Toward an Infrastructure of Sacred Hospitality
[Note: This piece is based on a short, improvised talk that I offered at the Commonweal Fall Gathering in November, 2019. Gratitude to friends and colleagues at Nuns & Nones, Taproot, Commonweal, and beyond who have helped inform and explore these ideas.]
Perched on the precipice of a living-dying planet, we are tasked with prophetic memory and imagination. Now is the time to pursue pathways for remembering, envisioning, awakening — in ourselves and in each other — our innate and limitless capacity to love mightily, to belong to the earth, and to tend and defend the sacred.
As fires rage, as waters run dry, as species and languages go extinct, as hundreds of millions of people are displaced by climate chaos, we must deepen our collective capacity for sacred hospitality.
Sacred hospitality means engaging in the sacred art of offering hospitality — literally opening doors, filling plates, offering hope, care, and refuge. It also means holding and hosting space for the sacred — turning our hearts toward the divine life and mystery in our midst. This world is clamoring for both. And the more we practice each, the more we realize they’re one and the same.
Thankfully, there are innumerable mystics, culture-bearers, freedom fighters, water protectors, artists, care-givers, hearth-tenders amongst us, creating and sustaining sanctuary, dreaming into an infrastructure of sacred hospitality for these times. If you’re reading this, I suspect you’re one of them.
There’s no map for the infrastructure of sacred hospitality that already exists. This is, perhaps, good and necessary; some of our sanctuaries must remain furtive, our freedom dreams undetected by the dominant eye.
Nor is there a roadmap for the infrastructure of sacred hospitality that yet yearns to emerge. But we each hold clues. Here, I’ll offer five for your contemplation — in the hopes that you’ll also add your own clues as kindling to the fire that draws us together.
A quote once jumped out of a book at me, seared itself into my heart, and implanted itself in my memory. I’ve since spoken it aloud at numerous gatherings of…heretics:
“At the heart of every age is a unique impulse, out of which, through the course of events and under favorable conditions emerges a new cultural body. It is as if each age had its own DNA, which lives first in the consciousness of a few individuals who, like artists, create out of their irrational imaginations the planetary mystical perceptions that begin as heresy and end as heritage.” — Milenko Matanovic, Lightworks
At this cusp moment, there are more than “a few individuals” accessing, out of their irrational imaginations, the DNA for an infrastructure of sacred hospitality. We are a vast and growing constellation of imaginal cells, sensing into our potential to illuminate a different path forward. This collective becoming, this creation of a new cultural body, requires both subtle perception and active choice.
The word heresy, itself, derives from the Greek hairesis, meaning to choose. By choosing to put our faith in life rather than our faith in power, orienting to love rather than fear, we become heretics in a dominant society built on greed, growth, and separation. Rooted in the mysticism of interdependence, we gain strength as saboteurs of oppressive systems, truthtellers in the face of empire.
Through this very heresy we begin to find our true belonging and common calling as “citizens of a country that does not yet exist” (in the words of movement elder Vincent Harding), and as “prophets of a future not our own” (in the words of Fr. Ken Untener).
Now is a time to travel lightly. But if we can invite along millions of fellow life-giving heretics, perhaps we can indeed uncover and even create heritage worth carrying through a time of collapse.
After fire ravages a forest, there are often small pockets of life, islands of green among the ash, which — almost miraculously — remain unharmed and intact. These areas, called fire refugia, shelter species that would otherwise be wiped out, becoming the seedbeds from which the forest regenerates. They don’t have to last forever to make a difference; even short-lived fire refugia can be the saving grace for local biodiversity.
Scientists don’t know exactly how and why they occur, but they are essential to life after destruction. If we were able to somehow map them, understand how they work, and develop a strategy for preserving them, “that would be sort of the Holy Grail,” according to one biologist in a recent New York Times article.
We may not yet be able to understand and nurture these ecological refugia, but we can work to preserve and create the spiritual, cultural, and civic refugia needed in these times.
At a moment when the hunger for community is so palpable, what might it look like to more intentionally, collectively take on the task of creating refugia communities, working across generations and traditions to create new seedbeds from which life can flourish?
Monasteries emerged during the Dark Ages as places to steward wisdom traditions amidst societal disarray. What if, in this age, we are called not to create isolated sites of contemplation and study, but, rather, communities of spirit in service — in plain sight?:
- Urban monasteries, helping to nurture the moral and spiritual capacities required to grieve, serve, and live courageously amidst planetary destruction.
