In Palestine in the 5th century, there arose a unique form of interdependent living.  It was called The Lavra, an ancient Greek word for a spot where small paths came together in a sort of intersection of souls.  We are attempting to bring this model to the modern world...

 

The Lavra is an intentional community in Arroyo Grande run by The Lavra Community Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to education.  We are grounded in three principles:

  1. Service to each other, the broader community, and the world.
     

  2. Continual intellectual, spiritual, creative, and emotional growth that creates a community of inquiry.
     

  3. Conscientious, reflective, responsible, and sustainable living.

 

 

 

Our Community Structure

There is no single panacea for solving the problems of the world and no single recipe for building new ways of living together. We recognize that our model for developing a new mode of existence is not for everyone.   We hope that we are part of a network of alternative living environments that provide people options beyond the binary world of single family residences and solo apartments. 

 

Within the realm of alternative communities, we are trying to navigate the space between:

A commune and co-housing.
A commune typically shares strong ideological commitments, shared financial resources, and usually exists largely isolated and independent from the world around it.  Co-housing usually involves a closer integration to surrounding society, more limited financial pooling, more independent living environments, and less shared commitment to a common religious/spiritual worldview.  While we are supportive of both communes and cohousing, we want to create a middle path that retains much of the integration with surrounding society and independent living environments associated with co-housing but emphasizes the shared ideology and common purpose of the commune. 
Historically, the full communal life is theoretically appealing but challenging in practice as most communities become increasingly individualistic over time.  We aim to become a mutually-supportive interdependent community that balances the need for personal solitude with the social opportunities and resource optimization that come from communal living. Private space is provided and respected, but “community time” is also allotted and encouraged through activities like shared exercise, movie/lecture nights, common meals, and community chores.

 

A monastery and new-age retreat center.
A monastery has common beliefs, practices, and goals, under the close direction of a spiritual elder, but little emphasis on diversity or exploration.  Most new-age retreat centers value diversity and spiritual searching but as a result have few shared beliefs or practices, dispersed leadership, and often little emphasis on systematic intellectual life.  We want to create an environment where we have some shared beliefs, practices, and goals but where there is also a strong value on critical engagement, rigorous dialogue, shared exploration, and diversity.  We want a variety of perspectives present that weave together to create a rich tapestry.

 

In our lives together, each person will dedicate him/herself to service through their vocation/occupation outside the lavra; he or she will be integrated into the surrounding world and that world (especially friends/family) are always welcome into our community.  The idea is that we will not be cut off from the world around us but rather serve that world, provide an example of alternative living, and become a sanctuary when respite from that world is needed.

 

The goal is to create a living environment that balances the need for privacy and solitude within the larger goal of robust community.  The model is to have separate ‘hermitages’ for each unit of the lavra, which can mean a single person, a couple, or a family.  Since people differ in their natural constitution and the stage in their life, there are varying degrees of privacy and isolation.  Some hermitages will be separate, stand-alone dwellings with a designated surrounding land that is private and for which the member(s) are solely responsible.  Others will live in the main house which is the Lavra Center, though even they will have their own entrance and private outside area.  The hermitages are zones of individuality within the larger communal setting.

 

The remainder of the property is considered common.  The kitchen and living area of the Lavra Center will act as a hub open to all residents and friends of the Lavra.  Eventually, ancillary buildings will be added to the common area, such as a meditation/worship cabin, a mutli-use room for yoga/movie night/public lectures, and a soaking area that will also be common use.  In our desire to be close to natural processes, we will also have our version of a farm, with a vegetable garden, vineyard, and small animals such as chickens and goats. 

 

Our interaction with each other is governed by the desires of the group.  The minimal extent of our interactions will be a series of shared communal meals carried on each week and a weekly assembly where we will make decisions for the community.  We may also have shared ritual life, celebrating the momentous occasions of our lives, the seasonal fluctuations, and the religious holidays that are important to each of us.  Perhaps the most meaningful moments will occur spontaneously around the fire, coffee machine, or soaking tub.  Over time, we, as a community, will create the degree of ‘we’-consciousness that is comfortable.

 

The Lavra will also serve as a hub for people who think differently and more humanely about religion in San Luis Obispo County.  Over time, we can develop regular movie nights, lecture series, and possible retreats.  We want to share the Lavra with the world.  We want to be an example to all of a new kind of living that places its value on serving others, spiritual growth, and conscientious living, rather than materialism and ego.  We want to share the value of alternative models of living and real experimentation in solving the pressing problems we face as a society.

 
 

What We Believe...

1. Service

Central to nearly all refined philosophies and reflective religions is the call to serve others.  It means considering the skills and natural abilities you have been given and harnessing them to their highest and best use for the good of others.  Serving others is not only a privilege or an option for those who can but an obligation that we all should feel.  It is in serving others that we discover our humanity. 

The service imperative impels us to work tirelessly to, in the words of Karen Armstrong, “alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being.”  This is a call to compassion that should translate into concrete action.

