Category: Utopian, Intentional Communities (page 1 of 2)

Traveling to Trappist Monasteries: An Interview with Paul Green

Tina Moore, at one of many campfires she and Paul Green shared during their journey

What if your partner or spouse asked you to quit your job so that you could travel? What if that seed of an idea they planted casually one day started to germinate? Would you let it keep growing until it flowered and came to fruition?

Paul Green did. And he did it with intention. As he explained to me, his wife Tina asked him in May of 2014 to consider this big step. He gave notice to his employers in August of 2014 and by the next March, he and Tina set out on a three-part journey visiting 17 Trappist monasteries scattered throughout the US. Part of the results of those travels appear in his book, Silence is Spoken Here. Filled with beautiful photos, the pages only hint at the motivations for the journey.

Tina and monks, prayer chapel, Assumption Abbey, Ava, MIssouri

I interviewed Paul last month about the process, as part of my interest in “later vocations”—people’s decisions, sometimes less intentional than others—to step out onto a path that earlier in life they never dreamed about.

Paul and Tina didn’t leave their home in the Ozarks without some clear goals in mind. And, of course, they did quite a bit of planning before taking on this endeavor. But what Paul found was quite unexpected.

He describes what he discovered late in the interview.  The Trappists’ teachings and their practices–especially their silence–helped him listen to what was being spoken within himself. As a result, he’s settled down into a new “later vocation” in Northwest Arkansas, where he runs Interbeing Images and he and Tina engage with their community in several ways.

Here’s much of the interview, which I hope will speak to you, as it did to me, about Paul’s journey. (Although he refers to Tina’s role in the process, I interviewed her separately. I’ll share those thoughts next month).

Paul’s words may inspire you to let that seed of an idea you’ve been protecting begin to warm up. You can also follow him and his fantastic photos on Facebook.

Motivations: Spiritual & Professional

Etta: I am fascinated by the trip that you and Tina took to visit Trappist monasteries. And I have read your book, Silence is Spoken Here. In the introduction you talk about how you got started with the idea. Would you say a little bit more about what motivated you?

Paul:   Sure. I think from the book you can tell it was somewhat of a long process. It didn’t just happen overnight. It was 2012 when we first visited Snowmass [the home of St. Benedict’s, a Trappist monastery and retreat center in Colorado], and that planted some seed of the spiritual aspect of the book. But at that point certainly there was no idea of traveling to visit Trappist monasteries. And there was certainly no concept of a book. But around that same time, my photography was starting to become more important as a creative outlet that I never had during my career has a telecommunications engineer.

So there was a combination of my really enjoying nature photography and the beginning of a spiritual journey. Tina and I both realized as we came together [as a new couple] that we were both on this journey but maybe in different places. She was really diving into it for the first time, and I was kind of reconnecting to my previous life.

In the book you read about her inspiration at a retreat in North Carolina. That was the first spark of an idea. Our original concept was creating something–we didn’t know whether it would be a book or not–to let people know about taking pilgrimages without leaving the United States, and maybe not traveling more than two or three hours. So that was the first spark of the creative idea.

Hey, we can do something like that–teach others about making a sacred journey somewhere. And it doesn’t have to be this big extravagant trip to the Middle East. Don’t know how yet–but that sounds like something important for us to do.

Etta: To back up a bit–you said that you had been to Snowmass on a spiritual retreat. Can you say why you went there for a spiritual reason?

Paul:   Sure. We went there for a centering prayer retreat–centering prayer being a kind of a Christian meditation. What led us to that was Tina’s stepfather, who has led retreats at St. Benedict’s for almost 25 years and had told us of the impact it had on his life. It was one of the spiritual tools that we thought we would check out. Around the same time, we were doing labyrinth work and some Buddhist Meditation. Centering prayer was combining a lot of things we were already doing.

Chapel, St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado

Etta:   You said that this was sort of going back to something preceding your telecommunications work. What you mean by going back to something before that?

Paul:   For most of my life I was as a telecommunication engineer. But in reference to what I was going back to–I grew up in a very conservative southern Baptist family. When I was a child though, I had a great love for my grandfather who was a revivalist preacher in Carroll County, Arkansas. He had his own church later in life. But for the early part of his life, he traveled around to different small community churches and preached revivals. By the time I was around, he still did a few revivals, but by the time I was old enough to remember–three, four, five–he already had a church and was pretty much preaching at the church. But I remember he had a Sunday morning radio program on one of those local am stations. I heard that on our way to church.

Etta: Going to Snowmass then was taking you a different direction from that early childhood religious life, but still you were familiar with prayer and scripture?

Paul:   Yeah, I went to every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday service as a child and, maybe like a lot of people, became a little disenchanted as I got older with the conservative evangelical type churches. And so I quit going to church for most of my adult life. And then after the end of my first marriage, part of my trying to figure out who I was again, was figuring out what does church mean to me? And my religion–do I still have one? All of that was starting to come into focus in the two years before my wife [Tina] and I got together.

Etta:   You have referred to her several times, and I had assumed that Tina sparked this searching. But it was already there–you were searching for who you were after your first marriage ended?

Paul:   Right. And religion was a part of that, my reconnection. For her, she didn’t grow up in the church. So our meanings on this journey were quite different. We came from completely different backgrounds. For me, it was more of, where are my beliefs?

Etta:   So this retreat at Snowmass was not something unfamiliar to you, spiritually speaking, it just introduced new practices?

Paul:   Yes. A newer approach to a religious tradition I was familiar with–a totally different approach and much more in line with how I felt internally, versus how I might’ve felt as a child being at times forced to go to church. This was something I really wanted to try and practice.

Etta:   The book introduction explains that Tina called you from a retreat in North Carolina. Tell me about that. What happened?

Paul:   I can’t remember why I didn’t go to that retreat. I was still working in telecommunications for a company in Boston, working from home. But when she got back from that trip we talked.

She gave me this idea–“hey, I want to travel. I want you to do photography.” And I didn’t refuse right away, but I just said, “I’m working full time. This isn’t a good time, but I’ll consider it.”

