Easton Mountain: A Community of Service

Prologue

            As a former member of a monastic community for thirteen years, I have continued to keep some of the “monastic” experience within me. Coming to Easton in the year 2000 and for many subsequent years as retreat participant, retreat leader/staff member, and volunteer, I have been struck by the similarities between Easton Mountain and monastic life.

            St. Benedict in his rule for monasteries refers to the monastery as “a school for the Lord’s service.”[1] At Easton Mountain, the staff and volunteers have created a new kind of “monastery”—a community of service. Over and over again, the staff and volunteers work together to create an environment (it is often referred to as “the container”), so that retreatants and others who show up as guests will feel comfortable and cared for.

            One of the original ideas that John Stasio and Harry Faddis had  in 2000 was to have space at Easton where a monastery of gay men could live in community and support one another in prayer and intention. The monks would have the possibility to support the work of Easton Mountain in some capacity, e.g., member of the retreat staff or have some other occupation so that the individual monk would be able to support himself while contributing to the common life of the monastery as well. Although the group of men who were the initial members of the monastery with Harry as abbot had great intentions for the longevity of the monastery, for a variety of reasons the monastery only lasted for a few months, and Harry took up residence eventually at Easton Mountain.

            Although the monastery as a separate entity did not last, the current incarnation of Easton Mountain does have several aspects of cenobitic (monks living in community) life and energy which would find a home among other monastic communities. Contemporary monasticism throughout the world has several iterations, e.g., ashrams, mixed communities of men and women, communities of vowed religious and laity, single sex communities of monastics, and hermitages. Easton Mountain is, in some ways, blazing a unique path of monastic life some of which finds parallel in the monastic vision of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543) who wrote a rule for monastics living together in community.

Membership

            At Easton there are four different components of membership: resident community, long term volunteers, short term volunteers, and members. “Easton Mountain is the home of an Interfaith Spiritual Community of queer people. This community is comprised of full and part-time residents who work in some capacity as the staff of the Easton Mountain Retreat Center.”[2] This description of the resident community parallels St. Benedict’s vision of community members who make a commitment by sharing life in common. The Easton resident community members make a commitment to abide by shared rules and practices (the “rule”) to enhance their shared experience of community living. The resident members also provide valuable assistance in helping volunteers perform their service.

          The long term volunteers (those who are resident at Easton for more than two weeks at a time) work alongside the resident community members in doing service that is needed. They are responsible for some of their own personal needs, e.g., insurance, but room and board are provided by Easton in exchange for 6-7 hours of work per day. Many of the current resident community were long term volunteers before becoming resident members. This group would be similar to those in formation in St. Benedict’s rule.

          There are short term volunteers; these may be individuals who assist with a particular program (whether for a weekend or longer) or those who are resident volunteers for less than two weeks. These volunteers would be similar to those in initial formation (novices) in St. Benedict’s rule. Short term volunteering is encouraged before someone offers service as a long term volunteer. The Volunteer Coordinator helps volunteers to be successful in their service.

          Finally, there are members. These are people who have made a pledge to: volunteer (sharing their unique gifts), contribute (making a monthly contribution of their choice), and commit (keeping the mission of Easton Mountain alive). There are benefits in being a member, much like the benefits of final vows for the monastic.

          These different aspects of belonging to the Easton Mountain community work together to ensure Easton’s viability. What is shared in this common vision is the desire to have a place where gay men can find community and be comfortable in sharing life together. Easton is a place to experience “opportunities to celebrate, heal, transform, and integrate body, mind, and spirit.” 

Community Leadership

            Traditional Benedictine monasticism calls for a person to be the leader of the community who is to emulate/represent Christ himself. Although Easton Mountain would not identify itself as exclusively Christian (much less Catholic), the leader of the community, John Stasio (the Founding Director), does have many of the qualities of this kind of Benedictine leader: caring for the community at large as well as for individuals, maintaining the vision for the community to follow, and representing the community outside of Easton Mountain. As Founding Director, John wants to ensure that Easton Mountain operates at its best and will be successful for years to come. John is aided in this role by Harry who had the original idea for monastic living at Easton and who keeps the monastic vision in mind.

            The second in command, if you will, is the Managing Director, a position currently held by Miguel Villalobos. This position, much like that of a prior in a monastery, takes care of the day to day running of things which at Easton includes personnel (both paid staff, resident community, and volunteers), maintenance, and finances.