The scope of service is critical to our vision.  Many people serve their immediate family tirelessly; they sacrifice themselves for their children, occasionally their parents or friends.  While such service is laudable compared to a life lived solely for oneself or one’s pets, our vision for service goes beyond one’s closest circles.  One’s duty to the world does not end with the closest circles of family and friends but begins there.  Serving merely those with whom one has familial or friendship ties does not satisfy the call to sacrificially love others that is critical to most world religions and philosophies.  As a result, the paramount value is found in service to the local, national, and global community.  In fact, one of the most enduring ways to care for those closest to someone is to work tirelessly toward creating a better world for them to inhabit.  Thus, we aim to serve first those in our local community, then our nation, and finally the world as a whole.  We envision a day when the whole planet begins to transform as more and more people expand their circles of responsibility. 

The current social momentum in American society works against service to others on multiple fronts.  At its most callous, the message is often simply that we bear no responsibility to others: everyone is responsible for his/her own success or failure.  In fact, the world rewards those who seek after what they want regardless of its effects on others.  Still other social messages tell us that we have a responsibility to others but only after taking care of our own needs; we cannot give to others until we have learned to discover and indeed love ourselves.  True service to others comes as a result of a secure and overflowing self.  Too often, however, the preparation to service in this vision trumps actual service.  We hold that we should be uncomfortable in our service; authentic love and compassion for others means putting their needs above one’s own.  Our needs can wait, no matter how pressing they may appear.  Our community aims to remind each other relentlessly of this total obligation to serve.  Service is the first of all of our goals and trumps the two below.  If we must choose, we choose to serve first.

Every member of the Lavra takes a commitment to him/herself and each other to work positively for others.  Normally, this commitment will be reflected in one’s occupation but it could also be an attitude that governs one’s life outside of work.  We will encourage, support, and monitor this commitment.  We will exemplify it in our interactions with each other and the friends of the Lavra who visit. 

 

2. Growth

Life is a dynamic process, not a static state.  We are given a set amount of time here to make of it what we can.  We can squander it or continually improve ourselves.  Living at the Lavra means being committed to continual growth in all human dimensions but especially intellectual, emotional, creative, and spiritual dimensions, so that we create a community of inquiry.  The growth imperative does not require a self or the development of an ego—rather it can be seen as growth into a recognition of what is real or into selflessness. The point is that we uphold a community of inquiry and exploration that is supportive to this process.

Diversity of opinion and perspective is critical for growth.  This diversity will be assured by encouraging people of diverse backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, intellectual/faith traditions, and other opportunities to provide fresh perspectives.  We plan to support such a lifestyle by holding regular lectures/discussions on religious/social/philosophical topics, and dedicating an area of the property to meditation and worship.

 

The process of growth addresses the mind, the senses, and our spiritual core.  As we grow as individuals and as a community, we will seek to avoid temptations that often arise with communities, especially hedonistic intellectualism and unreflective hedonism.  Hedonistic intellectualism arises when people gain pleasure from the arguments themselves and thus really are not on a real search grounded in compassion and service for others.  Such environments banter around ideas like a sport, congratulating each other on their erudition and acuity but without much amounting from it.  Intellectualism is critical to growth but it must be placed in the service of humanity.  Discussion has to be motivated by goals that matter for the world, not just oneself.  We all must live uncomfortably for others and if we have been given the gift of some clarity and discernment, this should be employed for others.  Likewise, while the search for sensual and spiritual pleasures are important aspects of growth, they must be reflectively pursued.  Unreflective hedonism is the source of much destruction and harm.  Hedonistic goals are not good in and of themselves but rather find their meaning within a broader intellectual worldview.  An environment conducive to growth thus avoids hedonistic intellectualism and unreflective hedonism.

 

3. Conscientious, Reflective, Responsible, and Sustainable Living

This principle is a continual process, rather than a set of rules.  It means reflecting about the choices we make and the impact they have on those around us and the planet.  We don’t place ourselves at the center of decision making processes but the community and the world.  We see this imperative as a sequential process.  We begin by pledging to be conscientious, by which we mean being intimately aware of our own motivations and actions, particularly how they are shaped by our personal histories, social conditions, and immediate surroundings.  When we are conscientious, we do not act by accident or strict impulse but with keen observation of oneself and the world.  Then, we promise to be reflective.  That is, we pledge to consider the impact of our decisions on ourselves, the community, and the world at large.  Finally, we will choose the responsible path that focuses on the good of the community/world rather than our own convenience or personal gain.  It is a process that emphasizes the means rather than the end.

 

These three principles shape the other areas of our existence for which we hope to be an example:

Spirituality

There is not a single set of beliefs that are shared within the Lavra.  A variety of differing spiritual beliefs are possible and are indeed encouraged; we are not trying to create a commune guided by a single spiritual vision as articulated by an absolute leader.  Rather, we hold that sincere, intelligent people can have differing spiritual and religious views—and this is not a sign of deficiency but rather integral to the development of humanity.  We are aiming to create a multi-faith environment where as long as we share the three principles above—service, growth, and reflective living—then our differences are blessings. 