I think it sounded like something I would like, but I mean, I’ve been working since I was 16 years old. It’s what you do. You get up and go to work every day. I couldn’t imagine not. I tried. She’s like, “well, just, just think about it.” It was May . . . 2014.

Etta:   And you took the trip starting in March of 2015. So less than a year. A lot to decide in less than a year . . .

Reading the “Signs”

Paul:   Yeah. It’s interesting. When she first brought it up, I really thought, this will pass. She has ideas from time to time–another one of Tina’s ideas–and we kind of knock them around. But we never say no. We don’t rule anything out. We just kind of go, “okay, maybe not right now, but let’s continue to think about it.” I think, at least for me, I notice if things keep repeating themselves or, there’s gotta be some other, for lack of a better word, “sign” indicating that this is really something I should be doing.

Etta: What were some of those other signs during that nine-month period? What else happened?

Paul:   That was mid-May, I guess, until early in July. I’m still working, working from home and I had an incident with a guy I had known from work–I’d known him for eight years. There was a questioning from him of how much I was enjoying my work. I guess, because I worked from home and we didn’t see each other a lot face to face, he was starting to have concerns that I wasn’t happy in my job anymore. I don’t know what gave the friend the impression that I might not be happy. I certainly hadn’t thought, “am I happy or not happy?” But then my boss calls me and asks point blank. He’s like, “are you happy with your job?” And I said, “well, of course.” But the honest answer was I had never thought about it.

I didn’t ever put it in these terms. Of course, I’m happy. I show up every day. And then I hung up the phone and set back for a second. I said, “Well, am I happy with work? Why did he call me? I don’t know.” Honestly, I have to think about this now. As I thought about it and the way some relationships we’re going within the company, I was like, “You know what? I guess I’m not happy.” But had my boss never asked me that point blank, it would have never crossed my mind to ask that myself.

That was one definite sign–maybe not that we were going to run off and do a book–but that I really wanted to consider the next step.

Etta:   So that was July. Was there another sign?

Paul:   No. At that point I began to talk to Tina about the project again. We had kind of dropped it when she first brought it up. I had said, let me think about it. And that was kind of it. But then all this happened, and I started bringing it up. “I’m considering, maybe, possibly retiring, leaving work and doing this project. Are you really serious about it?” She absolutely was.

Etta:   And you were already developing your skills and talents as a photographer. You also mentioned the book plans. By the time you planned the trip, were you planning a book?

Challenges of Planning

Paul:   Yes–with no idea how to do a book, or whether we were going to find a publisher. It was, I think, Tina’s way of getting me to consider retiring and traveling. I think her focus was, “I just want to get you in a van and travel around. We’ll see what comes out of it.” But for me, the book was a focus. Originally the concept was to go to spiritual places in all 50 states. We really wanted to let people know about the pilgrimage, and we thought if we found two places in each state, then everybody would have a place they could go that would be close by.

Etta:   And you would say you’d been to all 50 states, right?

Paul:   But then we started trying to think of what’s spiritual or religious? What’s sacred? And then narrow it down to only two sites in each state.

Etta:   It was probably so hard. So that was almost the scrapping of the entire idea because it was overwhelming, or what?

Paul:   Absolutely overwhelming. Like, okay, this original idea was way off base. We’ll never be able to write that, and it will certainly take more than a year.

Etta:   Remind us of when this discussion was going on?

Paul:   Starting in July. I finally put my notice in at the 1st of August, to leave work on October 31st. Between July 1 and October 31st, we kept tossing around these ideas of, “I’m now committed. I’ve put it out there. We need to figure out what we’re really going to do.” And that got a little scary.

Etta:   October to March–you had four or five months to figure everything out.

Paul:   We bought that 19 and a half foot small class VRV.

Etta:   Had you ever traveled in an RV before?

Paul:   No, and that was not even a full size one. It’s a tiny thing. We met with a friend who travels for photography quite a bit, and he recommended a brand and we went and researched it and went, okay, yeah, this will work for us. We can do this.

Etta:   Since you were beginning to think about a book and you were thinking about photography, tell me more about how you were developing your photography skills during that same period.

 Paul:   It was just a matter of really focusing, at that time, on landscape and nature photography, which is what I had fallen in love with originally. Tim Ernst, a photographer for National Geographic back in the 70s and from Fayetteville originally, has been doing workshops in Arkansas for probably 20 years. He puts out a book a year, travels around the state. Tina got me a private one-day workshop with him for my birthday.

Etta: You’d been working on photography for three or four years?

Paul:   I played around with it, of course, with having a young child playing sports and in the choir at school. I started wanting to take better pictures of those events. But after I did the Tim Ernst workshop, I made an attempt to get out at least once a week, depending on my work schedule. If I had to travel, I couldn’t do it. But I tried to stay committed to getting out and practicing all the things he had taught me in that one day.

Etta:   What was it that was motivating you to that? To the photos? Because there’s gotta be some kind of a drive . . .

Paul:   Again, it all comes back to what I was realizing–this introverted nature that I have but didn’t really recognize. I felt like a good social guy and it turns out I’m just really aware of other people’s feelings and come off socially introverted and empathetic.

We did enneagram work as another one of the spiritual tools. It’s made me aware of how much I enjoy being outdoors and how that gave me a connection to the divine–the divine being things bigger than yourself.

For me, being in nature is always that reminder of my place in the world. Like anybody that has a huge ego, they need to take a walk around the Grand Canyon or look up at a starry night and go, oh yeah, okay. And photography for me was the chance to be out in the woods and see things in that way. I hadn’t taken the time to see before then.

Snags & Roadblocks

Etta: What else happened in the planning?

Refectory, St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado

Paul: What finally shifted everything was another two day visit out to St. Benedict’s at Snowmass to sit down with Father Joseph and Father Charlie. Not to really talk about the book. They listened to us go off on a tangent. “Paul’s retired now and we’ve had this idea for a project to travel around and visit spiritual places. But that’s overwhelming, and we’re just really not sure what we’re going to do next.”

