In forming our contemplative communities, we explored a vision, (“What is our ideal of how the world should be?”), and a mission, (“What steps shall we take toward accomplishing that vision?”). We began with a vision of the world as a place where centering and serving, or contemplation and action, could be one. We were forming post-Katrina, which meant the needs of the world around us were overwhelming. We knew we needed daily grounding of our service in the presence of God. And that meant far more than throwing a few cursory prayers into the mix.
The vision began with an image of groups of people silently sitting in God’s presence to fill up their inner reservoirs. I told a bit of that story in my book: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. In time, the vision included sharing our spiritual journeys to form a sense of community in which people were accepted wherever they were in their journey: high or low, up or down, lost or found, delighted or devastated, etc. From the beginning, people came into our community ready to share intimate details of their life struggles because they felt safe to be themselves without the fear of judgment.
The vision included inner experience of God’s presence as a community, outer sharing of that experience, and encouragement in bringing the presence of God with us as we strode into the world. We had a vision of serving the world from that inner sense of Presence.
To express that vision, we were initially led to a mission of “listening in stillness, serving in joy.” That was a simple way of verbalizing our original vision of contemplation and action as one. We were experiencing the connection between prayer and work, which St. Benedict had called ora et labora with his monks. And we did not want to fall back into the belief that prayer was extraneous to serving the world. The needs around us were too great. We somehow knew we had to combine a daily life of prayer and service to avoid the kind of burnout many of us had already been through.
Later we adopted a motto, “Let Love Rule,” to simplify the broad expression of our mission. We sensed the need to ground our lives and service in the Great Love, and using those words seemed to say what we felt: we had to learn to let Love guide everything we did.
In time, we wanted to be clearer about what we do and how that evolves in our day to day lives. We refocused our mission to say we are “Creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and radical engagement with the world.” And later we shifted the last phrase to “compassionate service with the world.” We hoped to reflect how “radical” service meant rooted in God, (not radical in terms of being stupendous). And that led us to realize that rooted in God meant compassionate service. So, you can see how there has been an organic process unfolding as we have found greater clarity in discerning and expressing our mission. Our mission could evolve again.
Wherever you are in your own process of forming a contemplative community, I suggest you consider the following basic steps. Form a concise, common expression of the group’s vision for the world you want to create. Ask yourselves what it would look like if you could really discover the Divine spark among you. Those images will help to form your group vision. Let the vision be as broad and expansive as you desire. A vision like “we want to bring God’s presence to a hurting world” is not too big. The task of your vision can be impossible because you will not achieve it without a Power Greater than yourselves.
Next, ask yourselves what simple steps you feel called to take towards making your vision a reality. That is how you begin to form your mission. If you get too all-encompassing with your mission steps, you will set yourselves up for feeling like failures. Your mission needs to be possible, and preferably practical. If you take these mission steps, in time you will begin to see your vision being realized. And in your own ways your vision and mission could help the rest of us see that “the gate of heaven is everywhere!”
Finally, do not be discouraged if things seem mostly foggy at first. Clarity is hard one over time. And this is a community process, so everyone should have input and plenty of time to continue discerning. Do not be surprised if things follow a different path from what you first imagined. Forming a contemplative community is just like Life in that way. And know that things will keep changing in your vison and mission, just as the participants will keep changing. Through all those evolutions you will need spiritual leaders who patiently help guide the process. Who are those leaders? We will address some qualities of contemplative leaders next time.