The individual’s spiritual development is intimately tied to the community’s development.  Part of our goal as a community is to provide a supportive environment for spiritual growth.  In fact, due to the strong spiritual links between individuals, a single individual who advances on his/her own may be “weighed” down by the spirits of others if they are not advancing in tow; all ships rise and fall together on the spiritual tide.  Humans are thus profoundly interconnected and interdependent in both material and spiritual ways.  We pledge to each other to support and challenge one another in productive and loving ways so that we grow as individuals and as a group.

A properly functioning community acts as a necessary check to the individual.  Our community helps us see our faults and hidden idols; they provide opportunities to practice patience and compassion; they provide an audience with whom to develop new ideas and question old ones; they offer support in times of need and opportunities to provide that support.  The community is the backdrop for spiritual growth.

Environment

Humans were meant to live embedded within the natural world, not separate or above it.  We are physiologically connected to the natural rhythms and cycles that form the heartbeat of the universe.  Humans can dominate the world but we should not.  Acting environmentally is profoundly natural, but we have been conditioned to think otherwise.  We need to retrain our mind to see ourselves as a partner with the earth, not its lord.

Our relationship to the land is not just a duty but a spiritual mandate.  Humans become the places they are: if you surround yourself with plastic, you will lose your natural self; an untidy outside creates an untidy inside.  By contrast, a harmonious place in nature reorders our interior world.  We want to heal the land we have been given and in the process heal ourselves.  Then, we want to stay connected to that land and allow its spirits to circulate freely among us.

The realization of the need for sustainability is prevalent in our society.  Many of us think that if we regularly recycle, don’t buy a hummer, and eat organically, it is enough.  We hold that minor adjustments to the dominant mode of living is not enough.  We need to reorient our minds and act in accordance with this new mindset.  We cannot search for the minimum and ask whether it is enough, but rather begin with a thorough reflection of the ideal and then strive towards it.  This process begins where we live. 

Many of us are attracted to the ideal of living in a self-sufficient holistic farm.  However, in our contemporary environment and our stress on outside service, it does not make this a practical possibility.  Nevertheless, we will aim to identify and produce the products that are both desired by the community and feasible for us to produce.   By creating as much food as we consume, we will not only eat more healthfully but will also create a close connection to the land on which we dwell.

The commitment to live in and with nature does not only shape our eating decisions but infiltrates every part of our life.  It means wearing clothes made from natural materials whenever possible; it means changing where we shop such as trading food or buying from local, non-chain shops; it means using alternative energies whenever possible.  These are pledges we make to earth, to each other, and to future generations.

 

 

Politics/Interpersonal Relations

Humans nearly constantly interact, but not usually well.  Our communication is marred by misunderstandings; the powerful develop systems that enshrine their own advantage; different rules apply for different genders, races, or sexual orientations; gatherings become moments of exclusion rather than inclusion; gossip and passive aggressive attacks substitute for clear paths of communication.   People are opaque to themselves and then become opaque to others.  The Lavra aims to be different; we aim to reverse these norms and strive to create a harmonious micro-society guided by higher degrees of equality and clearer pathways of communication.  We hope to be spontaneously inclusive; sharing our lives with others without prejudice or malice.  We are not a finished community but rather constantly evolving one.  This is the secret of our life together: we are working to create a different kind of human community. 

 

When one lives so close to others, conflict inevitably arises, so a mutually-agreed upon strategy for dealing with conflict is critical.  We hope to internalize the processes that lead to peaceful co-existence.  These processes will be grounded in respect and fairness.  We may not always agree but we will agree to work through the issues together in a way that keeps the community together.  The value of our community is not how we get along on the perfect evening in the perfect environment but rather how we get along when we don’t feel like getting along.  We are a community continually creating harmony out of division and difference.

Creativity

Creativity is both a personal and community endeavor.  For individuals to grow through cultivation of their creativity, the environment must be supportive of creative exploration, encouraging creatively daring behavior.  However, while creative output can be self-expressive, we do not create for the self or ego but rather create to communicate and transform the world in which we live.  Just as some times and people are inclined toward intellectual arguments to reimagine the world, the arts can also be a means to do the same.  Our creative endeavors can then be externally-focused rather than internally so.  Our creative energies must be placed into service for others rather than merely being avenues of self-expression.

 

We pledge to be each other’s muses and critics.  We hope to legitimate creativity as a means of transformation and check each other when it tends to solipsism or self-absorption.  We will work with each other to ensure that creativity is placed squarely within our pledge to serve.

 

 

1. Do you give tours of the Lavra?
Yes, we are happy to show people around and share our community with guests during day-time tours we can plan with you.  Usually Sunday afternoons during our community work time fit best but contact us and we can make arrangements.  Please include some information about yourself in your email, so we can get to know you a bit before having you visit our home.

2. Do you have overnight accommodations for guests?
We don't have a designated guest room for visitors and cannot accommodate travelers at this time.  If you are interested in work exchanges, see below.  

3. When is the best time to visit? 
If you are interested in the Lavra, once or twice a month we have community meals that we open to friends, family, and all kindred spirits.  These meals always have a theme and usually include bountiful fresh vegetarian food and local wines.  Contact us and we can let you know when our next meal is.   Otherwise, one of the best times to visit is when we have a community project happening.  Some of best conversations happen digging in the garden, building a shed, or cleaning the goat yard.  Join in!

