From his perspective as a participant in new monastic communities for almost a decade, the author elaborates two implications of René Descartes’s famous dictum “I think, therefore I am.” Reflections on imagination and individualism suggest what love requires and human frailty demands in the context of intentional community.
“I think, therefore I am” –René Descartes
As a place to start reflecting on the movement called new monasticism, I admit that this quote is as strange as it sounds. It’s not obvious what Descartes has to do with intentional communities. It’s not immediately apparent what this quote has to do, for example, with simplicity, social justice, and relocation. Yet, nearly ten years of living in new-monastic community has taught me two very important things that relate to Descartes’s foundational modernist claim. First, imagination shapes our participation in the life of the world. Second, we must relearn what it means to share this place with other people.
The first observation relates to Descartes’s famous reflection because it’s both a description of and an imagination for the reality in which we live. His starting place is “I” or the individual self. We Westerners have used this starting place to great effect in the creation of the modern world. Positively, we live in a time in which individuals are thought of as having inalienable rights. We see each person with a sort of divine or mystic dignity. Such a stance makes possible the kind of imagination necessary to see all humans as ontological equals. There are no kings and queens among us. Each person has a right to their individual life, prosperity, and freedom. Within the bounds of the law, we have the right to pursue these things as we each see fit. Each individual matters.
Negatively, the individualized imagination at the heart of the modern project has also caused a few problems. Processes of ecological devastation, and robust systems of race and poverty have all been direct products of this imagination as well. The egocentrism present in the quote above incubates and gives birth to consumerism, individualism, objectification of people and the environment, and finally cultures of accumulation and colonization. In short, Plato put the earth at the center of the universe, Copernicus claimed it was the sun, but Descartes said reality revolves around me. Each of us is the center of reality. “I think, therefore I am” imagines a world that revolves around my individual consciousness. I am my individual, conscious self. I am the subject of reality, and everything else is an object. Worst of all, this worldview can lead to the conclusion that anything that’s not “me” isn’t human.
Therefore, Descartes’s dictum is also relevant because we must now unlearn the imagination of the self-centered universe if we hope to survive the ecological and political issues of our time. Now more than ever, we have a dire need to cultivate an imagination that shares this world with those around us, to see the stranger and the other as human beings and co-inhabitants of the world. We must learn what it means for many members to belong to a single body. Monastic community has taught me that.
I’ve seen a handful of legitimate miracles in my life. My mother was healed from a degenerative muscle disease when I was twelve years old. I saw a leg grow out right before my eyes at a healing service. I’ve seen the deaf receive their hearing and the blind their sight, but the most amazing miracles I’ve ever witnessed happen around a kitchen table. Monastic community has a way of creating intense moments of vulnerability between people from different backgrounds, families, and tribes. This can be good or bad. It’s bad when there’s no safety to be honest. I consider this to be a sign of an unhealthy monastic community. But it’s good when that safety has been cultivated and embraced. When it’s safe to be vulnerable, when it’s treasured and handled with tender care, miraculous things happen in human relationship. When we see ourselves not merely as individuals but as different parts of a single body, a miracle happens: we are truly seen and heard.
Monastic community has taught me to love my neighbor as myself. While modern life has all but completely insulated us from one another, the sharing of space and rhythms of life has forced those who live in monastic community to relearn what it means to wade through the murky waters of conflict and reconciliation as a normal part of daily life. Most Americans will likely only experience this kind of relationship as part of their daily life with a spouse, and even those relationships can be short lived. But in monastic community, this level of mutual self-disclosure happens in a community much broader than the confines of marriage and family, and when it does it can be a revelation of God’s heart. To see two people unrelated by blood, background, or even culture who have hurt one another share their hearts, their fears, and their hopes and then to see them fully embrace one another is the greatest miracle I’ve ever witnessed. It’s almost mystical. It’s like looking into the very face of God. Such a miracle exemplifies that love is the strongest force in the universe. You might even say it’s the center around which all reality gravitates. But this kind of love doesn’t happen overnight.
The lifestyle described above requires the wisdom of doing what love requires of us on a near constant basis, but it also requires that which human frailty demands. Love can require a lot, and sometimes we forget that it requires us to know our own limitations. In loving others well we come to understand the need to love ourselves in the same way. This commitment to doing love well is the hardest part, because it pushes against that rugged and heroic individualism of the self-centric universe. Accepting our limitations really gets at the root of our egocentric impulses, and that can be a frustrating process because our unhealthy desire to be heroes often goes hand in hand with our desire to do good. What the world needs is a movement of people who desire the good that the world needs without the vanity of being its hero or savior.
The work of the modern project has so alienated us that we must now relearn what it means to belong to one another. The very systems of our society are designed to reinforce that obstacle. Google, YouTube, and social media have brought the whole world to our fingertips, but we remain as isolated and divided as ever. Monastic community is an education, and for the most part it’s an education acquired through failure. But there are some valuable resources out there, and you don’t have to learn everything the hard way. If you are interested in reclaiming the vulnerability of human relationships, if you want to relearn what it means to share this world with other people, if you need a new imagination for the center of reality, then I suggest visiting a local new monastic community. Or check out some of the literature on the topic. For further reading, I suggest Schools of Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Missional. Mainline. Monastic. by Elaine A. Heath and Larry Duggins, and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Another world is possible for us. We can weather the storm of current political and ecological events, but it’s going to require a new imagination; it’s going to require a new way of life. If there is a future for our world, I’m convinced it revolves around the reality of love and relationship in shared human community.
Joshua Love is a spiritual director and social activist with ten years of experience living in new monastic community. His teachers include inmates, minorities, individuals experiencing homelessness, and the poor. It has been his life-long calling to love Jesus among the least of these. Most recently his work has included being a chaplain at the CitySquare resource center in Dallas, Texas, a group facilitator with the prison ministry Bridges to Life, and an outreach coordinator with the North Texas chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. He holds a masters in Religous Education from Rochester and is currently in the project phase of his doctorate of ministry with Lipscomb University. For monthly prayer practices or more information about his work with spiritual direction, you can visit his website at https://spiritualcompanion.blog.