And it was Father Joseph who listened to all that and just very calmly said, “well, have you thought about just visiting the Trappist monasteries?”

They both asked really pointed questions: “Once you identify the places, how are you going to make contact? And how are you going to get in? And what are you going to take pictures of?” We hadn’t really planned that far!

Etta:  They were trying to help you get through the difficulties and helping you refine it?

Paul:   Absolutely. I think they just listened. And in their vocation, they’re very good listeners, and they are very good at analyzing situations. They don’t get flustered. They take forever to make decisions.

Etta:   Like academics!

Paul:   They’re just very practical. And of course, they can remove the emotional stuff that we were feeling–that anxiety that’s overwhelming–and look through the muddle. They just said, “don’t know if you’re interested, but here’s one solution”–[Trappists monasteries]!

Etta:   Remind me how many monasteries there are? And you visited all of them?

Paul:   There were 17 at the time we did our travel. We visited all of them. And I stayed in all but one, and Tina stayed in all of them, too. We both couldn’t stay at Saint Joseph’s in Massachusetts because of their rules and the timing that didn’t work the first time around. I made a second trip back so I could actually stay there.

Etta:   It’s almost as though Father Joseph was one more of these signs, providing a way for this to happen? You were sort of overwhelmed.

Paul:   Right. If we hadn’t had that conversation with him, I don’t know if we would have come up with that idea on our own, to be honest. I don’t think it ever really crossed our minds just to visit Trappist monasteries. And we would have been stuck with an RV and a plan to travel and I don’t know what we would have done. We may have just traveled and gone to state parks and, and said, “forget the book.” I think the travel was a part of it, as a chance to see different parts of the country, which we loved. It was as important as the monasteries.

Etta:   I want to hear more about what you did in each of the monasteries. But can you tell us more about the logistics? I know you had to contact all the sites, and I’m sure there are stories about that, contacting them and making the arrangements, planning exactly where you were going to go first, what your circuit was going to be. Do you want to say anything about that?

Paul:   Sure. Tina’s first calling in life might’ve, should’ve been logistics. I didn’t have to do any of the planning.

Evolving Routines

Etta: OK. You don’t have to talk about that part! Tell me what you did when you got to each monastery. If you had a routine, what was your baseline?

Paul:   It evolved over time. When we first talked to Father Joseph, he sent out an email to all the monasteries giving me a brief introduction. He said, I will give an introduction, but it’s going to be up to each community on how they receive you and what they allow you to do. And some may say no. And so we had that expectation. I don’t think there was any fear. We were going to give it our best shot and see how things turned out.

We broke up the travels into sections. We visited the monasteries in the Southeast in the spring, the Northeast in the fall to try and get foliage, and the West coast we did late summer, to try and take advantage of a little cooler weather out there. For the first one, in the southeast–Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky–they had no idea who we were or what we were doing, and we couldn’t get in consistent contact with them. Most of the email addresses we could not find for them.

Etta:   Was that because they were just more behind on technology?

Paul:   No, it’s because they don’t all use the technology that’s available. It’s part of their lifestyle to be as removed as they can. A project like ours doesn’t really register on their radar. They’ll read. My guess is they probably read the email and went, “okay,” and never gave it a second thought.

Etta:   Because they’re going about their business whether you show up or not?

Paul:   And they’ve had lots of guests and writers stay with them. They’ve had NPR and TV producers come and do extensive stays. One has been in Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon’s book. So they’re used to people coming and seeking these things. And we weren’t very professional in how we approached them. We assumed that they had read Father Joseph’s email and we could show up and go from there.

So the first couple were a little different. It didn’t feel all that intimate starting off. But even by the time of Gethsemani, which is one of the more famous Trappist monasteries because of Thomas Merton, when we got there, things started to change a little bit. They still didn’t know who we were exactly, but they have a resident photographer, Brother Paul, who actually was there at the time Merton was there. Since he was a photographer, he took a special interest in our project and was the first one to invite us behind the cloisters–or me. Tina wasn’t allowed. It was just through our conversation that he said, “Well, tomorrow if you’ve got time, I’ll give you a tour around — behind the scenes a little bit.” That was overwhelming.

Etta:   Unexpected. It was one of those serendipitous moments. That must’ve made a huge difference in your trip, I would guess?

Chapter room, Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky

Paul:   It kind of gave us that second wind. Yeah. Because at the first two, we just took pictures out front. I wasn’t getting everything I really wanted. And I promised that there would be no pictures of monks in the book, if they didn’t want it. I wanted to respect their privacy more than anything, but there was that hope–I really wanted some pictures that the average person isn’t going to get. And the nature stuff there was really good. I was happy with how that was going, but I was missing a piece of what people would want to see in a book about monasteries, which is architecture. I felt like it was a turning point. That was the end of that section, and then we had a two-week layoff.

Etta:   What’d you do during that time? That two weeks?

Paul:   Repack. Organize my photos a little bit. Save and put them away so I didn’t have to worry about losing them along the journey.

Etta:   Talk about what hadn’t gone well and what you would want to do differently?

Paul:   Absolutely. We made more of an effort to recontact monasteries before we got there. Remind them who we are before we showed up. And around that same time, when we started the second part of the trip, all the abbots come together for US regional meeting. And Father Joseph spoke at that as a reminder, “Hey, by the way, there’s this couple that’s making visits. Some of you might’ve seen them already, but others of you should be expecting them to show up in the near future.” So that changed our cause.

Even Ava’s Assumption Abbey and then Our Lady of the Mississippi in Iowa, which were our first two stops on the second phase, both were very well aware and just threw open the doors to both of us. Tina got to tour around Assumption Abbey with the Superior there. He spent probably five hours of his time, just walking us around, telling us the history of Assumption Abbey and his personal history.

Monk at prayer, Assumption Abbey, Ava, Missouri

Etta:   It sounds so stupid on my part, but your discussion of Tina not being allowed to go in because she’s a woman–in these works by the 19th century American women in Italy that I am writing about–one of them was visiting these monastic sites in Italy. I didn’t think about the women not being able to go in, but they had to wait outside. So that’s still the case? It wasn’t just that it was the 19th century?

