On Inhabiting Spaces of Celebration and Resistance
Jim in Hardwick, Massachusetts
<em>Jim (he/him) is a member of Agape Community’s Mission Council. He is a recent graduate (May, 2020) of the doctoral program in Theology at Fordham University. His dissertation is a work of ecotheology that emerges from an engagement with the writings of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Thomas Merton, as well as the embodied practices of Agape. He received his M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School in 2013 and his B.A. from Drew University in 2011.</em>
First, I wanted to ask you, really broadly, what your relationship to place and community is like. And if there are any specific experiences or values that guide that relationship.
I think my commitment to and understanding of community ultimately comes from the experience of relationality I have as an identical twin. To me, at the core of community is an intentionality about relationships. An intentionality about how my life interweaves with other lives. And a desire to clarify and deepen that interweaving for the sake of mutual flourishing, for the sake of reciprocity. So, I would say my interest in community comes out of that basic, embodied sense of being inextricable from another being, my brother Pat. Then, along with that seed experience of being an identical twin are some theoretical commitments that have helped me to clarify and understand this embodied sense of relationality. For me, this comes out of my engagement with feminist, and specifically ecofeminist, theory. Ecofeminism tells me that relationality is at the core of existence and any sense of personal subjectivity I have really emerges out of an underlying relatedness. And for me, Ava, community is a space in which persons can come together to collectively honor our relatedness, our relationality, and build ways of being that are conducive to the flourishing of relationships. In that respect I think my attraction to community is akin to my attraction to sacred spaces, to “church.” In that I think we need -- when we live in a world of woundedness, a wounded and wounding world -- we need to enter into alternative spaces in which we can recover healthy and just forms of relationality.
Can you just briefly share a bit about what you mean by woundedness in the world? I want you to be able to put your own words to that a bit more.
Sure. Yeah, I mean that I think we inherit and inhabit a world that is broken by unjust systems that control the flow of our interactions with one another, with the earth, and even -- for me as a theologian and a religious person -- with the divine. So, we inherit and inhabit broken modes of being because of the systems of injustice and domination that we’re born into. They impact our interiority, producing in us a fragmented or broken sense of self. And they also impact all of our relationships in that we’re relating to other persons within the context of injustice, brokenness, hierarchy.
I feel like that’s a good segue into more radical community, which I know you have a variety of experiences with, and particularly in Agape, the intentional community you’re currently a part of. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on radical community as a response to the brokenness of just systems and relationality that we inhabit and inherit in the world.
Yeah, so my sense of radical community is fairly recent. I mean, my major experiences of radical community come out of my embodied presence in the Agape Community, as well as Benincasa. But here’s what I would say, Ava, and I’m gaining more and more clarity on this in the sense that a lot of my scholarship and my work with figures like [the feminist theologian] Rosemary Radford Ruether weaves into these embodied experiences that I’m having in communities like Agape and Benincasa. One helpful concept that Ruether provides is the notion that we need to build and inhabit communities of celebration and resistance. And I feel like those two elements are pivotal. And the way that I view those two commitments to celebration and resistance fusing, converging, interacting, informing one ano ther is that we have the need to come together and celebrate the radical goodness of creation and of one another and we simultaneously have the need to resist the systems and the modes of seeing and being that desecrate the goodness of creation. And my sense of radical communities is just, these are spaces in which commitments to celebration and resistance are heightened and intensified, so that those kinds of commitments are inspiring more and more of our interactions with one another and the wider world. That there’s just an intentionality about a commitment to celebrating one another and the goodness of one another and the goodness of our relationships with one another and the earth and God. As well as this equally fervent commitment to resist the systems that break us and break us from one another.
Right. Wow I really loved hearing all of that, Jim. At the beginning, you mentioned that Agape is one of the experiences that has been a part of your embodying these alternatives, the celebration and resistance. I want you to talk a little bit more about Agape -- what the community is, what it hopes to achieve, why it's necessary. I’m also curious about these dual commitments to celebration and resistance, so if they’re part of Agape as well and you want to take it in that direction, feel free.
Yeah. It's kind of convenient in the sense that I’ve been thinking through this theme of building community through celebration and resistance for my dissertation. The culminating chapter really looks at Agape as a space that weaves together celebration and resistance. So Agape Community, just to give a brief sketch of the place, was founded in 1982. Two of the co-founders still live here – Brayton Shanley and Suzanne Belote Shanley. The community is committed to radical nonviolence, to ecological modes of being, and to contemplation. Another way of framing that though is that Agape is committed to both contemplative attunement to the divine as well as prophetic resistance against systems of domination. And I think this comes through quite clearly in the way that life unfolds here. So just to give an example of the contemplative side, if you walk into St. Francis House, which is the main building here, you’ll see on the wall a plaque that says ‘God alone,’ as a means of symbolically conveying the community’s commitment to surrender to God. That is a key commitment of this community and it also manifests powerfully through the fact that there’s a hermitage on the property, back in the woods. The hermitage is a space that’s conducive to contemplation, to surrender, to ‘God alone.’ It offers an opening for receiving God into our lives. But then simultaneously there’s this radical prophetic commitment which comes through in the Black Lives Matter sign that is on the front porch of St. Francis House, that comes through in the inclusive bible that is present in the chapel of St. Francis House which is deliberately inspired by the commitment to feminist theology and to moving away from patriarchal language. The prophetic commitment also comes through in the works of solidarity that the community is involved in, such as the fact that [in 2016] Brayton Shanley drove to Standing Rock with over 300 bales of hay in order to help insulate, quite literally, the resistance there. So, the commitment to the contemplative and the prophetic emerges very powerfully kind of at the core of Agape’s identity and intention. One thing to emphasize is that Agape serves as a prophetic site not just in relation to secular systems of domination but also in relation to systems of domination manifest in ecclesial spaces. So Agape is very much committed to a real grappling with patriarchy as it manifests in the Catholic Church as an institution. We’re also commitmented to grappling with the systems of dominations as they manifest in our own lives together as a community. So there’s also a commitment to breaking down hierarchy and dualism in interpersonal interactions.