Community Meetings

          Everyone who is residing at Easton participates in a weekly community meeting. Led by the Founding Director and/or the General Manager, everyone at the meeting is invited to offer items for the agenda. Similarly, everyone is invited to make announcements or offer advice or observations. For St. Benedict this sort of community-wide consultation assisted those in community leadership to receive advice and assistance. This weekly meeting helps those who are living at Easton to feel connected and have a sense of working together.

          St. Benedict also encouraged a daily gathering of the community, chapter meetings, to help in the smooth flow of community life. The volunteer coordinator leads a daily meeting with the volunteers to give them an opportunity to check in, see what tasks need to be completed that day, and offer ideas/observations for the common good.

Horarium

            As stated earlier, St. Benedict planned equal amounts of time for prayer and work in his daily schedule. Although this may not be the way Easton’s day is scheduled, there are certain times for certain things to happen, e.g., the “regular” schedule for meals, community meetings, or time to do laundry. This schedule is uniquely adapted when groups are at Easton, and the resident community and volunteers make appropriate adaptations when asked.

Ora et Labora

            St. Benedict planned the monastic day to balance prayer (ora) and

work (labora). There are many forms of prayer/spirituality found at Easton: yoga, meditation, contemplation, Christian rituals, healing circles, etc. Before the evening meal, the community who is present  gathers in a circle to offer gratitude/blessing for the meal. Oftentimes before community or volunteer meetings, those who are present spend some time in silent reflection and/or breathing together. Everyone is encouraged to have some spiritual practice for personal growth and being better prepared to offer service to others. St. Benedict referred to community prayer as Opus Dei, the work of God; so at Easton prayer is a value however it is practiced.

            Physical labor is what St. Benedict envisioned for those living the monastic life. At Easton, the resident community as well as volunteers engage in physical labor on a daily basis whether that is helping in the kitchen, cleaning, gardening, doing laundry, etc. Whether the work is done in a group or individually, the physical labor helps everyone to appreciate the value of human labor.

 

Hospitality

            Hospitality has been a hallmark of Benedictine monasticism since its foundation. As St. Benedict said, guests are never wanting in the monastery. He reminded the community that they should treat a guest as if Christ himself had arrived. At Easton, hospitality has also been important since its foundation. From its earliest days, Easton has tried to make every guest feel welcome—whether the guest was staying for a long time or simply overnight, whether the guest was paying to stay or coming as a volunteer, or whether the guest was a returning individual or experiencing Easton for the first time.

            Keeping the Guest House and the Lodge in tip top shape in order to make guests feel at home is an important part of the work that is done at Easton. Similarly, the grounds and other auxiliary places are treated with great care. One important part of Easton hospitality is the food that is served. Every attempt is made to offer nourishing and appetizing food so that those who are present will feel well cared for; this includes answering the many requests for special dietary needs.

            One challenge for offering hospitality sometimes occurs with “outside” groups, i.e. groups that rent space at Easton and conduct their own program. At times these groups ask to have minimal contact with the resident community including volunteers. The Easton community “holds the container” for these groups much like monastics who share hospitality with guests who seek a more silent and reflective time alone with minimal contact with the monastic community.

Respect for the Environment

            Although respect for the environment is often thought of as a more “Franciscan” charism, it is also found in several instances in St. Benedict’s rule. He, too, talked about community members taking care of what was entrusted to them by being frugal in respect to what they were responsible for both individually and communally. Since Easton tends to operate on a very streamlined budget, this aspect of life at Easton is easy to follow. Those responsible for  Easton’s financial viability try to encourage the resident community, paid staff, and volunteers to do more with less.

Also the Benedictine vow of stability, to a particular place, is also well mirrored at Easton. Over and over again, those who come to Easton say that Easton has a special place in their hearts because they have found in Easton a place for their hearts. The land itself, therefore, becomes a part of what Easton has to offer to others: a place where the earth is cherished and cared for. 

UIOGD

            St. Benedict shared with his followers  why they were doing what they were doing. He said everything is done “so that God may be glorified”  (ut in omnibus glorificetur dei). At Easton the vision is that all the components fit together for the common vision: to keep the mission of Easton alive as “a community, retreat center, and sanctuary created by gay men as a gift to the world.” At Easton all the energy is directed towards this shared vision, just as St. Benedict and his followers directed their efforts toward God.

Epilogue

          So the “monastic spirit” lives at Easton. It came to be out of the desire to have a sanctuary where gay men felt loved and cared for. May this sacred place thrive as a community of service for many years to come.

 

Steve Sallis

July 11, 2019

Feast of St. Benedict 

[1] Quotes are from the Rule of Benedict and from Easton Mountain website.

 

Steve SalisComment