Paul:   Right. I mean, it depends on each community. It’s interesting. I’m trying to think of the nuns’ monasteries. I guess Santa Rita in Arizona is the only one where I didn’t go back in the cloister areas, but all the other ones gave me tours of their private areas. And most of the [men’s] communities allowed Tina inside. They toured us both through.

Energizing Moments

Etta: You mentioned the experience with brother Paul being different. What are some of the other moments that you remember as just being very energizing?

Paul: Our Lady of the Mississippi was probably one of the most. Again, it was another first. We showed up there, just south of Des Moines, Iowa, up on a hillside that overlooks the Mississippi River. We arrived there after maybe a four or five hour drive that day, about 15 minutes before their evening service. And they had been in good contact with us on the way. They were working on a book about their monastery at the time for their 50th anniversary. So they were very interested in whether I would share my pictures with them, which of course, was a given. And so there was some excitement from their side in us.

Etta:   What was so fantastic there?

Paul:   Usually we would check in, go to our room, settle in, and I walk around and start scouting it out. But here, Sister Kathleen who was working on the book immediately says, “Oh great, you’re here. We’ll get you down to the house shortly. But we were wondering if you would join us for service and take pictures there.”

Laboring sister, caramel factory, Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa

So here I am, I’ve barely gotten to see the first two [monasteries]. The third one, I finally got to go behind the scenes and take pictures, but not during service. And now it’s our first nuns to visit and they’re like, “Hey, take our picture. We’ve got 50 minutes–will you come? And don’t worry about getting in the way. Just go wherever you want to.”

I wasn’t ready to take pictures. I was tired from driving all day. “Okay,” I said, “let me get my stuff together.” And then on the way to service they said, “Oh, so after service we’ll have dinner for you with Mother Rebecca, who is the Abbess, and the Superior and Sister Kathleen want to have a private dinner with you and the Abbess in their private dining area.”

We’re like, “what?” We’ve never had a meal with a monk. Here we are with the nuns. Not only we’re going to have a meal with them–we’re going to have a special meal, and they want to ask us questions, like what are you doing and why? That was a whole new energy.

It was our first group of nuns, and it’s such a different feeling than for men. They were so engaging, asked so many questions, and they felt very motherly–not just to me but also to Tina. “What can we get you? What can we do to make your stay better? Would you like to borrow our mule? (which was actually a four-wheeler. Tina thought it was an actual mule.)

Etta:   Was she disappointed?

Paul:   Extremely. It’s what she needs to get around on this large, large property. Tina was disappointed, because she had on her jeans and boots, and it was a four-wheeler! She had on her boots and the Mother came driving up in this four-wheeler and she was like, “oh, a mule. I was kind of hoping to see you on a mule.”

Etta:   You said that they’d asked you a lot of questions, and I was thinking they were more questions about your journey and what you’re trying to accomplish. But all the questions that they asked you were more about hospitality, kind of motherly.

Paul:   It started off certainly with, so why is a married couple from Arkansas visiting a silent monastic Catholic order. And so we shared a lot of the background of that, but then it just got into, “So, do you have kids? and what do they do?” And it became just very conversational.

Silence is Spoken Here

Etta:   You mentioned this conversation over dinner, but these monastics are supposed to be silent. Talk a little bit more about the silence in these places and your behavior. How were conversations handled if you weren’t supposed to be talking?

Paul:   The silence really–not ended–but changed drastically with Vatican II. Pre-Vatican II, it was total silence and you had to seek permission from the abbots to speak. Otherwise, it [communication] was written and passed via note or monastic sign language. They created their own sign language.

Etta:   There are always ways around the rules, right?

Paul:   To speak, you had to have something really important—like, “I’m thinking about leaving, or I’m maybe dying.” Other than that, they didn’t speak, uh, except the guest master or whoever interfaced with the clients. And if you think about the history of the Trappists in Europe, so these are monasteries where people would come in and stay for a couple of nights while they were traveling. The Trappists have always welcomed all guests (Benedictines as well welcome all guests) as if they were Christ. And so there was always the one monk who was guest master that could speak with guests to take care of their needs. But Vatican II changed all that.

They don’t have to all line up anymore so strictly. It is up to each community how much, how freely they are to speak. You see the difference between ones where it’s still kind of–you don’t interact with monks much, even in our situation. And then others like Our Lady of the Mississippi, if it’s just the nuns, they still don’t speak freely. But if there’s other people around, they greet guests after service (mass) every day. A couple of the monks or nuns, they’ll stand out usually and greet guests and talk to them at length. The only time they still observe as total silence is at the end of Compline, or the last service of the day, until the end of mass the following day. It’s what they call Grand Silence.

Etta: What time is that mass the next day?

Paul: It depends on the site. Anywhere from 7:30-9 a.m. would be the start time.

Etta:   Half a day of silence, anyway.

Paul:   Half a day in a sense. And like I said, there are many other brothers that don’t have to interact with guests for any reason. And when I’ve walked around the cloisters, I’ve noticed that you don’t hear idle chatter.

The big picture: “What were you looking for?”

Etta:   What you were hoping to find? and did you find it? or maybe something else?

Paul:   The big picture. What were we looking for? The honest answer is I had no idea. I brought this up in my contemplative group on Tuesday. I still didn’t have an answer at that point. But it made me really think about a lot of things in my life and, and, and what am I looking for in any given situation.

The honest answer was, I don’t know. What I did know was that there was something I was missing, and at the time had no idea what it is.

What this whole journey has led to, I think, was that what I was looking for was roots back near home, with a contemplative men’s group. I come together with a group of men who are willing to be vulnerable and share. I would have had no idea that’s what I was looking for back in whenever. How would I know that that was a need I had until something led me to it? And then it became very overwhelming. Like, I need this. Any Tuesday that I can’t be in that men’s group is hard.

