The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On a Mission (Trip) to Find Family

I spent a good portion of my adult life looking for intentional communities. I had a profound spiritual awakening as a high school senior at Nazareth Farm, WV, still the holiest ground I've ever walked on. It was a week-long "service trip"--living in community, praying, service to the poor, you name it. All of my values were in full bloom in one intense lump--even some I didn't know I had. Any time I've been discouraged by the Catholic Church or felt doubt in my faith, this is the guidepost that shines clear and bright and makes a lot of decisions awful easy.

I've been continually trying to find and build that sort of thing ever since then, but really, its never far from my heart. It showed me what's possible, and that is forever etched in me. A lot of times when I've been in conflict with people, I realize its because they don't have the same sense of what's possible that I do. They haven't seen what I have seen.

In college, we called them "alternative spring breaks" or "mission trips" (I don't like to use the latter term due to its connotations in the Evangelical community of conversion), and we visited numerous organizations in many states. Since college, I looked to the Catholic Worker movement, Americorps, non-profit organizations and lo and behold, even some church ministries. I've sought out community at every chance I could get. Unlike Bono, I really did find what I was looking for--at least, for brief but precious moments.

Lately, I've been discouraged by these groups. They very much represent the "honeymoon" phase in a relationship, but I've had such difficulty managing them for long periods (I will say that college was an exception--even though the trips were short, my friends were able to maintain much of the spirit throughout the rest of the school year). Take a group of highly opinionated, highly sensitive, somewhat imbalanced people and throw them together into an intentional community among the homeless or other disenfranchised people and you tell me what happens. The intense prayer and openness was all that kept it together--and it was good.

I can be sympathetic to this--people are people, and the same struggles of ego, temperament, territory and such are going to play out in every human organization, even a spirit-filled one. As long as you continually work at it (like any relationship), you have a fighting chance. But still, there has been something unsatisfying--or better said--unsustainable about these communities. They rarely endure past a few years time.

I've been really blown away by this statement by Gregory Baum, quoted in Avery Dulles' Models of God, the book I've been mining pretty solid this past week [I read the term "underground" to represent any out-of-the-way, non-traditional communities that live and work together--like a commune, service-trip or other intentional living arrangement]:

Some people involved in the underground are eagerly looking for the perfect human community. They long for a community which fulfills all their needs and in terms of which they are able to define themselves. This search is illusory, especially in our own day when to be human means to participate in several communities and to remain critical in regard to all of them. The longing desire for the warm and understanding total community is the search for the good mother, which is bound to end is disappointment and heartbreak. There are no good mothers and fathers, there is only the divine mystery summoning and freeing us to grow up.

All I can say is: Wow.

Dulles reminds us that "cynicism should not have the last word" (57)--community is a good thing. But boy, if this quote doesn't ring true. Just about every line.

I've long known that my search for community has been an attempt to find family. But this quote helped me to understand some of the disappointments in that. There is a place for intentional community. It may be a great way for Christians to organize themselves. But if it is driven too much out of a base need to find that cozy womb to snuggle into, you may be setting yourselves up for a major let-down. You can see this all the time--people complain about church because it is not "perfect." It doesn't meet their needs and its not that loving family they want to be a part of.

My former spiritual advisor reminded me that often the best spiritual quests are those which are driven by our base needs. Indeed--how many times did I go on those missions trips really to pick up women? Yet, I never thought that was an improper reason to go, because I fully participated in the life of the community while I was there. Its okay if you are looking to "get" an uplifting spiritual experience. We are all hungry for that. It can be a problem when these base needs turn us too much into consumers, and we can't get what we want because we are too concerned with the getting.

Is it wrong to seek family? No, I don't think so. But Baum suggests we may be barking up the wrong tree. You can't just sequester yourself off from the world or put unfair expectations on a community to meet your needs. I'm not really sure where to go with it, but I think he's on to something. Anyone out there have any ideas?


  1. Frank, I cant offer you advice here. But I just wanted to say that I completely relate to what you are saying. I feel like I've been searching for that sort of community, maybe even that womb to curl up in. I've gone outside of the spiritual community for it sometimes and found it there (ie, my bike club), but in the end, I only get bits and pieces of that "thing" I'm looking for.

    Your experience at Nazareth Farm always sounds like it was a really soul-quenching experience. I wish I could say I've had a period of healing in a community that I can compare it to, but unfortunately, I've never hit what you're talking about there... if I had, I might have signed up whole-heartedly.

    The closest I've ever gotten to feeling whole--spiritually and emotionally--was with my husband. I know that's not the same thing you're describing... but when I think back on the bright moments of my life in which I felt like I was really centered and happy and headed towards a good place, that was it. My husband and I were passionate about everything and pretty much took part in the community at large in also contributing parts of ourselves to those less fortunate. He actually taught me to be a more giving, caring person than I already was...

    But, anyway, needless to say, I am seeking the kind of spiritual experience you had at Nazareth Farm and also looking for a place where I can maintain it. But I think Dulles' quote is correct in that you cant expect to get everything out of the relationship with a community you're looking for. I think the important thing is to take part in helping improve the community within which you are working if it's not meeting all those needs you seek... But I think the catalyst is often some grand spiritual awakening... a honeymoon phase, as you've said, which you can reflect back on during the hard times when the community is not all you expected it to be at first. It is very much like a relationship and it does take work.

  2. I struggle. I'm not sure what to do with this. I've spent so much of my life seeking out these communities, because they've had such a profound impact on me. I've tried to live and work in them, too. It seems like the best way to live.

    Maybe that's the mistake--maybe they are good for retreats and re-energizing, but you're not supposed to setup your tent there, as my spir.advisor told me (there is a scene in the gospels where the disciples and Jesus went up a mountain and had a "peak" experience. I think Peter wanted to build a permanent structure there in the hopes of keeping that spirit alive, but Jesus told him to move on).

    So right now I'm not sure what the role is for community. We all need community. I positively thrive on a retreat or service trip, or in the middle of a large group of volunteers.

    Maybe like the Baum quote, the goal here to look for brotherhood, but not some sort of parental substitute that fills your needs while you passively receive.

  3. You know, the way you describe it, it is a lot like a relationship with a single person. There's that initial draw that makes you fall for them... but that glow and glitter and tickly feeling only lasts for so long... and then, as the relationship grows, you gain a more realistic view of the person that is not the near perfect image you initially had. If there's still something there that draws you to this person, and you find yourself loving them, you have to learn to work with their strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. You have to work to build something and maintain it because the intial feeling you had was, in fact, right. In the end, you get a deeper compassion and love for the person than the initial infatuation. It doesnt tickle you the way the first kiss did, but, on the other hand, you've achieved a deeper connected love that is mutually beneficial... And, when it works best, you grow together and work together. It's not always perfect, but it's better than being alone.

    I think finding the right spiritual community is much the same way because it's as close to your heart and as vital to your emotional wellbeing. You just need to find that group that provides this for you and then try to work at maintaining it.

    Which, I think, is basically what you said in this entry...