Suburban Monasticism and the Four Nonnegotiable Pillars of the Spiritual Life

Even though it’s been mostly wet and cool this week signs of spring are on the breeze.  Having trimmed the blackberries down to a few sticks per plant in January and leaving them for dead, at least in appearance, it is good to see green shoots forming on the bare canes. This will be the third spring for these plants, and they are getting ready to explode into a glorious tangle of thorny vines. The grape vines are still sleeping but received the same severe pruning last month. The first buds are forming on the pecans and pear trees, and the peach tree in the garden actually has a few tiny blossoms that I fear have come too early. I keep one meadow near the pond unmowed to promote wild flowers and though its still early I have seen a few scattered reds and yellows of Indian Paintbrush and Mustard. The bluebonnets are going to be spectacular this year. I have been watching the bluebonnet plants growing since early January.

Which brings me to this: I did not grow up on a farm and spent relatively little time around the farming lifestyle until a little over three years ago when Kay and I bought Egret Isle Farm. In my brief time here, I have made two primary discoveries: first, a surprising amount of information can be had online. Second, and here is where watching the bluebonnets grow comes to mind, the farmer’s five senses are the most powerful and useful tools a person can bring to the occupation. Or, put another way that connects the farm with the spiritual life, the trick to farming is mostly being present and paying attention.  In fact, being present and paying attention may be two of the most important keys to a fully lived spiritual life. But, in the extremely noisy world where our attention is demanded from every quarter, where is it most important that we be present and what should we be paying attention to? That is an essential question.

As I have written elsewhere, the fourfold focus of the Serene Disciple Project features connecting with God by being fully present and paying attention in the context of personal devotion, creative work, hospitality, and spiritual friendship. These four ways of living out a healthy, balanced, Christ-centered spirituality were a vital part of my recovery from deep personal crisis nearly a decade ago. After life had fallen apart I decided that I needed a more sustainable, less life-consuming way of living out the Christian life. With an ironic smile, I started calling this new way of life “suburban monasticism,” and it remained a very personal practice for several years before I began to teach it in sermons and retreats. While the poem by Thomas Merton I have referenced before was very meaningful to me, as were numerous books and authors, the suburban monastic quadrangle was not based on the work of anyone else but rather grew naturally and gradually from time spent in the four locations that I associated with the quadrangle: personal devotion on the deck, creative work in the shop, hospitality in the kitchen, and spiritual friendship on the porch.  

So, I was surprised this week to come across a chapter in The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser. Titled “The Nonnegotiable Essentials,” the chapter lays out what Rohlheiser considers to be the “The Four Nonnegotiable Pillars of the Spiritual Life.”  They are: private prayer and private morality, social justice, mellowness of heart and spirit, and community. These “non-negotiables” bear some amazing similarities with suburban monasticism and so are worth exploring as a way to better understand the Serene Disciple Project. This is where our attention should be placed.  

By “private prayer and private morality” Rolheiser is talking about a healthy, sustainable Christian spirituality that begins with time spent in private communion with the Holy Spirit through prayer, silence, and meditation. Rolheiser goes further to suggest that this interior intimacy with God should also produce a public life that seeks to emulate Jesus’ life as depicted in the Gospels. He calls this private morality because it comes from the inside out as a result of relationship with God rather than being imposed from the outside in by an external authority.

Social justice seemed, at first glance, to be the least like its suburban monastic counterpart, but Rolheiser defines social justice as meaningful and creative engagement with the larger physical world and culture along with a sense of stewardship and justice. When I talk about creative work I am not only referring to artistic endeavour; I am also thinking about anything we do by way of creatively engaging with the physical world and culture. This is why so many other things fit within the definition of creative work, from growing one’s own food, to environmental stewardship, to a variety of important issues of social justice. Caring for the widow and orphan,  working to defend the defenseless, and standing in solidarity with the poor and marginalized are also all forms of creative work.

I love the way Rolheiser talks about the nonnegotiable essential of mellowness of heart and spirit. He is really talking about celebration, laughter, affection, shared meals, and joy in the context of shared lives. This is such a wonderful balance to the solitariness of personal devotion and the passion of creative work. The way Rolheiser talks about mellowness of heart and spirit is exactly how I think about generous hospitality.  

Finally, the fourth nonnegotiable essential, according to Rolheiser, is community. And by community, he is not talking about community in a generic way. He is talking about intentional, spiritual community. The sort of community that gathers routinely to seek God together in worship, liturgy, song, study, and conversation, community. It is a community that welcomes all while fostering deep spiritual friendship.  

In The Holy Longing Rolheiser makes the case for why these represent the nonnegotiable essentials of the Christian life.It’s also worth noting what’s not on that list, which includes most of the issues that divide followers of Christ and make church an untenable option for an increasing number of people, sometimes called the nones and the dones. But that’s enough for today. I’ll have more to say about them next week, but it was gratifying to discover that the way of being a follower of Jesus that brought me back to life, that grew naturally out of my own time spent on the deck, shop, kitchen, and porch is also, at least according to Rolheiser, the very core of historic Christian spiritual practice.