And Sri Aurobindo has very accessible and inspiring comments in his socio-political writings regarding the forgotten word in the triad of the French Revolution – we quarrel about liberty vs equality, but it is only in fraternity – not as a compassionate caring of separate individuals, but as the recognition – lived recognition – of our essential spiritual harmony and oneness – that will provide the foundation for a true community.

    With that transformation of consciousness, almost any political/economic system will work. Without it, even the best (Sri Aurobindo was fond of democratic socialism, though much more taken by the spiritual/anarchist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) will fail.

    • Scott Preston says :

      You’re in North Carolina? For some reason, NC has been a ‘hotbed’ of Chrysalis readers. Odd.

      With that transformation of consciousness, almost any political/economic system will work. Without it, even the best (Sri Aurobindo was fond of democratic socialism, though much more taken by the spiritual/anarchist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) will fail.

      He shares that, at least, with William Blake. Blake’s political motto was “The Arts and all things in common”. Apparently, somewhat like Nietzsche, Blake felt aesthetics was higher than morality, and that it was in the Arts, not in private property, that authentic individuality was achieved, realised and expressed. In Blake’s view, reason should be the servant of Imagination, not vice versa, and morality the servant of creativity, and not vice versa, too, the image should be the servant of the real, and not vice versa. So, as far as Blake was concerned, we lived in Topsy-Turveydom — a world of inverted values that put the proverbial cart before the horse.

      Makes sense to me.

    • davidm58 says :

      French philosopher Edgar Morin has some interesting things to say about liberty, equality, fraternity, in his book “Homeland Earth,” and in a 1997 interview quoted here:

      “What is interesting is that the formula itself is a complex one: the three terms are both complementary and antagonistic. Liberty on its own quashes equality and even fraternity. Once imposed, equality destroys liberty without achieving fraternity. As for fraternity, which cannot be decreed, it must regulate liberty and reduce inequality. It is a value which, in fact, is based on one’s own relationship with the general interest, in other words citizenship in its deepest sense. As soon as the spirit of citizenship crumbles, as soon as we cease to feel responsible for – and united with – those around us, fraternity is done for. These three notions are therefore very important.”

      • Scott Preston says :

        Yes. Quite a bit can be said about the tripartite character of the formula “liberty, equality, fraternity” (a threesome is a pretty significant and repetitive number in the terms of the modern sensibility). Depending upon what term you emphasise, you get liberalism, or socialism, or nationalism respectively, whereas, as you say, the terms really can’t be separated from each other like that — only considered as a whole in their interrelationship.

        It’s also interesting that the German Conservatives/Nationalists/Reactionaries, who helped pave the way for Hitler, did so because they wanted to roll back the French Revolution — particularly the influence of that formula for “the good society”. They considered it the cause of all society’s troubles — (or, at least, German ones). Conservatives, generally, still nurture a great antipathy to the French Revolution stemming from Edmund Burke and (more currently) Leo Strauss (neo-conservatism).

        Part of the contemporary problem is that the gains or principles of the four “modernising” revolutions (the German, the English Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution) have not been consolidated into a coherent picture of the world. Each was an exaggeration of some one particular aspect of the human condition along the pattern of Blake’s “fourfoldvision” and “four Zoas”. Rosenstock-Huessy wrote a very interesting book about their interrelationships called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man which showed how they “knitted together”. He believed (this was back in the 1930s) it would take a “fifth revolution” — global in scope — to consolidate or integrate the principles that each revolution tried to achieve separately, but failed because they were each only partial responses and answers to the human condition.This “fifth” revolution would be, he believed, based on the unrealised principle of “health” — ie, what we now refer to as “the integral”. So, there are a lot of similar insights between Rosenstock-Huessy and Jean Gebser’s “integral consciousness”.

        Rosenstock revealed some peculiar patterns to the four modernising revolutions in Out of Revolution that no one seems to have noticed before because they weren’t looking at them from an holistic or integral viewpoint, but as discrete, separate events (Gebser’s issue of entrenched “perspectivising consciousness”). And in some ways, Rosenstock has changed the way “history” is done in consequence.

    • Dwig says :

      From one of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” poems:
      “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

      This states starkly the paradox that communities have to meet head-on to be successful. How does a group transcend individualism vs. collectivism?

      Many of the themes that Robert has been exploring here — duality vs. polarity, coincidentio oppositorum (Jung also used “complexio oppositorum)”, etc. Of course, humans are more complex than wolves, so the complexities of living together effectively, sustainably, and to the benefit of all are correspondingly greater. Another relevant quote is from South Africa: “a person is a person through other people.”

  2. abdulmonem says :

    This remind me of the story of the fraternity established between the immigrants and supporters at the beginning of the rise of the we community in Islam. It is astonishing how faithful transformation of consciousness can do. It seems all cultures are besieged by that aspiration and it seems that the accomplishment os such aspiration can not last.

  3. davidm58 says :

    Excellent post as always, and a good discussion.

    On a related topic, Samuel Alexander has recently posted an article, “If Everyone lived in an ecovillage, the earth would still be in trouble.

    How to live happily in community is another big challenge, as Don mentions. Diana Leaf Christian’s book “Creating a Life Together” is often cited as an important manual on how to do it.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I appreciate the dilemma Mr. Alexander highlights in his essay. The nature of dilemma, though, is that there can never a rational or technological solution to it. It can only be outgrown or transcended. Otherwise, it’s something else than “dilemma”.