4. Do you offer work exchanges such as Woofing or HelpX?
Yes, during the spring, summer, and fall, we often have volunteers who stay for periods ranging from a few days to a few weeks.  Currently, our accommodations are a 'garden chateau' that is otherwise known as a Bell Tent for two placed on a foundation in the main garden that has its own composting toilet.  You have access to the shower in the main house.  We provide food for all of your meals, and we have community meals all together every Sunday night, but volunteers are  expected to prepare your food most of the other times.   Our projects usually involve outside labor, especially in the garden and other building projects, so construction experience is highly preferred  Couples and groups of friends are welcome but usually pets are difficult, unless they are unusually calm.  If you are interested in a help exchange, please find us through the helpx website and contact us there.

Are you accepting new members?
Although our current dwellings are all full, we are always looking for potential new long-term members who share our vision for interdependent living.  If you interesting becoming a member and live locally, please contact us about arranging a day-time tour so we can meet you and show you around the property. If you do not live locally, we can potentially host a week-long visit, but again, there is no guestroom available, so please plan to camp or stay nearby in a local hotel. If you plan to stay for a week or more, please plan to either contribute to a work exchange or pay a $100 per week camping fee to aid us in the cost of hosting guests. We do not currently have space to allow for stays longer than one week, and we highly prefer meeting someone through a tour or sharing a meal before we invite anyone for week-long stays.

How many people currently live at the Lavra and what is your goal?
Currently we have four "permanent" members who are committed to the Lavra for the foreseeable future and six more temporary members.  Our goal is  to one-day have a vibrant community comprised entirely of long-term committed members.  We think that in our current property without major renovations, we will ultimately be about 12 people.

What are the dwellings or "hermitages" like?
We are hoping that the Lavra will be a living model of a variety of different forms of alternative lived environments.  While some people live in the whimsical main house, others live in outbuildings.  We have space and are excited about placing several "tiny homes" on our hillside and developing our community in this way.  We don't allow trailers, RVs, vans, or other movable living environments.

Do you welcome families?
We hope that one day our community will reflect the diversity of all ages in life, from children to seniors.  However, at this time, our only accommodations are in the common house which is not an environment conducive to children.  We have a manufactured home on the property that one day might be a good fit for a family who is eager to remodel.

 Do you welcome people with special needs or senior citizens?
We are a small community that is in the building phase of its existence with numerous projects always in the midst of completion and not equipped at this time to support people with special needs or limited activity.  

What are the requirements of those who are part of the Lavra?
We all support each other on a day-to-day basis, but the formal requirements are four hours of communal labor (normally on Sunday afternoon), a monthly assessment that currently is $400 for permanent members and varies for temporary ones,  and participation in the weekly shared meals.

Is it possible to work on the property in lieu of monetary contributions?
No,  we are all expected to contribute to the community in the same way.

Your primary goal is stated as "service" to the world.  What constitutes a life of service?  
A life of active service is critical to the acceptance of new members. Nearly all occupations involve some degree of fulfilling the needs of others, yet service-oriented occupations actively work for the betterment of the planet and the people on it.   They fulfill not just an economic function but an emotional, educational, creative, or spiritual goal.  Many times, it is not the occupation itself but the motivation for the occupation that matters.  Here there are several signs of an occupation held in the service of others:

  • It is seen as a vocation—something that is done because the person feels called by some higher power.  Thus, one does it not for the monetary reward, but rather sacrifice money, stability, and working conditions because they feel a duty to do it.
  • It fits into an overall spiritual worldview that accents the effect on others that the occupation has rather than the benefits for the self.  The means to serve other rather than oneself.

  The importance placed on such an occupation does not mean that there are no exceptions: there could be developmental periods such as being a student or retired that the occupation is not central but looms in the future or past.  Such a life still qualifies as a life of service.  Second, there may be financial considerations that do not allow individuals to perform a service occupation; this can be compensated by significant direct service outside of one’s central occupation.

What is your ownership structure?
 The long-term viability of a community is determined by the longevity of the personal commitment of each member.  The goal of the equity structure is to provide incentive for long-term commitment and associate a monetary value to the energy that each member has put into the property.  Our hope to encourage people to stay but keep the financial commitment as largely a symbolic measure of investment in the community by keeping the burden as limited as possible.  
 Unlike capitalistic system where ownership is predicated on capital, Lavra Ownership will be determined by human dedication to the community.  A permanent community member’s stake in the Lavra Community is a function of the value of their labor.  St Thomas Aquinas argued for this view in his Summa Theologica when he wrote: “... value can, does, and should be increase in relation to the amount of labor which has been expended in the improvement of commodities.”  This idea came to influence such divergent thinkers as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Benjamin Franklin.  The simple premise is that human involvement gives something ultimate worth and dignity, which may or may not correlate to market prices or legal structures.  We hold that the value of the lavra is the sum of the labor put into it, not the amount of financial capital one has.
Thereby, shares in the Lavra Community are determined by the percentage of days the individual has spent at the Lavra as a permanent or petitionary permanent member, divided by the total amount of days dedicated to the Lavra by all members in sum.