Etta:   That’s so powerful. It reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson, commenting on all these people in the 19th century going to Europe, looking for these great things. And what he wrote was, you come back home, and you face the same realities of life. I’m paraphrasing. He said it much more eloquently, but the realization that those things that people are going somewhere else looking for you, you’re going to find the same things, answers or questions, right here.

Paul:   That’s right. Those travels and those journeys might help you along the way to defining and finding what that is. But ultimately what you need is in here [points to chest], and you’re going to find it more in your daily life. Along with this journey, we were also relocating from Springfield to Arkansas and we didn’t know where for sure in Arkansas at that time. I really think all of those kinds of ideas helped even with finally picking our home because it became more clear that we need to focus on what are we going to be doing every single day.

Etta:   And what you said, which is so mixed, makes so much more sense to me now about going out to do your photography and going out and being in nature. It’s about having your eyes open to see what is there.

Paul:   That’s right.

Etta:   And reminding you how little you are in relationship to everything that’s around you. That’s what I’m hearing you say.

Paul:   Absolutely. And, it’s part of this development and this transformation into a contemplative life. It’s the practice that we learned in centering prayer. It is just one small step into being in a more prayerful–and I call it more aware–state of mind every day. And that leads to things like finding a group of men that share with me. And if I’m not paying attention to those needs I have internally, I’m not going to seek out a group like that.

Etta:   It sounds like in some ways you’ve become, your grandfather. Seriously.

Paul:   Maybe.

Etta:   You are realizing, as you said,  the need that you have for nature surrounding you. And you need community that you regularly meet with. Both of those are keeping you grounded. They’re part of your centering.

Paul:   That’s right. It’s all part of that.

As I said, the start of this journey was my trying to figure out how to get back to who I was. This [journey] has made me rethink all the messages I heard from my granddad I had growing up. What I would hear later on in those same churches, what I remember, was this–love thy neighbor and, help the poor and all those in need. That’s what really resonates in me today.

Etta:   Yeah.

Paul:   And then I lost that along the way because of all the other stuff that was getting thrown in there that didn’t make sense. But when they are all stripped out of the way and we get down to the basics, that’s who I am today. I want to help those who need help.

Etta:   Such a beautiful story.

Paul:   This project helped pull all that we were trying to do together. But this wasn’t the initial idea.

Etta:   Right. But one of the things that I’ve heard you say, which is very resonant, is that you weren’t sure what you were looking for, but you went with a photographer’s eyes. You went with an openness to the process of the journey.

Paul:   That’s right.

Etta:   And just seeing what would happen.

Paul:   Tina and I keep trying to balance that in each other. She’s very goal oriented and focused on planning. I’m a little more, um, well, okay, I’ve got a framework and that’ll get me going. We both are able now to see the benefit of both sides of it. There’s gotta be some very focused and organized planning, but you really have to stay open to, “okay, here’s the plan, but if it starts falling apart, that’s okay.”

Etta:   Yeah. You’ll build a new plan based on another path.

Paul:   That’s right.

Listen to what’s calling you

Etta:   I wonder how other people might be able to do something like this if they weren’t quitting a job, or if they feel like, “I can’t do that. I can’t buy one of those vans.” You’ve sort of addressed that because part of what you’ve come around to is realizing what you can do, where you are right now. Do you want to say anything more about that?

Paul:   Yeah.

I think the start of anything is really starting to listen. Listen to yourself, listen to what’s calling you internally, feelings, things popping up multiple times. Pay attention to those. And then you don’t have to quit your job to start something else.

As you’re learning, you can start dipping your toes in or finding out more about that, and using whatever time you can to learn more about the craft or the hobby or whatever it is. To wait until you have the time might be too late and you’re going to miss out on opportunities. I think it’s feasible for all of us to just pay attention to what’s going on around us and how we feel about those things. And that’ll start leading you into those paths.

And then you can’t be afraid to fail or try. Once something comes up for you, I always say, give it as much attention as you have time for, and you’ll know pretty soon whether it’s going to stick around or not. If it doesn’t, that’s okay. Something else will come up and eventually, you’re going to hit on that thing that says, okay, yeah, I’m ready to spend once a week with my photography. Before I did the photography workshop, it was just a passing fancy that I spent a little time on, but I didn’t dedicate myself to it. And then after that workshop, I realized that I really enjoy this whole process of being out in nature, of setting up my camera and waiting for good light. And maybe it’s not about the photography at all. It’s about the whole process.

Etta:   So what’s next? You guys have another trip planned or another project or projects?

Paul:   One of the things that this project taught us is how much we were ready to be really rooted in a community. After being on the road, which is wonderful, we realized that what we want to do is wake up every day and be useful in a community. Now, almost three years of being in Fayetteville, we finally feel like we’re there.

Etta:   That’s it–being a vital part of a community. And you’re using what you learned from it.

You are totally employing what you learned from visiting those monastic sites where they are grounded, very focused. They have a purpose. They know what they’re going to do every day.

What we need is here

Paul:   That’s right. What we need is here. They still wake up in the same place every day and do the same thing and know that that’s just as important as anything else.

Etta:    That’s beautiful. So many ideas you shared–I didn’t know them from reading the book, looking at the pictures or from hearing you guys talk.

Paul:   Anytime we’re out and talking about the book, it’s more about sharing them [the Trappists] with the world and getting people to think about “how do we listen to ourselves.” The way we learn to do it is to go and be silent.

Silence is Spoken Here: Spiritual Journeys & Later Vocations

Last week I talked with friends Paul Green and Tina Moore about their experiences traveling to 17 Trappist Monasteries scattered across the US. Through this journey that zigzagged from Massachusetts to California, they not only witnessed some life habits different from their own—they also participated in contemplative techniques that enhanced their spiritual practices.

I had already heard a bit from Paul and Tina about their motivations for the trip. And I had seen Paul’s stunning photos as he posted them online (Paul and Tina both are easy to follow on Facebook and Instagram). Even more, I had savored tidbits of their journey through the pages of Silence is Spoken Here, the book documenting the trip.