- Houses of Belonging, offering hospitality and sanctuary for people displaced by economics, violence, and climate chaos.
- Centers for Sacred Activism, dedicated to undoing cycles of harm, resisting structural evil, and repairing sacred relationships among people and the natural world, through reparations and land rematration.
- Reimagined forms of “religious life” through which covenantal communities step together outside of extractive systems to steward land and water, renew wisdom traditions, and to take courageous collective action on the side of life.
As we dream into refugia communities and co-liberate spaces for sacred hospitality, we must also commit to becoming refugia ourselves. What are the practices, disciplines, lineages through which we make refugia of our own hearts? How are we cultivating the capaciousness to hold the immense grief and joy that will keep us human as we cross into new thresholds of uncertainty? And what are the energy sources we’ll draw on to power an inner infrastructure of sacred hospitality?
III. ENERGY DEMOCRACY
Across the country and the globe, communities are turning away from the corporate power grid and investing in resilient, non-polluting, community-owned energy infrastructure. This is the movement for Energy Democracy.
Here’s how the Climate Justice Alliance defines the term:
Energy Democracy represents a shift from the corporate, centralized fossil fuel economy to one that is governed by communities, is designed on the principle of no harm to the environment, supports local economies, and contributes to the health and well-being for all peoples.
Alongside this work, another movement for energy democracy is taking place as individuals and communities cultivate and call in the spiritual, cultural, and ancestral energy required for living in and through these times.
Energy democracy in this sense means having access to the stories, wisdom bearers, and spiritual and cultural traditions and practices that are each of our birthrights. We all come from lines of humans who at one point had original instructions and creation myths for maintaining right relationship with one another and with the living world.
To access this energy, our young people today need the accompaniment of movement elders and wisdom and culture bearers who can point to those stories and practices, who share an understanding of what time it is, and whose primary loyalty is not to any institution, religious or otherwise, but to life itself. Access to and participation in this kind of energy democracy strengthens our ability to create all other forms of democracy.
Just as we’re seeing a shift away from the corporate energy grid to power our homes and communities, we’re also seeing a shift to “off-grid” sources to power our spiritual lives. Many are leaving the big tents of institutional religion in favor of the open sky, under which we can rekindle the living spark of our distinct wisdom traditions and share the evolutionary, revolutionary DNA of our lineages across lines of difference. Dismantling patriarchies, hierarchies, and institutional siloes, we begin to create new community circuitry for soular power.
IV. STRUCTURES OF BELONGING FOR 100% COMMITMENT
On September 20th, 2019, inspired by the prophetic call to action from 16 year-old Greta Thunberg, more than four million young people and their allies around the world took to the streets, demanding that elected officials — and everyone in positions of power — address the climate emergency with commensurate boldness and urgency.
The imprint of this day on millions of young people will surely last a lifetime. What becomes possible when a generation of young people play the role of prophet — not by choice, but by necessity — speaking truth to power, envisioning and demanding just futures, and energizing a broader public to bring those futures into being?
These young people know what time it is. They know what’s at stake. They feel in their bodies the peril encroaching on their futures. And so they rightfully ask: why should we go to school, sitting through standardized tests meant to turn us into cogs, when the house in on fire?
Surely, their questions won’t end there…
- Why should I go to college, when the house is on fire?
- Why should I take a bullshit job, when the house is on fire?
- Why should I buy into a lifestyle predicated on extraction and consumption, when that’s what’s destroying my future, the future of all those I love, and the future of all of life?
Another set of questions inevitably follows:
- And if not college, and bullshit jobs, and consumption and American individualism, what then?
The kids are ready to walk out. What will they walk on to?
In addition to doing everything we can to mitigate climate catastrophe — by targeting the corporations wreaking havoc on the planet, demanding government action, developing resilient bioregional food and renewable energy plans — we must also create the structures of community care, learning, spiritual growth, and meaningful work that can support a rising generation in weathering the coming storms.
For those of us with access to an array of resources — spiritual, financial, relational, physical, etc. — how do we support these young prophets and keep them alive for the long haul?
How can we create the supportive infrastructure and invitations for a generation of young people who hold an embodied awareness of their own power and of the precipice upon which life on earth hangs?
We need viable, visible models of community for people who would readily give up the profit margins for the prophet margins. We need community structures of belonging for 100% commitment.