 

An excerpt from Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett,  “The Long Lost Lavra”  Social Sciences Directory 2: 3 (August 2013) 1-20.

Both monasteries and modern intentional communities represent attempts to create parallel, alternative societies.  The bridges to the dominant surrounding society can vary, but normally they are removed from the center of the dominant society, often surrounded by walls or wilderness that form a rigid boundary between the two alternate modes of existence (however, urban-integrated monasteries and communities have always existed and some communities have deliberately sought to overcome their ‘island’ character).  As a result, initiation ceremonies become necessary rites of passage from one mode of living to another defined as a higher form of the former.  Both traditional communal forms of monasticism and modern intentional communities are thus predicated on the impulse to make a counter-culture.[1] 

This dynamic is apparent in the origins of Christian monasticism.[2]  Christian monasticism began not with the earliest Christian communities but in the fourth century.  The first time the term monk, or monachos in Greek, is employed is in 324, nearly three centuries after the founding of the church.[3]  It arose at a period of massive transformation within the Christian movement: Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had converted to Christianity a couple of decades prior and by throwing the weight of empire behind his new religion had changed that religion remarkably.  Rather than being a small, impoverished, and persecuted group of religious eccentrics, the Christians were lining the hallways of power, dressed in the finest robes, and preaching a modified gospel that massaged the original radical message into something more palpable for the masses.  And the masses came in droves: a stampede of new converts for it was now manifestly profitable in worldly terms to become a Christian.  The monks were those that felt the church had lost sight of transforming the world and had become transformed by it.  They marked their protest not by voice but by their feet: simultaneously in both Syria and Egypt, they left the confines of society to live alternative existences grounded in their perception of the radical spirit of the early church.  They were known as monachos (monks) in Egypt and îhîdāyâ in Syria, but both terms meant roughly the same thing: solitaries.  This ‘solitariness’ was in part physical—many of them lived alone, separated from the world—but moreso it connoted their mindframe: in a society that was now supposedly veering headlong toward an un-Christ-like Christianity, they would be undistracted and undivided in their devotion to Christ, they would be solitarily dedicated to God.  They sought a higher form of life, quite literally for the Stylites in Syria who lived on platforms in the sky, sort of primitive penthouses.  But, the crucible of the desert thus provided the backdrop for the most enduring form of alternative living the world has probably ever known.  Though many of the early monks were hermits, there also arose a variety of forms of communal living whose definition and purpose was found solely in relation to the norms of the era.  It was the formation of one of the original counter-cultures that over time would be co-opted and controlled by the very people whose presence prompted the initial reaction.  Yet, the original spirit of monasticism shares a similar DNA to the impulse behind most modern examples of intentional communities.  They are all predicated on a desire to live differently.

As an institution, monasticism has been far more successful in terms of longevity and scope than modern intentional communities.  Such an appraisal seems warranted: the dominant monastic mode is the coenobitic form (from the Greek bios=life and koinos=common).  As a model of alternative living, it has been most successful in human history, whether it is in the form of Benedict’s Rule in the Christian west or Basil’s rule in the Christian east, as well as its unrelated corollaries in the East: the Buddhist sangha, Hindu mathas, or the rich monastic traditions of Japan.  Coenobitic monasticism has been around for at least 2500 years, spread literally across the globe, and penetrated into the heart of multiple religious traditions.  The differences between and within the various forms are important, but they all follow the same pattern of attempting to forge a life in common.

Their equivalent in the modern intentional community environment is the commune whereby private property is limited and there are aspirations toward the common monastic goal of self-sufficiency.  Communes have generally been less successful.  While the ideal is still held in the highest esteem, most do not even last into the second year, let alone the second generation.  And when they do last, they tend to become more and more individualist over time; in other words, they become less and less coenobitic.  So the appraisal that monasticism has been a far more successful model than modern intentional communities seems safe.  However, perhaps we are not comparing the proper equivalents.  Perhaps the monastic model that is most fitting to the modern world is not the coenobitic model but a model that is now long lost, the lavra. 

Background on the Historical Lavra

In the Encyclopedia of Community, which might qualify as the bible of the communal studies field, the entry on Monastic Communities states: “there are two kinds of monastic life—eremetic (hermit) and cenobitic (community).”[4]  Indeed, these were the two primary models that survived, but it is more helpful to see the monastic world as a spectrum between these two extremes.  In fact, the majority of monks in places like Palestine and early on in Egypt were neither coenobitic nor eremitic, but were a part of lavras.[5] 

Lavras were communities in which the monks lived in clusters surrounding a series of central building that included (normally), a church, a bakery, storage facilities, and perhaps a few other common buildings such as an infirmary or guest quarters.  The monks lived within walking distance of the central area, but showed a surprising degree of diversity and independence: some lived alone, others lived with two or three others and occasionally one would see homes of up to five people, usually under the direction of a spiritual elder.[6]  Each cell or house followed their own rule away from the central church and could even hold distinct theological perspectives, but they would come together one to three times throughout the week for common meals and worship; undoubtedly, they came together other times as well, but the primary paths converged at the core. 