Primarily photos rather than text in this book tell the story of Paul and Tina’s stops in Utah, South Carolina, Iowa and elsewhere. They share the story of Father Joseph Boyle’s influences at St. Benedict’s in Snowmass, Colorado, and Father Thomas Keating’s at St. Joseph’s in Spencer, Massachusetts. But last weekend Paul and Tina shared with a group of us in Springfield some of the contemplative practices they have adopted since that life-changing trip.

Later Vocations

“This was not just a trip, or even an adventure . . . it was a calling.”

Paul and Tina’s journey interests me for many reasons. But a primary one is that they chose this journey in 2015 as part of what I call “later vocations.” Neither imagined they would set out this direction when they were younger. As they express in the book, “This was not just a trip, or even an adventure . . . it was a calling.” They have agreed to talk with me further about their call to follow this path, and I plan to share some of that interview here after the first of the year.

Their decision-making steps may not move you to visit Trappist monasteries, but they may inspire you in other ways. Paul’s and Tina’s insights to what first sparked the idea, what hurdles they crossed in planning, and how their past failures and successes prompted them—these comments just might influence you as you reflect on your own journey.

Learn more about Paul’s book here. Follow his blog or see his photos and videos through his website Interbeing Images.

Alternative Spiritual Formation in the Italian Piedmont & Tuscany

Soon after I announced this summer 2018 spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up.  (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we were eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.

Sunset Arno River Florence Italy

Sunset over the Arno in Florence, Italy

With Roman Catholicism as a backdrop,  “off-the-beaten-track” sites populated the foreground. Santa Caterina del Sasso, Damanhur, and Torre Pellice were our starting points in the north.  What are these spots? A lakeside hermitage, an earth-centered ecovillage, and home of the Waldensian church, respectively.

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

 

Then we headed to the Ligurian coast and Tuscany for familiar stops in Pisa and Lucca.

Ligurian Coast near Rapallo

Then the English community of Bagni di Lucca (a hot springs resort that became a WWI refuge), and Nomadelfia, a Roman Catholic commune (that began as an orphanage), will remind us of many ways of putting faith into practice.

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Finally, a few days in Florence  & Fiesole provided glimpses of Roman and Etruscan ruins, reformer Savonarola’s cell, and the historic Jewish community. Such alternatives have existed for centuries on a peninsula primarily known in the US for the influence of St. Peter’s.

If you missed this opportunity, keep a trip in mind for the future. What will be next year’s itinerary?  Think about it . . . . And then let me know. It only takes an idea–and a handful of interested travelers.

 

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers & The Good Life

Mark Sundeen Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life

Mark Sundeen’s book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017.  Here are some highlights from my  review of it, which appeared in Communal Societies a few months ago. Perhaps these lines  will intrigue you, if you’re looking for a few more titles for your winter reading list.

In this piece of “immersive journalism,” Sundeen explores three contemporary couples  whose searches for “the good life” took them down paths to lifestyles different from those of most Americans. His intensive interview time with the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in urban Detroit and Lifeline Farms in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, contribute to a story that is both personal and engaging.

The Unsettlers Tradition

With echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s apology for his two years at Walden Pond, Sundeen explains his motivation:

“I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit. . . . What I wanted to learn was how to lead a good life.”

Sundeen’s past experiences–before journalistic authorship–also pushed him toward this topic. With years of outdoor work experience, plus lots of travel, he, too, had been often in search of something other than a career “tethered to a screen”  and enslaved by capitalism.

With this personal background revealed. Sundeen places himself, his humor, and his occasional skepticism into the immersive experiences. These occur primarily in the three featured sites of the diverse American landscape. But other locales, such as Brooklyn and rural France, emerge as well.  And he sinks the stories of Sarah, Ethan, Olivia, Greg, Luci and Steve into the larger context of America’s many utopian and communal experiments. Their personal histories with alternative agricultural practices, in particular, come to life within this larger context. Sundeen discusses movements as diverse as the celibate, religious Shakers of the nineteenth-century and Stephen Gaskin’s the Farm, a latter-twentieth century enclave that continues today as an educational site.

This larger context of communal, utopian practices is what drew me to his book, of course. (It also explains why my review appeared in the latest issue of the Communal Studies Association journal.) Sundeen’s interviews should interest others, however. Those skeptical about or interested in urban agricultural practices should be enlightened by Brother Nature Produce and its history in Detroit.  They should find fascinating the longstanding but changing organic practices in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. And the Possibility Alliance in northeastern Missouri draws interest because of its attempts to live off the grid.

Past Heroes, Present Purposes

Sundeen and his subjects have certain heroes whose names continually resurface. Chief among them: Wendell Berry (his The Unsettling of America influenced this book’s title) and Mahatma Ghandi. Their beliefs capture a spirituality, self-discipline, and social activism that Sundeen believes many liberals don’t quite understand.

Many liberals talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, they’d rather drive.

By contrast, his subjects make sacrifices in order to share their visions of how the world might become a better place.

Stylistically, The Unsettlers reverberates with the tone of J. C. Hallman’s In Utopia (St. Martin’s). Also like Hallman’s book, Sundeen’s study provides a broad historical context for this topic of living intentionally.  It, too, is worth a read.

Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Linking “utopian” communal groups and American women writers in Italy, I spoke last weekend on Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar.

Zoar Separatist Community

Zoar Separatist Community, Ohio. Woolson loved to visit from her home in Cleveland.

Woolson began her career with a sketch on the Ohio German Separatist community of Zoarites. “The Happy Valley,” published in 1870, set the foundation for Woolson’s more than two decades as a successful author. Her thought-provoking and insightful sketches, novels and short fiction  are regaining the attention they once held. Woolson’s somewhat nomadic life took her throughout Ohio and the Great Lakes region, to Florida and the Reconstruction south, to the Mediterranean and Italy, where she died in 1894.

A few weeks ago, Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux asked for some specifics about my conference talk. I put off answering. Now that it’s complete, I’m better set to respond.

