Finding Stillness & Depth in Intentional Community

Finding Stillness & Depth in Intentional Community
by Elissa Melaragno

The times when I have felt like I am living life to the fullest—when I felt guided and helped to become the most authentic version of myself—have been in community. Living in community is challenging yet growth producing. That’s why community is so difficult in our dominant US culture. We are afraid to feel the discomfort, and in this way, we also avoid the joys.
— Amy Aubrecht, SAIL 2013-2014
When I think about my time in SAIL, the first thing that comes to mind are my many conversations with people who hold very different beliefs. These conversations easily could have escalated into arguments. We were able to keep our discussions open and conversational because we had built communal trust. This trust was built when we sat down around a lunch table together, when we shared songs, when we played board games. This trust was vital for our deep and challenging conversations, and this trust is vital to our continuing friendships. Intentional community in various forms is one way for us to build relationships and to break down walls. I think intentional community could transform today’s social landscape.
— Melissa Coles, SAIL 2014-2015
I think there’s something about living in an intentional community that really helps hone the mirrors of self-reflection. There’s a lot of self knowledge that can be gained. Being open is important, and, almost paradoxically or counter-intuitively, healthy boundaries in community help you flourish if you’re clear about what you can be available for. This supports your ability to be your full self.
— Tom Marsan, SAIL 2012 - 2013

There was a stillness in that place. No matter how busily we may have scuttled about. There was a stillness there—in that place. 

One of my favorite times was early on Sunday mornings in the chapel. Always, in our minds, it remained a chapel, even if we had meetings with 50 people or merely three in a circle, reflecting, listening, meditating. Always a chapel because of those brilliant, mostly red and deep blue stained glass windows with Jesus and Mary, of course, and St Francis, and also that magnificent warrior, Archangel Michael.

Unless you hung around to hear the stories, you would never have known that but a few years earlier most of the walls and floors were not just worn and tired but also warping and swaying with old water damage. By the time I walked in, the old dark woodwork, wainscoting and floorboards were, thanks to the vision of Still Harbor, gleaming with fresh stain and shinning lacquer. The walls were as straight and bright white as perhaps they had ever been or ever would be again. 

I loved every corner of that old, once upon a time Polish convent in that old South Boston neighborhood, which still had a Baltic Deli, a tiny Polish restaurant, and the church dedicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna, within a few paces of our front door. From the ancient dusty stone walls of the basement, “The Catacombs” as we called it, where I carved out a corner near the three furnaces for my toasty warm winter studio, to the roof top four stories up, where we would sneak out to watch Independence Day fireworks light the sky at all compass points around the city, I loved her—that old building.

With eleven bedrooms and four stunning porcelain and white tile bathrooms on the third floor, she housed dozens, maybe even hundreds, of long-term and occasional pilgrims over the years. The living room, dining/conference room, chapel, parlor, and a few offices made the main floor cozy and welcoming. Most of the hustle and bustle occurred one floor down, on the what we affectionately called the “Garden Level” because we could walk out into a backyard with what I imagined to be some of the largest and most ancient trees in all of South Boston. On that floor, we ultimately ended up needing three refrigerators in the huge kitchen. The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (an organization you should look up) kept the Garden Level hopping Monday through Friday with their dedication and their team of talented and multitudinous interns from all over the world. 

Before I showed up in June 2012, she had been breathing her second or third community incarnation under the gentle care and guidance of the Still Harbor family. I had placed my name on their email list just a few weeks before an invitation came for those interested in being part of the SAIL (Spiritual Accompaniment /Interior Life) Program, a small residential community that would be joined every other week by other seekers for fellowship, meditation, contemplation, spiritual growth, and a great meal. The concept grabbed hold of me. I moved in. It was nurtured as a safe place to crack open our shells to once again be birthed into a new inner place if we chose. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes we didn’t “choose.” Sometimes we stayed hidden. That was okay too. 

There was a big nautical theme going on. Like “Still Harbor” and “SAIL” and you’re now reading this in Anchor magazine. I always felt this nautical theme was perfect for those on a spiritual quest for inner and outer equilibrium and calm. I will never forget the commitments we all made to be in community. We dedicated ourselves to listening deeply to each other no matter the differences in our faith backgrounds, identities, or life experiences. We spoke of our struggles with the divine (if we called her that), with relationships and with our own hearts. Most of us were in some kind of transition—finishing up grad school, recovering from break-ups, starting new careers, or transitioning into major new life phases. We didn’t know if we were liked or not, but we knew that we were each going to give it our best to accept those with whom we at one time may never have believed we would share bread.

