Islands through the Net

I’ve been pondering recently the technological aspects of culture change and how they relate to Christian community and life.

I’m, frankly, confused by the notion of “emergent” or “emerging.” I get that it’s a new way of doing things and ordering of common life, a way of presenting the riches of our spiritual tradition without the “baggage” of our institutions. I do wonder, however, how much of this “baggage” is connected into truths of incarnation that may in fact be necessary evils that warn us against an idea, any plan, any approach to spirituality that attempts an end-around that avoids the messiness and sin that accompanies embodied reality.

Is there really more to the “emergent” thing than creating a more informal environment and being more loosely tied to denominational structures?

Furthermore—on a related but different note—to what degree are internet connections capable of being “communities of formation”?

As I consider the pull that keeps moving me toward a more monastic way of living I wonder and weigh the benefits of various options. I was impressed by the offering at the Daily Episcopalian today and note that they are by the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a group I’ve never heard of before. On one hand, they seem like something I’m looking for as I have an interest and a love for the spirituality and practices that guide them. And yet…

I’ve never quite been able to wrap my mind around St. Oswald, sometime bishop of Worcester and the third of the reforming bishops of the Benedictine Revival. If I recall correctly he did spend some time in a monastic community on the Continent but when he was in England at points I recall reading that he was a monk by himself.

How can that be?

I know what a hermit is, what an anchorite is, but this notion of being a monk by yourself seems different somehow…

Can a scattered community be, through harnessing of the internet, cohesive enough to provide a community of formation? I’m not sure.  Part of it may require an unpacking of this phrase I’ve created… for in my mind the heart of a community of formation is observing the examples of the practices of others. Cassian—and St Antony as presented by Cassian—put quite a bit of emphasis on the observation and imitation of others. Can this part of the formation process occur without incarnate, communal, intentional living? I don’t know…

Or is the oblate path the stronger method—associates in the world tied to a smaller group of professed religious who provide incarnate examples by whom the oblates can be refershed on a regular basis? Certainly this is the more classical model, and the one embraced by many Benedictines, the Julians, and the Order of the Holy Cross.

What do you think—what are the requirements for communities of formation in our brave new digital world?

13 thoughts on “Islands through the Net

  1. Lyngine

    As a professed member of such a community (Augustinians of the Immaculate Heart of Mary), one of things we live out is the saying that “community is matter of shared values and lives more than it is a matter of shared geography”. The main issue isn’t the internet.

    The heart of the issue is what does it mean to be community/create community and how do we share our lives and vocations across geographic distance. One method is the internet, but I think it’s important that this is NOT the exclusive method. We also stay in touch and pray the Office together via regular conference calls, and meet in person at least once a year and more often for those who live closer. Creating community also means that it’s the responsibility of each member to reach out to the others and get to know each other beyond the superficial. The regular contact and sharing serve to give us opportunities to observe, imitate, and share what it means to live out our vows. As a Christian community/religious order, we are mutually accountable to each other in our spiritual lives. So we do forge strong connections within our order, but those connections are just forged in a different way than they would be in a residential community.

    I’d say that the main requirement isn’t so much the technology of “how” people create community but that people share their spiritual lives with each other. Whether we do this by digital means or picking up the phone or visiting in person, the important part is not the method, but the interactions between people.

  2. Matt Gunter

    I share your bias for the embodied community.

    The challenge of being a community of formation is not confined to what it might look like on the internet. It is already present in the fragmented world of suburbia –and perhaps the fragmented world of modern America more generally.

    Short of becoming monks/nuns or moving into “intentional” communities, how do we cultivate churches that are communities of intention? The idea of associating with a particular monastic order is intriguing. Some churches have a congregationsal rule of life. I wonder how efective those are in deeper, more cohesive, formation.

  3. Brian M

    I may have this wrong, but I think that Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, author of the famous cookbooks, is the sole monk in residence at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery near Millbrook, New York. I have often wondered how that worked, and why he wasn’t recalled to one of the other houses of whichever order he comes from.

