A “Monastery Beyond Walls”: Architecting Space for the Spiritual
by Allie Naskret
“Always we begin again.” This is the “ancient yet evergreen” wisdom of St. Benedict. Those who follow the Benedictine way seek a balance between prayer and work, solitude and community, study and recreation. For Benedictines, conversion does not happen in an isolated moment, but rather is a commitment to ongoing transformation in one’s life.
There is a community not far from here, based on the way of St. Benedict, that seeks such radical balance and transformation. Yet its members are not monks, nor do they live in a cloistered community. They are architects, healthcare providers, attorneys, government officials, construction workers, families, and parents doing laundry, paying the bills, and shuttling children to soccer practice. Together this diverse group of people constitutes the Community of Reconciliation, a “monastery beyond walls” that seeks to contextualize the rhythms and balance of monastic life in the everyday lives of people living in an often-fragmented and unbalanced world. Anchored at Washington National Cathedral, the community is expressed through an expanding network of constellation communities, all with the intention of embracing monastic rhythms in the context of everyday life.
Greg Finch (M.Div., 1997), executive director of the Community of Reconciliation, writes, “For those attuned to the cloister call—every reservation made, bill paid, prayer voiced, dish washed, silence observed, and relationship honored is anchored to an understanding that all life is sacred and that every action can serve as a life-centering prayer, returning us to the heart of all matters.” Finch describes the Community of Reconciliation as a centering place that “calls us to the Holy and equips us for our work in the world.” He has seen the lives of those who participate in the community transformed, and he says that the community has also deeply shaped his own spiritual journey.
Finch, who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, says that his life has been a continual process of “expanding [his] vision of how the Holy works.” Finch grew up in Pasadena, Texas, and studied architecture and environmental design at Texas A&M University. He worked for many years as an architect and graphic designer in Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California. In Los Angeles, he worked on several graphic design projects for community healthcare nonprofits and experienced a spectrum of faith traditions beyond Southern Baptist. He also began reflecting on the spiritual aspect of his work and how it affected the community.
After working for fifteen years in architecture and graphic design, Finch decided to apply to Princeton Seminary. For Finch, seminary was another type of “architecture.” Architecture, he describes, is largely about “creating or holding open spaces in which things can happen.” Finch viewed his seminary education as “architecting a space for the spiritual to happen.”
Finch says that his education at PTS helped him to “engage spiritually” and laid the foundations for his work with the Community of Reconciliation. At Princeton, he took a class with Professor Paul Rorem that focused on Augustine and the Christian contemplative traditions. As part of the class, Finch wrote a paper in which he explored what it might be like to contextualize the practices of monastic life in the everyday world.
After graduating from PTS, Finch served in pastorates in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and continued to integrate creative arts into his ministry. He soon decided to return to school to further broaden his resources, pursuing a Master in Theology at Wesley Seminary and a Certificate in Arts Management at American University.
Finch then began working at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to use the arts and creative expression to promote healing. Finch’s work centered on exploring the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life-changing illnesses such as cancer. He later completed a D.Min. in biomedicine, spirituality, and aesthetics at Wesley Seminary, in partnership with the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, in order to further study the ways in which health and wellness can be spiritually mediated through the arts.
During that time, Finch’s spiritual director, one of the canons at Washington National Cathedral, told him about his participation in a team that was working in partnership with the Friends of Saint Benedict to develop the concept of a “monastery beyond walls.” Finch subsequently began as a consultant on the project, and with the help of a generous grant from the F.I.S.H. Foundation, he helped launch the Community of Reconciliation.
The Community of Reconciliation has since expanded into a vibrant “constellation” of participants and partner organizations, offering wisdom and encouragement to more than 800 individuals from all faith backgrounds. The community is also exploring options such as affinity groups, distance-learning, and online resources for those outside of the D.C. area.
Finch views his work with the Community of Reconciliation as “creating spaces” in which people can experience the spiritual more fully. The community is based on three foundational principles, modeled after the vows traditionally taken by Benedictine monks: stability in community, obedience through mutual listening, and the welcome embrace of transformation. Participants in the community seek to integrate the monastic rhythms of prayer, study, renewal, right work, and hospitality into their everyday lives. “Companions” are encouraged to gather regularly in community and to create their own “Rule of Life” as a guide to integrating these foundations and practices into daily living.
According to Finch, the stillness and silence that people are able to experience through the Community of Reconciliation translates into all aspects of life. Overstressed healthcare providers or government workers, for example, are able to incorporate centering spiritual practices into the workplace. A physician in her fifties said that a prayer and pilgrimage retreat she attended at the cathedral was “the most profoundly joyous event of my entire life.” Another participant, an engineer, said the weekend had re-started him on a path he had needed to follow for years. Finch says that he comes away from weekly prayer gatherings “deeply changed and refreshed each week.” He explains, “The community has taught me a deep respect for my own life, a generosity of spirit for myself and others, and a great kindness to allow for my own foibles and follies….The way of the Benedictines is very gentle.”
Finch’s goal is to make the Community of Reconciliation’s “way of radical balance that fosters reconciliation in the world” available to anyone who seeks to live a life of harmony with God and others. An architect at heart, he hopes to create space for people to experience God’s transformative power in their own lives and in the world outside the cloisters.
For more information about the Community of Reconciliation or to explore hosting a constellation affiliate, visit: http://www.nationalcathedral.org/worship/cor.shtml or contact Greg Finch directly at: [email protected].