The Greek term “lavra” (Λαύρα) meant in ancient Greek a passageway, lane, or a back alley.  However, it should not be seen as a lonely, empty path but a place of congregation.  When lavra was translated into Syriac as the model spread north, it was translated as Shouka (suq, in modern Arabic), which is a a marketplace, a vibrant and bustling place full of discussion, commerce, and social intercourse.[7]  So lexically the term meant something like a place where pathways connect, a sort of intersection of souls.  The fifth century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus gave a definition that seems to capture the broader picture: the lavra is a place “where the dwelling place is separate and distinct, but the common life accomplishes a single goal: divine love.”[8]

The origins of the lavra system in Egypt is a bit obscure but the first lavra in Palestine was founded by Chariton in 330CE, who was captured by bandits while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and decided to stay and found a community at the place of his captivity.  The pinnacle of the movement was in the sixth century with St. Sabbas (439- 532).  The most important primary sources are The Lives of the Monks of Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis (6th century) and The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus (d 619 or 634).  The period of decline begins in the seventh century and by the 9th century, there are none left in the traditional form.[9] 

Even at their peak, however, individual lavra communities never grew too large by coenobitic monastic standards: most were between a dozen to seventy people, though there are a couple of examples swelling to 150 individual monks.  The constraining factor, as with most things in the Middle East, was water: they needed to find unsettled places in the Judean desert that had an adequate water supply, which usually meant inhabiting fierce cliffs and ravines.  Many of the cells and houses were caves or structures built attached to the caves, which provided natural air conditioning as well as protection from the weather and robbers.  From above, they could almost appear almost as spiders with a network of paths leading to a central core.

The lavras were designed so that most of the formal interaction between the monks occurred in these shared core structures while the cells or houses were kept private.  The cells and houses were not too distant from the core: monks write about being able to hear their brethren’s singing and all could hear the talon striking the board in the central area to mark the time periods of the day.[10]  The central complexes varied from little more than a chapel and a common room to rather robust central facilities: one abbot known as Gerasimus created a model where the common areas were more far more instrumental and vibrant than the original lavras.  His form of lavra had a church, storeroom, and refectory as with others but it also had a kitchen, living quarters for staff including abbot’s quarters, and guest quarters. [11]  Regardless of the size and form of the core complex, there were always private zones and common zones with differing sets of rules applied to each area.  Herein lies one of the most the distinctive element of lavra versus coenobitic forms of monasticism: searching for a balance between individualization/privatization of life with the inherent value and advantages of a life in community.

The early monastic world, much like our own today, struggled with the question of community.  The earliest monks were the hermits, especially in the deserts of Egypt and the wilds of Syria.  They were fierce individualists, whose goal was to be “alone with the Alone.”[12]  Later monastic writers such as St. Basil the Great was so appalled by this form of religious life that he argued that being a hermit was not only unchristian (for how do you love one another when you are alone) but also inhuman, since to be human is to be social.[13]  For those of the second camp, a coenobium or life in common that sought uniformity in all areas of life—all the monks looked the same, prayed the same way, followed the same schedule, etc…—was the ideal.  In the midst of these extremes stood the lavra, which allowed for diversity of life with varied degrees of individualization and privacy yet sought to harness the resource advantages of communal life and the opportunity to practice Christian virtues with one another.  This diversity and individualization was apparent in many areas of life.

For example, they did not have a common rule to guide their life, across different lavras in the same region or even among the population of a particular lavra.  Some communities met formally multiple times a week for meals in common and long church services; others hardly met in common at all, sometimes only in feast days.  One should see it as a sort of spectrum where some lavras functioned very closely to the coenobium model while others functioned practically like a collection of hermits.  The point is that the monks themselves decided where on that spectrum their community would place themselves and there was not one norm among the lavras.

While the amount of time dedicated to community varied, the primary energy in all the lavras would be dedicated to the private and individualized zones comprised of their cells and houses.  Typically, they would divide their days into the classic monastic tri-part: prayers and reading, work, and eating/peace (sleep).  However, the specific mix and form would differ between cells.  Some might wake up every morning before dawn for long prayers; some might have a more relaxed or informal schedule that depended on shorter prayers.  The spiritual exercises also differed.  For example, fasting was the central ascetic act of the period for monks.  All Christians and especially monks fasted to degrees that seem unimaginable to the modern world.  Gerasimus mentions it was normal to eat only bread, water, and dates within his Lavra.[14]  However, Moschus tells us of a monk who ate only once slice of bread every four days; another was content to eat only the holy bread on mass on Sunday.[15]  Unlike the coenobium where fasting was more or less uniform regardless of personal capability or aspirations, the mark of the lavra was its relative spiritual diversity. 

This diversity would have been apparent even to the casually observer.  Unlike the coenobium where the monastic habit would quickly identify a monk as belonging to a particular monastery, clothing was also not uniform or mandated.  Clothing always represents charged symbols that communicate social messages, but the monks were allowed to decide these messages for themselves.  St Sabbas, for example, wore regularly such tattered rags that he was frequently mistaken for a beggar.[16]  However, there were certain fashions and trends, so to speak: most of the monks in Palestine seemed to wear a sort of sleeveless tunic with a hood.  However, the point is that clothing was another area of diversity within the lavras.