  4. Vicki McGrath


    I also share some of your concerns. As we all know, the internet brings some wonderful possibilities and some potential dangers. While a Christian community is not the same as an extended family, there are similarities, and so (for instance) I am very pleased to be able to keep in easy touch with distant relatives through Facebook. It gives me a flavor of their daily lives and quick, easy communication – more so than e-mail (to my mind). But it does not substitute for a phone call, or even a letter. I have recently uncovered letters from my uncle to my father when he was in a period of life discernment, and the intentionality and depth of his sharing was impressive. And there certainly is a long Christian tradition of spiritual formation and direction via letter. But all these methods of communication work because the two people already know each other, or (on the flip side) are on their way to developing a flesh and blood relationship. I know there are plenty of examples of people developing deep and abiding relationships through written communications, but it is still not a substitute for the face-to-face and incarnational – with at least some sort of regularity (as mentioned in other posts).

    My spiritual director likes to talk about the discomfort of daily family or community living as the sandpaper that rubs off the rough edges of our sin. It is one of the primary ways that the Holy Spirit does the work of sanctification. Much harder, I think, with dis-embodied communication.

    You mentioned congregational rules of life. +Mark Beckwith (when he was rector of All Saints’, Worcester, MA)had a congregational rule of life and intentional community. Now that he’s Bishop of Newark he’s he’s exploring something like that here. I don’t know what happened to the rule after he left Worcester.

    But at its best, I think this is what parish life is supposed to be – an intentional Christian community of worship that forms disciples for people who are not called to either celibacy or residential community. I also know that the vast majority of parishes come nowhere near this ideal, and that even if it is operative there will always be those in the parish who remain on the fringes or are lurkers. But that’s the same with religious orders (at least in my experience). There’s the core of life professed, then those in various stages of commitment and formation, those in periods of inqiry, those who are oblates, then associates, friends, people who come for retreats or events, and even those who just like to show up on the grounds and take a walk, and lastly, those who pass by the convent or monastery every day and are glad (on some level) it is there, but never feel inclined to venture in.

    This model, of course breaks down if you press it too hard. It also can be at odds with the old geographic parish system (i.e. everyone within the legal bounds of the parish town are members of the parish and don’t need any special formation, education, commitment, etc.). Add to that our American democratic impulse (as applied to Christian life) that often views hierarchy as destructive or at least distasteful, and it can lead to an expectation of a “flat” spirituality – i.e. Christian life and practice should be immediately and easily accessible to all, without any sense or understanding that there are ever-deepening mysteries to be drawn into, or the commitment that takes.

    Well, this has turned out to be pretty long! Does any of this connect to your thinking?


  5. Vagrant

    Hi Dereck: Wanted to comment on your thoughts about emergent and emerging churches. While there are a number of independent emerging churches, that’s not surprising since so many of them “emerged” from free church evangelicalism, which has not had a strong set of denominational affiliations in the U.S. I think the focus on more/less denominational identity is partially a result of so many mainliners and free church evangelicals coming together for extended conversations (and, in a sense, coveting their neighbor’s polity) as well as an increasing mindfulness of the ill effects of bureaucracy in many denominations (which isn’t to say that bureaucracies can’t have positive effects as well).

    I think there are several more positive aspects of the emerging/emergent movement, though there were seeds of them in modern/contemporary church life outside of emerging/emergent umbrella: intentionality, non-virtual community, some degree of intellectual engagement with contemporary thought, resisting liberal/conservative divides, resistance to the normal notions of membership, a search for a more sustainable approach to forming/supporting/deploying leaders, local ecumenism, etc. Few communities would evidence all of these elements, though, and most of these are not exclusively found in areas that would self-identify as emergent.

    Many emerging communities, while rarely sporting a strong brand-name identity, seem to have quite close (or even completely dependent) ties to a denominational authority. In a sense, some of the independent communities have come further along to being mature, self-sustaining communities than some of the denominationally affiliated communities which are still looking for someone external to support them.

    I do think your comment about denominations is interesting, though. I’m often left wondering whether denominational structures, when held up to careful examination, are actually successful at really creating a sustainable future for their communities, clergy, and members.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    I think you’ve hit on an important issue here when you say, “community is matter of shared values and lives more than it is a matter of shared geography”. I agree—but I wonder about the place of geography in our knowing and loving of one another. How much of communication is non-verbal or even unconscious when it comes to learning another person, let alone their ways and practices? One of the things I fear about electronic media is that, in many ways, it gives each of us an opportunity to project and ideal self—a self who’s edited and mediated, who isn’t grumpy in the morning, who doesn’t respond with sarcastic retorts when he’s tired. It’s one thing to talk the talk, and another to walk the walk.

