20 Minutes with Hilary Streever
The Rev. Hilary Streever is priest-in-charge at St. Thomas Church in Abingdon, Virginia. Before discerning her call to ordained ministry she completed a degree at Virginia Tech University. During the summer of 2011, between terms at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, she worked with the Common Friars, a small community of young monastics in Athens, Ohio. She discussed that time with Richard Mammana, Jr., a classmate at Yale and TLC’s archivist.
How did you find out about the Common Friars?
I have always had an interest in ecology and the environment. I have a degree in wildlife science, and I also spent a short time on a small family farm, where I became convinced that relationships between people and the land were very important both for human health and environmental wellbeing. When I began to study the Old Testament, I learned how important it was to understand the agricultural context from which the Bible was written. I wrote an exegesis paper on Psalm 137 using Ellen Davis’s commentaries on the art of reading Scripture, and found a distinct agricultural voice through which to write and read the Bible. The gospels are full of Jesus’ agricultural metaphors. I began thinking, too, about how food — and the Eucharist in particular — is a meal that sets a pattern for what the rest of our life should be.
Having experienced life in community on a farm, I became increasingly interested in life in Christian community on a farm. I had heard about emerging monasticism and other farms where people were living together. I mentioned this in conversation with Greta Getlein, who is the director of formation at Berkeley Divinity School, and she immediately mentioned the Common Friars.
I found their website (commonfriars.wordpress.com) and wrote them an email — which is not normally something I would do just out of the blue. I began a conversation, and they invited me to come out to spend some time with them. We decided that it was best for me to come for a week in March during my spring break and then see whether a longer stay was appropriate. We did, and devised a project with which I could help them over the summer.
The term “intentional community” doesn’t really communicate who the Common Friars are. An intentional community is often inwardly focused. Christianity already has a term for intentional communities; monasticism. We should claim this term in our own language and use it today in new ways. The Common Friars as a monastic order are living in community so that they can be turned outward toward the world, and spread the Gospel in what they do.
What is a normal day like with the Common Friars?
Morning Prayer starts at 6:30. In the morning hours, everyone in the community does group projects. At lunch, they share a meal together and have an hour for siesta, because they believe that rest is an important component of what it is to be Christians. From 3 to 6:30 there are opportunities to study, work on personal projects, or see to the needs of the Common Friars in other ways. Evening Prayer at 6:30 is followed by the evening meal.
On Sundays and Wednesdays there are house meetings at which people sign up for liturgical responsibilities and work duties. In the summer, work times are shifted earlier in the day, because the daily rhythms shift with the changing seasons and availability of sunlight.
Every day there is also an hour set aside for formation, which can be an hour spent after lunch reading or in group conversation.
What about Sunday?
They all attend the local Episcopal Church, where everyone serves actively as acolytes and some of them have been on the vestry. Monday is the Common Friars’ sabbath, because the community found that they needed to set a day apart completely for rest, prayer, and recreation apart from the busy day that Sunday is for them.
Do they have a rule of life?
They’re still emerging as an order, and seeking formal canonical status in the Episcopal Church. They’re beginning to develop a discernment process, so a formal Rule of Life is not something they would talk about right now.
The order has three charisms: joy, hospitality, and poverty. Their existence is funded completely by grants and donations. They eat or give away all their food — they don’t sell any of it. The part of Ohio in which they’re living is basically a pocket of rural Appalachia; 34 percent of the population is at or below the poverty level, so they give food away to food banks and local church organizations in contact with people who are in need. They are actively serving the poor through their growing of food, and feeding it to people who need it in their immediate community.
They’re welcoming of everybody, regardless of where they are, what they believe, or their age. Because they have a farm, they have a form of ministry that can welcome people who may not be aware of the Church, and wouldn’t necessarily come to an Episcopal church or any church. If they want to, they can interact with the Common Friars in a religious way, but people don’t have to. They also have a Eucharist on Tuesday nights that is open to the community, and people come to them as inquirers through that. Of course people also come to them who are already part of the Church.
Anyone is welcome to whatever meals they offer, whether it’s lunch or dinner. If you show up and you’re hungry you can have some food. They also invite the talents of everyone who comes. If you have a very basic skill level and just want to spend some time hoeing in the field, that’s fine; they welcome people who come to learn about farming. Hospitality is manifested on many different levels.