      Yes, some well-meaning and good-intentioned people have become very upset and angry with me when I point out much the same dilemmas as Mr. Alexander has done there.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    An essay of colossal importance in relation to some of the events I have been following for a very long time.

    I have been observing and following some movement overseas that has remained marginal for the very reason that it has proved almost impossible for its members to grow their numbers while forming a “successful “we.”” The leader of the movement, however, prescribes a “Rule” that can be summed up in breaking the oppressors’ rules. Of course, he advocates this to be done anonymously. So, this not being able to form a “successful we” has indeed been a source of great suffering and loss of happiness for the vast many.

    For some reason, this essay also reminded me of Gandhi’s response to Field Marshal Viscount Wavell in regards to Wavell’s condolence message to Gandhi for the loss of his wife. Now that I think back to it, it was basically Gandhi’s statement about how he and his wife had formed a “we.” A successful we that eventually led a battle against colonialism. I liked Gandhi’s remarks enough to take note of it. Here it is:

    Mr. Gandhi to Field Marshal Viscount Wavell, 9 March 1944:

    Dear Friend,
    I must thank you for your prompt reply to my letter of 17th February. At the outset I send you and lady Wavell my thanks for your kind condolences on the death of my wife. Though for her sake I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony, I feel the loss more than I had thought I should. We were a couple outside the ordinary. It was in 1906 that, after mutual consent and after unconscious trials, we definitely adopted self-restraint as a rule of life. To my great joy this knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. Without my wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me. The result was she became truly my better half. She was a woman always of very strong will which, in our early days, I used to mistake for obstinacy. But that strong will enabled her to become, quite unwittingly, my teacher in the art and practice of non-violent non-co-operation. The practice began with my own family. When I introduced it in 1906 in the political field it came to be known by the more comprehensive and specially coined name of Satyagraha.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      That’s a very good example. It contains, and Gandhi mentions, all the relevant elements — the rule, the work, and the “we”.

      • donsalmon says :

        Well, looks like this gives me an excuse to tell some of my favorite Gandhi stories – but first I have to correct a mistake from the Mahatma – several years before 1906, when Sri Aurobindo was widely acknowledged as one of the major leaders – if not THE leader – of the independence movement in India, he carefully crafted the basis for the non-cooperation movement which Gandhi later took over. I suppose it was a crafty political move to claim credit for it, but I think it’s good to know where it really started.

        Let’s see – on East 4th street in New York City, at least, back in the 70s and 80s, there was a Hell’s Angels headquarters, and painted across a huge brick wall just outside the entrance, was the following:

        Reporter: “Mr. Gandhi, what is your opinion of Western Civilization?”

        Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”


        One day, a woman approached Gandhi and asked him for help getting her son to stop eating so much sugar. He said to her, “please come back in 3 days.”

        They returned in 3 days, and gandhi said to the boy, “Stop eating so much sugar.”

        She asked him why he couldn’t have said that 3 days earlier. Gandhi replied, “Because I hadn’t stopped eating sugar then.”


        When Gandhi showed up to a meeting with Winston Churchill wearing just his loincloth, Churchill, shocked, asked him how he could wear such an outfit. Gandhi replied that he thought it was ok since Churchill was wearing enough for both of them.


        Once, when Gandhi was embarking on a train, as he hopped up onto the train, one of his sandals fell off onto the tracks (just to get clear about the situation, dark skinned Indians – low caste members – had to embark on the back end of the train, and usually, only after it started moving, so they would literally have to chase after the end car and jump on to get on the train).

        Without hesitating, as he was on the train and it was pulling away from the station, Gandhi took off the other sandal and threw it back onto the tracks, toward where his other sandal was.

        A friend who had boarded the train before him asked him why he did that? “Because,” Gandhi replied, “so whoever finds the first sandal will have a full pair to wear.”

        • Scott Preston says :

          Good anecdotes. I’ve always considered Churchill to be highly overrated. Although often held up as the paragon of wit, he was simply outgunned by Gandhi in that department. Gandhi ran circles around Churchill and the British Raj (reminds me of the Spanish Armada, in that respect — ie “the bigger they come, the harder they fall” with Churchill in the role of a Spanish galleon, the “too big to fail” delusion of that time), and the little “half-naked fakir” (as Churchill dismissed him as being) eventually sunk Mr. Churchill’s Empire.

          But no one wants to admit that this scrawny Indian and “half-naked fakir” bested Churchill on virtually every front. But it’s a very fine example, I think, of how a new structure of consciousness can defeat an older structure of consciousness, as Gebser described.

          • LittleBigMan says :

            By the way, the source for the communicate between Gandhi and Wavell was something that I came across in a project I was working on last summer. Although, the source and the subject I was researching were quite different from the theme of subjects discussed on The Chrysalis, for anyone interested, here it is:

            “Mansergh, M. A., N., D. Litt., Litt.D., & Lumby, E. W.R. (1971). The Transfer of Power (1942 – 1947) Volume IV Reassertion of Authority, Gandhi’s fast and succession to the Viceroyalty 21 September 1942 – 12 June 1943. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office: London.”

            Once you said you have a book that’s as big as your desk. This is also a book I can say was as big as my desk 🙂

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