The apparent diversity would also have been noticeable in the ethnicities of the monks of Palestine.  The monks tended to be from all over the Roman Empire: from Italy, Asia Minor, and throughout North Africa.  In fact, one of the earliest leaders, a man named Euthymius, had only one native Palestinian at his lavra but it was often that many different areas of the Roman Empire would be represented within the lavras of Palestine.[17]  Clearly, these were still all Christian males, so grandiose claims of progressive values are not appropriate, but its international flavor stood in stark contrast to the provinciality that marked monasticism in other areas and kinds.  Unarguably, the international character of the lavra monasteries was due to their location near Jerusalem, which was a beacon for pilgrims the world over.  But it also speaks to the genetic structure of the community that allowed for a diversity of practices and norms.  Much like today, the traditions and norms of life and faith varied across the empire.  If one were a faithful monk from Gaul who travelled to a coenobium in Palestine, he would be asked to forgo all that he knew to conform to the uniform practice of the monastery.  However, if he were part of a lavra, he could retain most of the traditions and practices that were familiar to him because most of his life was spent in his cell or house.  In fact, the literary record shows some signs that some houses within lavras were comprised of people from a certain region.[18]  Therefore, the structure of the lavra model fostered diversity within an overarching unity.

This diversity tended to foster the cross-pollination of ideas.  In the earliest lavra in Palestine, one of the monks could write in Greek, Latin, and Syriac and became a teacher to others.[19]  In fact, one interesting subgroup of the lavra population was immensely popular bishops and theologians who sought quietude in remote lavras, where their anonymity could be protected since they spent most of their time on their own.[20]  One can imagine a healthy and perhaps heated exchange on one of the lanes leading to the central church between a new young lavra resident from Egypt with an aging bishop from Rome about the proper way to divide up one’s prayers for the day or a myriad of other theological questions.  Once again, the structure of the lavra compared to the coenobium or the hermits fostered such an intellectually dynamic environment.  Unlike the coenobium where the spiritual life along with every other aspect of life was merely given to you, the proper way to live would be a point of discussion because each cell or house would be deciding the contours of their specific form for themselves.  Inevitably, debates would emerge that would foster reflection and experimentation.  By creating a diverse environment that fostered debate, the danger of division and schism would inevitably also rise—and, as will be apparent, it was precisely such a debate that contributed to the decline of the lavra system as a whole—but the structure of the lavra tended to encourage reflection, debate, and experimentation. 

By highlighting the relative diversity within the lavra system compared to the coenobium, it should not be taken that there was so much diversity that members of the community were relative strangers to one another and had little in common.  Far from it, they were (in the lexical meaning of the term), an intentional community: they came together in order to foster the spiritual life of each other and to share resources.  The lavra did not create the pressure-cooker social  environment of the close-knit coenobium, but the lavrateer (if we could coin a term for a monk in the lavra) still had to interact with his fellow man.  This part of communal life—the opportunity to share resources—marks a second hallmark of lavra life alongside its support of diversity. 

Much like the Egyptian desert and the Syrian wilderness where monasticism also took root, the Judean desert was (and is still today) an area of scarce resources.  If living in common had not been a spiritual mandate, it was also a practical concern.  However, unlike the coenobiums in the area that shared everything, the lavra residents had to think through the questions of which resources to share and why, for the default was not to share everything as it was in the coenobium.  In fact, the normative position was to keep things private and separate unless there was a compelling reason to centralize and communalize something.

In looking at the archeological record, they were quite smart about their decisions in this regard.  For example, bread was the staple of their existence.  Yet wood was scarce in the desert and building a fire for cooking it was time consuming.  They uniformly chose to share this task ,as archeologists have found a common bakery in which they would bake literally dozens of loafs at a time in nearly every lavra uncovered to date.  Furthermore, much like communities today buying in bulk, the lavras pooled their resources to buy grain; we see in the literature that it was sometimes a full-time job to pick up the grain from central markets and transport it to the lavras.[21]  Likewise, while there appears to be some common gardens for growing food, most of the gardens were small ones attached to individual cells and houses—after all, they were eating all but two or three meals a week there.  However, they shared gardening tools and storage buildings for seeds.[22]  They also shared books in central libraries[23] and took care of guests in shared common rooms.  In fact, many of the ancient lavras look like many modern cohousing structures.  The point is that there are clear signs that the leaders of the lavras thought through resource optimization in a way that simply was unnecessary in the coenobium. 

The efficient centralization and communalization of aspects of life also led to communal responsibilities for members of a lavra.  Sometimes these duties involved physical labor such as being a gardener in the central garden or caring for the common animals, but other times it would involve more clerical tasks, such as assigning work as needed and insuring supplies arrived for everyone on time.[24]  These jobs tended to rotate, sometimes on a yearly basis.  The picture that emerges is one where the lavrateers are interacting with one another at multiple levels throughout the week, not just during the common services and meals.  Their cell or house may have been their primary mode of existence but they were also regular participants of life in common, with all its inherent advantages.

