Sunday, October 01, 2006

Intentional Community

I received a message this week that my old intentional community household is coming to an end. There is a farewell party today to mark its closing, but I feel quite sad. When something has been important to you, it can be very satisfying to know that it continues on, even without you. But I recognise that things change and nothing stays the same.

And I remember Desmond's interest in hearing more about our community.

Our household started with three people who had been active members of a sort of Christian university club. For three years, we had been getting together weekly to discuss theology, contemporary culture, causes, politics and our own lives. Our moving in together was partly about all of us needing to move out of where we were. But we also wanted, somehow, to go deeper into our faith and feel connected to something bigger. Our agenda was quite simple and not very ambitious. We had our goals written up over the stove, and most of them were about supporting one another, our faith journeys, and our volunteer work for causes we all cared about. And we mostly succeeded in those goals, with the occasional painful failure.

It all sounds very earnest, but actually, we had a lot of fun together. We were not a solemn household. Even though I occasionally railed at the blokiness of it all (I wound up as the only female member of a household of five), I mostly enjoyed it. Having come from a fairly traumatic family background, and then a relationship overburdened by illness and caring responsibilities, it was fun to hang out with people who thought that playing frisbee in the kitchen was a good idea. It was a pleasing novelty to kick back in our recliner chairs, beers in hand, and watch the cricket. And when we banished the TV, the house became filled with great conversations, sometimes deep and sometimes just plain silly, and even better musical jam sessions.

In some respects, our household was an opportunity for me to enjoy a bit of careless youth, just in the nick of time before that youth came to an end.

But it was more than that.

For someone who had a difficult relationship with her father, it meant something to me to live with and really enjoy the company of men. It was like having brothers, which I had always secretly wanted to have.

The regular household meditation/prayer supported me in having an active spiritual life and experiences of group worship at a time when I was frankly unsure exactly what I believed.

I am not a nature girl and I am allergic to many animals, which makes me uncomfortable with being around them. As Woody Allen would say, I am at two with nature. But our increasingly elaborate organic vegetable garden and recycling system taught me how getting your hands dirty, raising food from the soil, can be a source of pleasure and creativity. Getting chooks (all named after prominent female leaders – the peckiest and most aggressive one was called Germaine!) reminded me that animals are more than slices of meat on a styrofoam tray.

The company and the supportive environment helped me to abandon my promiscuous phase and especially to end an infatuation that had become like a poison in my veins – compelling, but addictive and destructive, not completely unlike Mu Ling's Fuckbuddy (the circumstances and personalities were different, but the obsessive, unwholesome quality of that experience resonates with mine). I entered a period of deliberate celibacy that helped me to become more centred, and to find more peace in my mind and heart.

And I loved my housemates. Sometimes they really annoyed me, like people you live with are always kind of annoying. But they were an object lesson in how the most irritating people can also be some of the best people you could ever meet.

John had an extremely annoying way of cleaning out his ears with a cotton bud and then leaving the cotton bud, coated in his disgusting earwax, in my room. But his interest in men’s issues led him to work extensively with young men with mental health and drug problems. He married Sapphira, who startled me by leaving her diaphragm and tampons in open display in our bathroom, but who spent her summers working with Mother Theresa’s order in India and who now works with people with profound mental and physical disabilities. Mick drove me crazy by frequently leaving the front door open when he left the house, and I had to blast him about leaving me sleeping naked, alone and vulnerable to any opportunistic intruders. But he also worked with an aboriginal community and only left to work with homeless people in London while completing his PhD at Cambridge University. Luke truly gave me the shits when he occasionally flaked on his turn to cook and do the washing up. But he also carried on our little community after we’d left, helping to turn it into something much more organised and much more closely linked with the life of the local community around it. They were not saints. They were just very good people. They still are.

But most importantly, living in that community taught me that, if you have a spiritual purpose to your daily life, it imbues that daily life with meaning and a sense of the sacred. And it is that lesson that is the main gift I have taken away from our household.

I had come from a religious background where experiences of God were mainly in church or at home groups. In those contexts, we strove to shut out our daily lives, enter a kind of partially separate spiritual realm, and touch God. We shut our eyes and prayed. We then tried to take those experiences into our daily lives and also to make our lives conform with a set of rules.

In this household, I had experiences of God that were about daily life. They were about finding God in mundane tasks like going shopping and cooking together and replacing the toilet roll when it runs out. They were about inventing structures, ways of doing things, which were flexible and yet able to support us when we were struggling. They were about thinking about our society and working for change, for greater justice. They were about working for change in ourselves. They were about opening our eyes. About turning our daily lives into a kind of prayer, and an occasion for God’s grace.

And for that, and for the relationships, the community and the learning experience that household gave me, I will always be grateful.


Blogger Mu Ling said...

Thanks for the mention, but more to the point: eloquent post. I envy you for having had that experience and hope that someday I experience a little of that myself in some way. I've always been fascinated by intentional communities.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

Thanks, Emily; I appreciate you sharing that.

Those kind of relationships are rare and precious. . .

(and btw, in the US, 'the shits' is a slang term for diarrhea. . .)

9:43 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

When I think of the early church mentioned in the book of Acts, something like a cool, hippie commune always springs to mind.

Anyway, thanks for writing about that. It sounds like it was an important part of your life. Certain parts of college felt like that for me, but it wasn't really the same.

Now I'm wondering if I can get some friends to get this idea going... Think this would work with 6 adults and 9 small children?

1:52 PM  

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