You spoke about the contemplative aspect of Agape and I think that I understand that connection between having solitude, such as the hermitage on the property, and being in community. But can you talk a bit more about that relationship between solitude, contemplative space, the importance of that and how that is connected to community, being interdependent and that relationality you were talking about earlier.
That’s a great question, I love that. I think of a phrase from Thomas Merton. As he puts it, solitude is not separation. So generally, solitude attunes us more to, what Merton would call, the true self. And the true self is always embedded in relationality, in communion with all of life (human and more-than-human). So, when I go into the hermitage alone at Agape, it’s not to separate myself out. It’s to deepen my sense of embodied presence to God and to God’s good creation. And by taking the time to deepen that embodied sense of presence I am then able to navigate my relationships here with a deeper presence. So, the intensified presence that emerges through contemplative immersion then inspires a deeper presence to the various human and more-than-human interactions that I have here at Agape. Just to speak from my own experience. But I think the whole community sees contemplation and solitude in that light. That it’s not about separating ourselves from one another. And that even our life here in the woods on 34 acres is not about separating ourselves from the city, for instance. It’s about living with an intentionality to be deeply present. So that we can be deeply present in all of our relationships.
I appreciate you speaking from your own experience and also connecting that to the larger Agape mission and intention. I just want to ask one more question because I know that you are very connected to ecological justice. You just mentioned it in relation to solitude -- being connected to our human community in addition to our larger-than-human community. I wonder: on the farm and across the 34 acres, what is the larger community at Agape beyond the other people that are inhabiting this place?
Yeah. That’s well said. Here’s what I’ll say -- I think that a significant component of the spirituality here at Agape is what I would call a kind of sacramental relationship to food. And that really comes about through a deep immersion in the whole process of planting food, sowing seed, tending to the garden, harvesting food and preparing and sharing it together. So, it really is kind of eucharistic in a way and sacramental. And I think that throughout that process there’s an explicit intentionality to embody nonviolence through maintaining a plant-based diet. So, at Agape all of the food is vegan in order to honor our relationships with the more-than-human realm in the most nonviolent way possible. But then as we engage, as we connect with one another and with the more-than-human realm, through the plant-based diet that we eat, there’s a real sensitivity to honoring the food, to taking time in meal preparation and in gratitude for the food we’re receiving and sharing with one another. There’s this kind of sacramentality about it that attunes us to our embeddedness in this web of beings that goes beyond the human participants in Agape.
The other thing that I would like to mention is that what I’m finding more and more about Agape is that it is a specific community of persons who are committed to living together and in relation to the wider world, nonviolently and peacefully. But it's also embedded in this wider web of communities that flow into one another and interact with one another and intersect with one another. So Agape to me is inextricable from what might be called, has been called, the Catholic Left -- which includes communities like the Catholic Worker, Jonah House, and also other local groups. There’s the local Buddhist Peace Pagoda and various Quaker communities that flow through Agape and that Agape flows into. There’s this wider web of communities. There’s Standing Rock; as I mentioned earlier, Brayton went to support the resistance there. And a year later, people from Standing Rock came to Agape to participate in our St. Francis Day celebration. Chief Arvol Looking Horse spoke here about how Standing Rock is everywhere. And Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson led a water ceremony here on the land, in relation to Agape’s pond, that was based on the ceremony she led at Standing Rock. So, there’s a real sense, to me, of Agape Community being this particular place that is grounded on 34 acres of land in Hardwick, Massachusetts and populated by people who are really interested in being present to this concrete space but simultaneously it’s woven into this wider web of communities and that’s what gives it its life, I think. The sense of being both present to a particular place and woven into all of these other communities that flow through it and into it, which ultimately leads to this really beautiful and dynamic community, a community of communities.
I love that so much! And I love thinking about community as reciprocity both within one specific community of the people and place, as well as within the neighboring communities or communities that extend across distance to which it is also connected. I’m so glad you brought that up and shared about the various communities that Agape flows in and out of. Thank you so much, Jim! What a great conversation. If there was anything else that you wanted to bring up, I’ll make space for that too here at the end.
Well yeah, I would like to add one more thing which is that I think that within the context of COVID-19 and this global pandemic that has led to separation for so many people, I think the hunger for community has become more and more pronounced. And it’s been really interesting for me to see how communities like Agape, Benincasa, and Ignatian Yoga are managing to build circles of connectedness, community, communion through creative uses of technology. Through things like Zoom liturgies or yoga practices. We had here at Agape our first ever virtual St. Francis Day celebration [on October 3rd] and there was this sense of, this is an event that really belongs here on this land, where people who love this place converge with one another and grapple with important issues and topics and conversations together on this land. But since we couldn’t do that, we had to do it through virtual means and in the end it worked out beautifully. It gives me a lot of hope for how intentional communities can be really resilient and flexible in finding ways to continue weaving us together even and especially when we feel that the atmosphere around us is making it impossible to connect. I dunno, I’ve been finding that more lately, that communities are getting really creative in using technology in order to weave us together.
Right. We are very place-bound in some ways right now and also, we’re still connected to people and part of communities that are not where we are physically in this moment. So, to be able to connect from afar is another part of community for sure and we can deepen that and explore that in times like this.
Questions for Reflection: What examples of celebration and resistance have you witnessed? How can you inhabit spaces of celebration and resistance in your own life and in your communities?
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