A Purposeful Adventure – Othona and Mount of Oaks

In July I wrote about my and my husband’s plans for a ‘purposeful adventure’, a year of exploring a variety of intentional communities. As part of the planning process, before taking the plunge we are dipping our toes in the water. We’ll spend a weekend here and a week there visiting some places that may be suitable for a longer stay in the future. We have started that process already, visiting the Othona community in Essex, and the Mount of Oaks community in Portugal.

Othona is a community we love dearly and have visited often, but this time we chose to come on a ‘working weekend’, helping with the apple harvest and the various jobs that need doing in preparation for winter. The Mount of Oaks was an entirely new experience for both of us, involving washing in pond water, a compost toilet and sleeping in a cabin being audibly eaten by termites. The night sky in rural Portugal was breathtaking, and in both communities we found wonderful conversation, the joy and satisfaction of manual work and a new appreciation for Autumn and its harvest.

We’re still reflecting on whether these communities could form part of our longer term adventure, but I feel I have already been taught an important lesson.

Focus on the means, not the end

For some reason, perhaps betraying my own longing for permanence, I assumed that our friends in Portugal, Emma and Barbara, had reached their destination. Like their marriage, Mount of Oaks was to be their lifelong commitment. When I voiced this assumption Emma found it laughable! They are committed to the land for a few more years yet, but they are holding the situation lightly. They can’t predict the future, but it will almost certainly involve change!

Emma cites Jean Vanier’s ‘Community and Growth’ and Scott Peck’s  ‘The Different Drum’ as seminal texts for their vision of community. Within the first few chapters of the former, I came across this quote attributed to Diterich Bonhoeffer: ‘He who loves community, destroys community; he who loves the brethren, builds community.’ Vanier continues to reflect that ‘people come together in community because they want to create a place of caring. Community is not for producing things outside of itself.’

An Alice Interlude

‘I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, ‘if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it – at least, no, it doesn’t do that’ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), ‘but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, this turn goes to the hill, I suppose – no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’ [Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass]

Communities of care

One of the reasons I give for our search for communal living is that we won’t be having children. Who’s going to look after us when we can’t look after ourselves? In a society where the basic unit has been reduced to the ‘nuclear’, rather than ‘extended’, family, the care of older people generally falls to their children. My Nana recently entered a care home, which, due to her completely unsentimental nature as well as the quality of the care, she is enjoying immensely. Her friends and siblings are either dead or senile. If she didn’t have her two sons, my dad and my uncle, where would she be? My husband volunteers for Age UK and has seen first hand what the life of an isolated older person is like. The abandonment of older people is a terrible consequence of individualistic materialism and subsequent community fragmentation. Contrast this situation with a monastery I visited in Kent. Members of the community were remembering a brother who had died recently. A man with no partner or children, he had died in his nineties, at home in the monastery, surrounded by those he loved. I became convinced that all-age intentional community is the net that can catch all those who fall outside the care of the nuclear family.

I am still convinced of this, but in talking to Emma I realised I needed to look at my motives afresh. I had been thinking about community as an insurance policy, treating it as a pension contribution. This cannot be my attitude. According to Bonheoffer, if I make my own care the end, and community the means, then that community will ultimately wither. To die at a grand old age surrounded by loved ones is a wonderful thing, but like Alice walking towards the house on the hill, pursuing community as a means to this end will never lead me there. The concern of a community should be the care that is occurring right now. The future, which perhaps exists only in our minds, should be held lightly. This is a valuable lesson for us as we continue planning our purposeful adventure. It will also be very interesting to see how the care of older people features in the other communities we visit.

6 thoughts on “A Purposeful Adventure – Othona and Mount of Oaks”

  1. We were twenty-seven (he) and barely twenty-eight (she) the end of February, 1972, when we moved in together (four adults, each pair with one son) in New York City, an intentional community (“commune”) which continued until 1975 – sad parting (for me anyway). I like your writing here and the other writers you quote (on community). All this leads me to deeper thought. We have retired, 2011 September 1. So we are about 25 months to 27 months beyond the end of all our paid employment. She and he, just we two, soon hitting seventy (zero to seventy seems a very short time by now).

  2. Hi Mark,
    I can think of few intentional communities which have provided the kind of life-long home that you refer to here, other than monastic orders. The more common pattern appears to be that most people will stay for a few months or years and then move on, although there may be a very small core (often a married couple) who provide the long-term continuity.
    John Michael Greer has some interesting observations on the relative success of monastic vs more utopian-type communities at:


    Always good to read your posts, and wishing you joy and discernment in your explorations of community,

  3. Thanks, Mark, for your consistently perceptive and incisive writing. I feel I’ve learnt particularly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘He who loves community, destroys community; he who loves the brethren, builds community.’

    1. Thanks Imran. I tried reading Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’ but couldn’t get through it. He’s very heavy on the sinfulness of humankind. I find him much more digestible in small chunks. Jean Vanier’s book is really excellent, although I haven’t hit the explicitly Catholic bits yet.

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