In sum, in staking out a position midway between the hermits and the coenobium, the lavra model demanded reflection of its members concerning the core questions of existence at the time: first, the proper balance between communal and private life, a common uniform existence and individualized expressions.  Second, how to balance private consumption while optimizing communal resource use in an environment of limited resources.  The thesis of this essay is that, once again, these two questions have become the central dilemmas of our existential plight.  The lavra model could have been an important link between ancient monasticism and modern intentional communities, but it did not last.

The Decline of the Lavra

The reasons for the decline of the lavra system are many, including the Islamic conquest of the area,[25] but one of the most important is that over time, the ecclesiastical authorities slowly sought to co-opt the monastic movement and employ its ranks as a sort of theological army in support of their positions in church debates.  The coenobitic monasteries with their uniformity under a charismatic and powerful leader proved far more easy to control than the decentralized and diverse lavras.[26]  One sees evidence for this in sixth century legal code of the Roman emperor Justinian, who demanded that all monks sleep in common dormitory so that they could be more easily monitored by those in authority.[27]  At the same time, Lavras in Palestine were engaged in heated theological debates with each other that divided the movement; at one point, a debate about the interpretation of the early theologian Origen’s view of the afterlife led to people of the New Lavra attacking the monks of the Great Lavra with knives.[28]  So there was also some internal dissection (pun intended).  Nevertheless, with ecclesiastical backing behind the coenobiums, pressure from the Islamic invasions, and internal dissent, the lavras gradually were converted to coenobium or withered away, so by the ninth century they were largely gone.  There are still some monastic forms that bear reflection of the original lavras such as the sketes of present-day Mt. Athos, but the peak of the lavra movement was clearly in the fourth through seventh centuries.

 

[1] See Romila Thapar, "Renunciation: The Making of a Counter-Culture?" in Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, ed. Romila Thapar (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1978) 83.

[2] The dynamic is also apparent in Hindu and Buddhist monasticism, though those stories are beyond the scope of this paper.

[3] The first known use of the word monachos appears in a legal notice on a papyrus dated to 324.  Its first use in a church writer is Eusebius of Caesarea in his commentary on the Psalms written sometime in the early 330s.  See E.A. Judge, “The Earliest Use of Monachos for ‘Monk’ (P. Coll. Youtie 77) and the Origins of Monasticism,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 20 (1977) 72-89 and also Francoise Morard, “Encore Quelques Reflexions Sur Monachos,” Vigiliae Christianae 34 (1980) 395-401.

[4] Van A. Reidhead, “Monasticism” in The Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publication, 2003) 931.

[5] The best modern sources on the lavra model are: Yizhar Hirschfeld, The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert a City (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966); John Binns, Ascetic Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine, 314-631 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).  A brief but helpful introduction can be found in Edward G. Matthews Jr. “Lavra” in The Encyclopedia of Monasticism, E.W. Johnston, ed. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000) 746-7.

[6] Hirshfield, 180 has the average distance between cells being 35 meters and most living alone as he discusses on page 177, but some living in a cluster of caves, as he discusses on page 187.

[7] See Chitty, 15.

[8] Ecclesiastical History, I.21

[9] To add an element of confusion, however, the term lavra comes to be re-appropriated in the rest of the Eastern Orthodox world as a sort of honorific title for coenobitic monasteries such as the Great Lavra of Mt. Athos and the Kiev Lavra, but these do not follow the original model so shouldn’t be confused with the subject of this essay. 

[10] Edward G Matthews, “Lavra” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, 746-7.

[11] Hirschfeld, 13. Andrew T. Crislip studies in depth the medical facilities in the lavras in his book, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism & the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005).

[12] This phrase is neoplatonic in origin but was used by Athanasius in his description of St Anthony the Great, the first monk, in his Vita.

[13] See Basil’s Regulae fusius tractatae. The Long Rules, 3.1.

[14] See Vita Gerasimus, 2,3; Hirschfeld, 82.

[15] See Spiritual Meadow, 9: 2860A, 42: 2896C; Hirschfeld, 82.

[16] Chitty, 116.

[17] Hirschfeld, 12-3.

[18] See Hirschfeld, 187.

[19] See Chitty, 85.

[20] Chitty, 113.

[21] See Hirschfeld, 83-4.

[22] Hirschfeld, 96.

[23] Hirschfeld, 96.

[24] This was the job of the steward (oikonomos). See Hirschfeld, 73.

[25] See Hirschfeld, 17.  The monasteries became effectively cut off from the center of power in Constantinople and the flood of pilgrims that often provided resources and new recruits tricked to a stream.

[26] In the earlier periods, the strength of the personalities of Sabbas and Euthymius show that it was possible to have strong leadership connected to the central church authority. 

[27] See Justinian, Novella, CXXIII, 36.

[28] See the summary of the controversy in Elizabeth Clark, The Origenist Controversy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). 

Kids are at home at the Lavra and share in many of the activities here.