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Woolson’s 1881 letter written from near Rome’s Spanish Steps invites the connection between Italy and Zoar. She wrote to friend and editor Henry Mills Alden of the loggia above her apartment:

“this loggia is a little square room with windows towards all points of the compass, and an arbor outside, made of lemon-trees, plants in pots, and climbing vines. . . . Here among the roofs and campaniles, and under the deep blue sky of Rome, I can sit and write in perfect solitude when tired of my little parlor below. It all seems so wonderful and strange,–the being here at all! I think of Ohio and the Zoar farm where I used to spend so much time; of Mackinac and the peculiar color of Lake Huron; and of Florida, and the pine-barrens. And, all the while, I am in ‘Rome’!”

At a conference where participants’ interests are primarily communal groups, I began with this quote but then concentrated on Zoar.

The Zoar Sketches

Woolson’s early works referring to Zoar set the stage for stories in which her characters often imagine better worlds. Within “The Happy Valley,”  “Solomon” (1873) and “Wilhelmina” (1875), published in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, Zoar prompted such glimpses for visitors from Cleveland and Cincinnati. In these stories, Woolson juxtaposes idyllic views with life’s often harsh realities—whether within or outside of the community.

Fruits of Zoar

Fruits of Zoar

To set the stage for the Communal Studies Association conference audience, who knew nothing of Woolson but something of Zoar, I mentioned Woolson’s now-better-known predecessors, contemporaries and successors—Hawthorne, Twain, James, Howells, Wharton, Cather. I depended heavily on what Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux and Zoar historian Kathleen Fernandez have written on the subject. The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit, coming from her home in Cleveland.

The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit. . .  Anne Boyd Rioux

“Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.”   Kathleen Fernandez

Woolson’s “romantic” and “idealized views about the Society” include some inaccuracies. But “the stories have the ring of truth. Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.” I added to these overviews an assertion that Woolson’s writings about Zoar enabled her to soar.

Professionally speaking, anyway, the author’s imaginative reflections on life in and around an intentional, utopian community contributed to her following of readers. This following bolstered her financially and gave her confidence. Zoar prompted Woolson to spin stories that pushed her to consider the themes of marriage and the isolated artist’s life. As Rioux and several other scholars have noted, these themes would remain with Woolson throughout her career. I suggest additionally that the three Zoar sketches considered together reveal the beginnings of her understanding of the power of utopian imaginings and of gift exchanges that cross barriers of community and place.

“Solomon” — A Story of Gift Exchange

Through “Solomon, ” in particular, a story of gift exchange and human love, Woolson reminds us that utopia is, by definition, not a literal place. Rather, it is an imaginative vision that individuals hold and may share. By the time Woolson wrote this sketch, she realized that linking Zoar insiders and outsiders were these keys: imagining, giving and exchanging, and in doing so, creating community, however small.

Memories of past experiences lead to ideas of community shared in the present and projected onto the future. The German Separatists held memories of European traditions as they shared visions of a new home in the Tusacarawas valley and labored to build it. So, too, Woolson held on to her memories of childhood visits to Zoar. She adapted them, as the Zoarites adapted to their new environment.

First Settler House Zoar

First Settler House Zoar

While Woolson migrated as an uprooted adult, looking for the perfect place in which to write, her work also caused her to imagine other places. As she soared above and beyond Zoar in later years, moving to Italy, she never completely left behind the idyllic place in Ohio. As Rioux has noted, in the last few years before her death, she was “writing . . . of her father and their trips to Zoar and the Tuscawaras Valley in Ohio.” Memories of Zoar, even late in Woolson’s life, reflect the importance of those visions that fed her imagination and bolstered her professional position.

Audience Response and More

The best news about this presentation? The audience response. One person asked, why was Woolson popular in her day but overlooked in the twentieth-century? And why has scholarship on Woolson exploded in the last decade? More than one asked about her financial success. Several wanted to know how to access Woolson’s writings. Of course, I referred them to Miss Grief and Other Stories , to Victoria Brehm and Sharon Dean’s gathered reprints,  and to the Great Lakes collection, Castle Nowhere. I told them that their local libraries might have turn-of-the century copies of Castle Nowhere, Jupiter Lights, The Front Yard and Dorothy. I explained that the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society website provides a chronology of all her works, with active links to those available free online.

Finally, I encouraged them, as I encourage you, to read “Solomon.” Once  you do,  you will be hooked to move beyond the Zoar sketches to see how they enabled Woolson to soar as a writer.  You will be engaged by her ability to capture life’s hopes and promises, as well as its troubles and truths.

 

An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Occasionally I read a not-recently-published book that moves me so that I wonder how I missed it when it first appeared.

Book Cover of Divine Expectations An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Book cover of Barbara Kreiger’s Divine Expectations: An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine.

 Divine Expectations is one such book. Since it was published fifteen years ago, interest in the Mid-East has certainly increased. Although now the US war against ISIS complicates language of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, themes of religious differences in this ravaged zone continue to loom large. Add to these contemporary interests the fascinating story Barbara Kreiger tells in this book. Her focus: American Clorinda Strong Minor (1809-55), who spent the last five years of her short life in Palestine.

Devoted to a utopian vision of agricultural improvements and spiritual development, Clorinda Minor traveled as a married female without her husband. While on journey she wrestled not only with cultures and languages new to her but also with new technologies. A neophyte to rural farm life, she believed in a future heaven on earth–an ushering in of Christ’s kingdom–in the crescent of the world that has interested Americans and Europeans for centuries. The role of the Jews there, she believed, was essential to the divine kingdom that had been prophesied.

For those who know nothing of Americans in Palestine in the nineteenth century, the expedition in which Minor was  a part opens up views of global relations that go beyond typical evangelistic missions and economic imperatives. By zooming in on specific individuals, Kreiger brings to life the realities of loneliness and personal hungers. In addition to Minor, for example, Kreiger tells the story of John Meshullam, a convert from Judaism to Christianity. Dedicated to farming although also a hotel proprietor and successful businessman, Meshullam was crucial to Minor’s successes. The life experiences of both these transnational travelers included strong desires to achieve. At the same time,  their driveness sometimes contributed to conflicts in their utopian efforts and communities.