One day, I was trudging up, or was it flying down, one of those three flights of stairs when I thought, “My goodness” (I watched a lot of Shirley Temple in the 50’s) “My goodness! I am the happiest living here than I have been anywhere. Oh, my goodness! Could that be true?” I searched through my memories of childhood and the relative stability of living on the same tract of land for 20+ years. I thought through two marriages, living in a beautiful foreign country now deemed one of the happiest in the world, raising lovely children, living in a couple of other community environments, and I had to admit it: this was working better than any. But why? Sometimes I think it was because we created and agreed to written covenants  and a weekly meal when we would be able to talk about  house issues and activity updates. In my past, the commitments I had made in community were assumed, haphazard, or vague. Maybe it was knowing that a few times a month we would be sitting together sharing our spiritual practices. Or maybe it was just the right time of life for me. Time to be a kind of an elder or house mother with my fellow residents, many of whom were divinity school students, graduate school age, or just starting out in life.

Amy, a resident and SAIL participant during my second year in the program, was 35 years younger than I. One day in the kitchen, she was expressing disappointment in her generation for not being as active as we—my generation—had been in the 60 and 70’s. Once I recovered from the shock of realizing that my “coming of age” years were being studied in classrooms dedicated to reviewing the history of social justice, we entered into an intergenerational conversation that lasted the rest of our days in the house together. We talked about what it was really like then and how it is now. She thought we worked harder. I thought her generation was more tolerant.

I recently spoke to Amy about this reflection and asked her about how she recalled her time in SAIL. She said that when she chose Boston University Divinity School she “wanted to deepen her own spirituality, develop leadership skills to help others do the same, and nurture community.” After a two-plus year stint living in community with the St. Francis Corp and the L’Arche communities, she chose SAIL because she wanted a community rather than just roommates.

The year Amy and I lived together was the most generationally diverse year of the program. Amy was in her late twenties, and the other residents ranged from 40 to 70 years old. Each very deep, bright, and full of opinions. Amy said, “I found that sitting with that many intellectually developed people from many generations, discussing deep spirituality was—even though we found similarity—also very challenging.”

Amy said that she has been learning through her various community experiences (she is now back in L’Arche), that every person brings their own stories and experiences into community. She can be there for the most difficult parts of what this means by remembering, in her words: “it’s not my role to take on these difficult things. I can chose through prayer to be present and not absorb. Like a cell membrane that allows only certain elements through. Practicing and living this sometimes works really well, and sometimes it’s really tough.” She added that, even as an instructor of a style of Yoga that involves turning ones attention inward, it is challenging to be in relationship without taking on others’ difficulties: “Some days I am better at being present, feeling what’s happening and letting it go. I envision a river that keeps going rather than getting stuck in a reservoir, which builds up.”

The Haabaah, our affectionate Boston-accented name for her (Still Harbor) became for Amy, “a sanctuary in the midst of that big city.” She spoke of the huge kitchen as the epicenter, recalling late nights quietly chatting with her fellow residents and the many quiet times doing her yoga practice in the chapel. 

I still believe that the world needs more places like her—the Haabaah. Places that have the inner and outer space to create community, spiritual guidance, and safety for people in transition. We need places like this near divinity schools, in large cities, and in the country. We need them for people to reflect and grow while they move into new life phases. Our world is desperate for community everywhere. Yet trading an economy based on consumerism and profit for one based on community sustainability means these types of places struggle financially, which is what happened to her, to us, and to SAIL. We had to let her go.

Thanks Still Harbor for four great years of stillness, listening, Catacombs. and fireworks. From below to above and through the inner and outer, life was alive in that space even to the day we all said goodbye. She was just a building and not the first or last home of Still Harbor, but she was also just that: a quiet, deep, still harbor for the body and soul. She will always be in the hearts of those touched by her. §




Elissa Melaragno (Editor) has been a professional visual artist for thirty years with her works primarily on display in public and healthcare settings. She uses her training in spiritual direction and several holistic healing modalities to inform her work as an artist, art instructor, writer, and consultant in the area of the arts in healthcare.