There is a joy in everything they do, in the sense that Paul talks about everything one does being prayer. They see that all of the everyday tasks we do can be offered to God, even when they are very difficult. They have a sense of fulfillment that comes from living community, and working the land in a responsible way. This is one of the ways they live out their call to contemporary monasticism. This isn’t a superficial happiness, but a deep inner joy that comes from a sense of relationship with God.
Could you say some more about the role of the Eucharist in their life and spirituality?
The Eucharist and the Incarnation are very important to what they do. Since God took on flesh and became one with us, meeting creation where it was, this informs their understanding of creation as something that is beautiful, and something we are part of. Who we are in everyday, physical ways is important in forming their spirituality; belief and action aren’t two parts of a dualistic system. We act because of who we are, and our actions are just as much a part of our formation as what we profess in worship. What we do on an everyday basis is just as much a prayer.
The Common Friars see an intimate, undivided relationship between what happens in the Eucharist at the altar, and what happens at the dinner table — the way in which food is produced and shared, and how that manifests the Body of Christ in the world. They see all of God’s creation as an essential part of worship, because of the Incarnation.
What did you learn there that you couldn’t learn elsewhere?
They’re doing it. You look at what they’re doing, and you think to yourself, This is radical, choosing to live this way. You would think it would be incredibly difficult, and it is. But the Holy Spirit is moving there, and through the charisms of the Common Friars. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This isn’t to say that what they’re doing is easy, but there is joy in the struggle to do it.
They’re living into this difficulty; I’ve never experienced this anywhere else before. In previous generations, when agricultural communities and faith communities were closer, this kind of struggle and religious ethos was probably much more common. I’ve never experienced the transformative power of the Eucharist in such a deep way as I did there. To know that it’s possible to live in this way is truly an inspiration.
They are called to be a sign to and for the Church. The fact that nine people can have such a large impact on the world around them is amazing in that it comes from a very local manifestation: the parish, the diocese.
It’s also about where their priorities are. They’re witnessing to the world from a specific part of it, rather than being separate from it like Old Order Amish communities. They see the world as something that can be offered to the world. In a traditionally Anglican way, they see technology and use it to God’s glory. Their priority is about not being in front of a computer screen all day, unless they’re writing a grant application. Their priority is their ministry, which includes farming, talking to people face to face, embracing relationship with other people and the land. They use Facebook and an online newsletter to communicate with the rest of the world. If they were cut off from the world, they would not be a sign to the world.
What they’re doing is by its nature social justice. By farming organically, and feeding the hungry in the local area, they are living out their baptismal covenant. They realize that their resources are limited and that they can’t take on everything else. They focus on what they do and can in line with the Gospel message.
Episcopal Evangelism Network is a young organization started at Berkeley Divinity School by people who believe that the Episcopal Church is well equipped to do contextual ministry. The project that I was doing while I was with the Common Friars was talking about how evangelism within the Episcopal Church is possible. Talking about faith with other people is something that can be done in a way that respects the dignity of every human being. Part of what I was doing was helping to lead formation with the Common Friars about how to have these kinds of conversations.
The other part of my project was interviewing young adults who came to the farm from Ohio University in Athens and asking them why they come to the farm — what it is that they’re excited about, what it is that they’re seeking in their lives. I also interviewed the Common Friars.
I was helping to find ways to understand how the needs of the community are being met by the needs and the gifts and capacities as God has given them to the Common Friars. This process involves listening just as much as speaking.
What I found was that young adults in this area are interested in developing deep relationships with other people, often through conversation. They saw the Good Earth Farm as a way that facilitated this through farming and shared meals. They were also interested in discerning their own gifts and calls through a stable community — the ability to spend time with people who are slightly more experienced. They found the Good Earth Farm as a chance to explore their calls in life in a stable community where everything is welcome: physical abilities, artistic gifts, and emotions. People who come to the Common Friars find that they’re an unassuming community where scheduled prayer forms life, but there is nothing stiff or “religious” in a negative way. The opportunity to put God first by having regularly scheduled times of common prayer gives deeper meaning to what everyone does there.
Most of the community comes from evangelical backgrounds, and they have come to the Episcopal Church through the Common Friars. They take the call to “feed my sheep” very seriously. Their founder saw the Episcopal Church as the best denomination through which to do this.
Update from the Common Friars
As many of you may know, the Common Friars have been discerning their future for the past two years. This prayerful and disciplined process has led us to the decision that we are no longer called to a life together as a religious community. Thanks to our discernment process, this decision, in the end, was not a hard one.