Firmly grounded in research and well-documented, Divine Expectations contains clear prose. Approximately a dozen illustrations from nineteenth-century publications recreate what Americans then were envisioning as they read about the Holy Land. Kreiger gives readers a story whose narrative arc demonstrates dreams, struggles, triumphs and failures, both large and small.  Overall, this American woman’s journey included engaging those around her in a vision of social improvement.

I loved this book so much that I bought it for my mother-in-law! Her interest in travel, history and religion suggests Kreiger’s work will engage her as much as it did me.

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Vida Dutton Scudder, Christian Socialist for Several Generations

Yesterday my son, just returned from grad school,  told me he’s writing an essay on Vida Dutton Scudder.  Before stating her name, he hesitated.  Why the hesitation–in what was otherwise an enthusiastic report of his first term? Was it that Scudder, a Turn-of-the-Century and Progressive Era activist, is an unknown figure?

Vida Dutton Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), Political Activist and Christian Socialist

Although Scudder is relatively unknown today, that was not the reason for his noticeable pause.

Rather, he almost hated to tell me because he knows that she is one among a handful of women at the center of my research. Her political activism and spiritual journey were influenced largely by her time in Italy.

Scudder’s settlement house work, utopian writing, and teaching at Wellesley come up every semester in my Public Affairs seminar for B. A. English students. And I have given a few off-campus presentations to adult audiences about Scudder–not only her activism in Boston’s Denison House and Circolo Italo-Americano but also her writings about St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi. Last summer I took adult travelers to La Verna, which was an important site for Scudder as she wrote of St. Francis.

La Verna St. Francis site

La Verna, St. Francis site

During these moments of impassioned conversations about Scudder’s coinciding beliefs and actions, my son has been engaged otherwise–understandably so–with his own interests. He has not been a part of these captive audiences.

Yet somehow Scudder’s name, associated with my motherly ramblings, came into his consciousness.

Now, a few months into his intensive readings on the “social gospel” movement, he selected Scudder and Walter Rauschenbusch for further research and writing.  My son firmly underscores that his emphasis is on their theology; he is analyzing their writings and not discussing Scudder’s “utopian” endeavors in her daily life. Scudder differed from Rauschenbusch, he continues, in her affiliation with the Christian Socialist party. While Rauschenbusch claimed socialism ideologically and theologically, he was never officially affiliated with a Socialist political party.

I appreciate the clarification and the distinction.

Do I know about the Fabian Society? he asks.  A little, I say. I know of its place alongside of “utopian” and spiritual/ist groups of the “turn-of-the-century.”  I pull Joy Dixon’s book Divine Feminine from the shelf. It is the closest at hand that contains information on both Theosophists and a few references to the Fabians. I wrote a review of it–I stop to calculate and realize it was almost two decades ago. Some say that’s a generation. . . .

Yes, my son is correct. My focus has been on Scudder’s literary endeavours–her teaching of literature, her settlement house novel, A Listener in Babel (1903), her translation and editing of St. Catherine’s Letters (1905), her works on St. Francis and his followers.  These are not without their spiritual and religious components. Even her autobiography, On Journey (1937), falls into the category of spiritual narrative I analyze and regularly teach. But my approach is not theological. I am a literature professor.

La Verna Site of St. Francis vistied by Vida Dutton Scudder

Cavern known as St. Francis’s bedroom, a site visited by Scudder and by a recent group of “pilgrims.” Dr. John White, emerging, was influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s ideas.

I am interested, however, in Scudder’s differences with Rauschenbusch. And it is not just that my son has now taken interest in them. I first learned of Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian, from friends John White (who attended Rochester Theological Seminary, where Rauschenbusch taught) and Peter Browning.

They often lead discussions of Christian social activism and its traditions. So when I began to learn about Scudder and came across her relations with him, I was intrigued by the interesting lines of association that link so many of us with common interests.

What I saw then between Scudder and Rauschenbusch and continue to see now was the importance of that relationship for both of them. They depended up their correspondence and communication of ideas. They spurred each other on. Earlier in Scudder’s life, John Ruskin’s lectures about aesthetics had stimulated her. She wrote extensively of them and drew from them as she taught literature at Wellesley. But as her life and experiences piled up, and as her confidence in her own ideas developed,  Scudder set aside Ruskin’s teachings and followed other paths. I have detailed these differences in notes. . . .

Will my notes and bibliography be of interest to my son? Will they be of help? Perhaps the former, likely not the latter.  We must all make our own intellectual paths, following our own curiosities.

Sometimes, in the short and dark December days, it’s nice to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I only hope that the germinating seeds will grow strong enough to bear future fruits.

Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias

Drawing from our interests in utopian communities and religious history, my co-editor Martha Finch and I highlight in Eating in Eden (U Nebraska 2006) American food practices that range from those of colonial English Puritans and Spanish Catholics to those of more recent groups of European Jews and Indian Hindus. Continue reading

Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies

In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, I examine the roles of reading and writing in the celibate, religious communities known popularly as Shaker villages.  Questions driving the project emerge from the widely held belief that understanding and reasoning through texts (especially the Bible) under gird the best faith practices and true religion.  But the Shaker’s female founder, Mother Ann Lee, was deemed illiterate. She drew followers in Revolutionary America as she preached from Bible verses learned through hearing them. And she added to these what she gained through mystical visions and experiences.

Persecuted for distinguishing practices, such as female leadership, the Shakers grew in number nonetheless. They also prospered financially as the years passed.  Reading and writing in Shaker communities changed through the years as well. Bodies of Life traces the complex relationships among literacy and faith, reason and emotion, personal experiences and family ties.  Zooming in on individuals who came to and left the Shakers, the book makes communal life personal.  This approach makes it relevant to those today who are on spiritual quests and seeking communities.

Damanhur: An Italian Earth-Centered Community

“Damanhur: Sustaining Changes in an Intentional Community,” is the first chapter in the book Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. In it I probe the question of how a community in the mountains of northern Italy coalesced from small, urban gatherings of spiritual seekers in the 1970s to the eco-conscious group it is today. Continue reading

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