For the past several years, I’ve been learning, organizing, and, at times, even living with Catholic nuns or “Women Religious.” Based on decades of experience living in self-governing, women-led, resource-sharing, justice-oriented, spiritually-rooted, risk-taking, “counter cultural” communities of contemplation and action, sisters have a wealth of wisdom to share with a younger generation setting out to serve and heal in a fractured world. Alongside committed practitioners from a wide array of wisdom traditions, they can be critical midwives of new forms of community of spirit in service.
In a conversation last year, the Buddhist teacher Venerable Pannavatti shared her deep conviction that, “God’s rolling out a new wave of communities.” I agree. And I believe that those of us who have the capacity or calling to be bridge-builders across generations, wisdom traditions, and social movements have a special role to play, right now, in creating favorable conditions for millions to catch and ride that wave to a new shore.
Over the next decade, we need to nurture thousands of experiments in community structures of belonging for those who are 100% committed to showing up for the work of collective liberation and ever-deepening mutual relationship with all of creation. Weaving traditional and emergent structures, we need covenantal cadres, interspiritual orders, activist sanghas, and other refugia communities offering social, spiritual, and political home for young folks — and for anyone who knows what time it is and feels called to another way of life.
Like religious orders, these catalytic communities will need to provide affirmative identities, ethical codes, formation experiences, shared spiritual practice, and shared social action. They’ll need to be rooted in solidarity economics to meet people’s material needs. They’ll require significant support and accompaniment in conflict transformation, individual and collective discernment, and shadow work. Religious communities facing the transformation of their own way of life can be essential allies and midwives, offering hard-earned learnings and rich garden beds for the new life bursting forth.
Living into such experiments in covenantal community inevitably stretches our souls and consciousness; it’s worth attempting no matter the outcome. And, if of these thousands of experiments, a few succeed in becoming sources of renewal, resilience, and resistance that last for generations, hallelujah!
V. THE GREAT SHABBAT
Picture this: In the most colorful room on the ground floor of a convent in the suburbs of South San Francisco, some 25 people congregate around a makeshift T-shaped table for a Shabbat meal. Amongst us there are millennial educators and activists, Catholic nuns, rabbis, married couples (gay and straight), visiting parents, retreat center drop-ins, and dozens of plant and animal beings dished out for a bountiful meal.
This was one of more than twenty Shabbats that I co-hosted with dear friends during the six months that we lived in alongside the Sisters of Mercy. (If you want to know the backstory, it’s chronicled here: “What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Doing in a Convent?”) But this wasn’t just any Shabbat. This was Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat! (The official title for the Shabbat that precedes Passover.) And indeed it was.
As we scurry between kitchenettes on four floors finishing up meal preparation, guests arrive. Sr. Gloria and Rabbi Diane, brilliant leaders, teachers, and light-emanating channels of the divine, immediately gravitate toward one another and fall into a theological conversation deeper than the old couch they sit on. Rabbi Irwin takes out his guitar and starts singing niggunim, wordless melodies to warm the room. More sisters show up — some now seasoned Shabbat attendees, others coming for the first time.
Marvel and delight set in as we share introductions, songs, and blessings, traditional and new. We invite in the Sabbath bride, evoking that quality of time outside of time that allows the heart to remember what it already knows. We embrace the invitation of Shabbat as a moment to live as if the work were all done, a taste of olam ha-ba, the world to come.
A din of conversation, laughter, food, and more song, and then, Rabbi Burt stands up. He’s prepared a handout for the occasion and begins to pass it along. In Times New Roman font at the top of the page, a bold heading: “Jesus and the Ba’al Shem Tov on Love.” On the page, passages from two great mystics and masters of sacred hospitality. We read them aloud, teachings on the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, on loving Living Presence with all of one’s heart and passion…
The reading concludes: “And remember this: If you reject any part of the Unity, you reject the Unity itself.”
A spirited exchange ensues, with questions and responses flung from every corner of the table as gifts to the collective, followed by more song — until Mel, the security guard, informs us that there are noise complaints coming from the retreatants and that we’ll have to keep it down. We don’t want Mel to get in trouble and do our best modulate volume, but no one — not even the sisters — worries too much about the sound. Sometimes, it’s a Great Shabbat, and Spirit won’t be confined.
Sr. Gloria turns to me and says, “this is the kingdom.”
Heretics all, we create a refugia in time, letting love come through, dancing the dream awake.
Adam Horowitz is co-founder of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, Nuns & Nones, and Taproot. He lives on traditional Tiwa territory, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Be in touch or sign up for very occasional newsletters here.