    Now it sounds like in utilizing other modes of communication, and especially in meeting together regular, your community is intentional about mitigating these issues.

    But to your final point, I’m going to disagree and say that how we communicate *does* matter, precisely in how they allow or direct us to share ourselves. The question is if we are sharing our edited “favorite” self or the whole self—and I think our technology allows the former more reign than the latter.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Matt and Vicki,
    The situation that you raise (and is certainly present in Vagrant’s comment as well) is one of the main questions of the post-Constantinian age: what is the function of the local church—to what degree is it suppose to be our local community of formation?

    Vicki–I really resonate with what you’re saying here, and the way you’ve broken out various commitment levels is helpful especially as it relates to the reality and frustration of parish life. The 20/80 rule (20% of the folks do 80% of the work and vice versa) has been found in true in all the parishes I’ve been involved in. –So how do you reach the 80 and start including them in the 20?

    One of the things that you’ve touched on here that bears highlighting is “intentional Christian community of worship“. I think that’s key because from our perspective the worship itself is one of our central practices and the locus of much of our Christian formation. Which then leads me back to this place again—a href=””>liturgy is not enough unless we’re intentional about aiding it’s formative properties…

    The only thing I balk at here, though, is when it comes to learning and expressing certain of the variable and possible spiritualities of our church. That is, I connect with a catholic Benedictine style that privileges the monastic Fathers and Mothers but I recognize this isn’t for everybody. What happens when I’m the only person in my parish like this? And that’s where the internet and communication tools become more important again…

  8. Derek the Ænglican


    Thanks for commenting. To my mind your comment illustrates rather than resolves my ambivalence about the term emergent/emerging. The little that I have seen of the emergent discussion—for the blogs, from the Ship of Fools, from Anglimergent—tends to be focused around issues of ecclesiology and various alternative/contemporary worship practices.

    Where some of this discussion rubs me the wrong way is that ecclesiology isn’t adiaphora for me. Rather, the idea and ideals of church structure are bound up with the earliest proclamation of the Gospel and are intrinsic to it. Jesus didn’t talk about priests or bishops—except to point out and warn against the hypocrisy of religious leaders—but Paul did. And I’m not one who plays the game that pits Paul against Jesus.

    Furthermore, for me being Anglican is fundamentally about ecclesiology and worship: we have sacramental bishops (as opposed to administrative) and we have the BCP.

    I guess to cut to the chase emergent seems to me to be church marketing that targets young seculars. And that kind of model raises precisely the sustainability question.

  9. Lyngine

    “But to your final point, I’m going to disagree and say that how we communicate *does* matter, precisely in how they allow or direct us to share ourselves. The question is if we are sharing our edited “favorite” self or the whole self—and I think our technology allows the former more reign than the latter.”

    Hi Derek,

    Yes, that can be true about technology. But my main caveat would be that technology allows us to project an edited self to others more easily than other media *if we choose and allow that* to happen. It’s the intentionality of how we use technology that makes a difference. Technology can be both challenge and blessing in forming community. Tone can be hard to convey accurately via email so that challenges people to not always take things so personally—-not so different from miscommunication in daily life, but more prevalent with tech. Blessing in that for some, the written form of language can be a more accurate means of expression. On a practical level, it means that the time and effort to really get to know people and learn about them in order to be and become true community beyond the superficial.

    As for whether one is or is not projecting an idealized form of oneself in community, at it’s heart I’m not so sure that’s so different an issue from face-to-face. Someone can pull it off for longer in the digital realm, but how long that occurs also depends on the requirements, demands, and relationships within a given community. One can play at being church in regular world as much as in the digital realm–my thought is that how much one can get away with that depends on others one is in community with.

    I’m no advocate of a community that relates ONLY through digital means and am fairly skeptical of things like Second Life. Even in our Order we’re part of our local parishes and we are very intentional about how and when we use various means of communication and what its effects on our relationship with each other.

    I’m also a Benedictine oblate and I was thinking that the vow of stability, while primarily applied in a geographic sense, can also be applied to people—that these are the people that I have a long term commitment to work out and live my faith with.

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