The Rivendell Community
Rivendell… “The Last Homely House east of the Sea… A perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)
That was the original vision, a bit playful but also in earnest: A “homely house” where the great stories and songs were memory and more than memory, where weary or embattled pilgrims could find refuge, consolation, healing, strength and counsel for the journey, where even in east-of-the-Sea exile, true Home would be remembered, and its customs cherished. However hidden away in obscurity, it would be an open house: open to God in prayer and radical availability, open to others in hospitality both material and spiritual; and it would stand against the powers of darkness. However the founders tried for a more ecclesiastically conventional designation, the first name stuck. “Rivendell,” the wonderful home-away-from-Home house in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, lent its name both to the Rivendell Community itself and its first house.
The Rivendell Community came into being in 1997, in Memphis, Tennessee. It quickly gathered substance and vision which surprised its first members, who at first intended nothing more than to embrace a common Rule which would embody and foster the patterns of life and spiritual connectedness with which, it seemed, God was gifting them. One of these first members, the Rev. Virginia Brown, an Episcopal priest, had heard a yearning among some in spiritual growth group participants for a form of authentic community that would not disband at the end of a program year. Among others with whom she was doing spiritual direction, she listened to a desire for the kind of structure and support for a deeply committed life of prayer which religious life traditionally offers–but where was this to be found by busy people with spouses, children, homes, jobs, and active ministries in church and world, for whom falling in love with God, and being drawn by a deep undertow of contemplative prayer, couldn’t very well point to the monastery?
Meanwhile, another founding member, Cathy Cox, adoptive mother of five children with a range of disabilities, left a comfortable home, job and parish church to move her family to Memphis and open the Community’s first house. This house, found in Holy Week, 1998, was almost directly across the street from the parish church; what was more, due to its dilapidation and lack of modernization, it was affordable. The house became home to a small residential group of the Community, and a gathering place for other Community members, and for others who would join the Community in the chapel for the Daily Office and Eucharist, and share the festive Saturday evening celebrations, when the Lord’s Day would be welcomed with Evensong, dinner, discussion of the Sunday Scripture readings, and, often, singing, storytelling, and hilarity. Though the neighborhood was generally considered unsafe, the doors were always unlocked, open to welcome guests who would come, sometimes for “drop in” pastoral care, sometimes to take part in the life of the household, sometimes simply to sit in silence in the chapel.
It was in this house that Cathy, Virginia, and another member of the residential core, Donna McNiel, made their first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This, however, was simply a particular expression of the common way of life, and the majority of the Rivendell Community, then and now, are married and have “ordinary” lives with their own homes, families, and jobs. The Community includes as full members both women and men, married and single, lay persons and clergy. Professed members are called Companions, “those who break bread together” and who undertake the journey in companionship. While these Companions are Episcopalians, the Community also has Associates and friends from other branches of the Church.
When Virginia was asked to serve a parish in Springfield, Missouri, and the diocesan Bishop invited Rivendell to open a house there, the Community realized it would need an organizational structure to support multiple houses and chapters, each of which might express the Community’s way of life and its work of prayer and hospitality in ways appropriate to their circumstances. Nineteen Companions gathered in May, 2000, for the first General Chapter, adopted a Constitution, and elected Virginia as the first Guardian. The Rivendell Community received canonical recognition as a Christian Community of the Episcopal Church in March, 2002, with the Rt. Rev. Barry Howe, Bishop of West Missouri, as its Episcopal Visitor. (In the polity of the Episcopal Church, canonically recognized “religious orders” require of all full members the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and common life in residential community; “Christian Communities” may consist entirely of members committed to obedience to their Rule, while not living together or making religious vows, or, like Rivendell, may also include members who make the traditional religious vows.) Rivendell now has members and chapters in Missouri and Tennessee, and members also in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Minnesota.
It was during another Holy Week, 2002, four years after the first house, that the Community found its new Motherhouse near Dunnegan in the beautiful countryside of southwest Missouri. The former Amish house was supplied with electricity and partially remodeled to provide accommodations for retreatants and other guests, as well as for the resident community, and a chapel and library were added. Its 67 acres included forest, wild meadows, pasture, garden and orchard, a creek and a pond, and a chicken coop whose inhabitants provide fresh eggs for guests and community. A hermitage built of local cedar was built on the property. The Community offered a number of thematic retreats each year, and provided hospitality for other small group and individual retreats. In addition to the hospitality and retreat work, priests associated with the Motherhouse served four congregations in the region, and were involved in theological education in the Diocese.
Out of common life, prayer and experience has emerged a vision which is shaping Rivendell’s work, both present and future, grounded in the call to be a Eucharistic community working and praying to renew and actualize the vision of the Church as a holy priesthood, in and on behalf of the world. Central to Rivendell’s ethos is the call to live all life eucharistically, offering ourselves continually to God in thanksgiving, intercession and adoration, for the nourishment and healing of the world, and to extend God’s hospitality to others.
Despite the Episcopal Church’s affirmation that the Eucharist is the principle, and normative, act of Christian worship on Sundays and other major Feasts, many congregations are unable to offer it weekly, due both to a shortage of priests, especially of those willing and able to serve in smaller towns and rural communities, and the cost of maintaining them when they can be found. Rivendell seeks to expand the Church’s capacity to provide skilled, well-educated, and holy priestly ministry, particularly in less affluent, struggling churches, through the work of Community priests and lay Companions, called both to this ministry and to the simplicity of life in community which makes it feasible.
An encouraging example is the ministry of the Rev. Cathy Cox, who serves as pastor of St. Alban’s, in the small but growing town of Bolivar, 15 miles from the Motherhouse. Small and heavily indebted, St. Alban’s was quite unable to provide even a half-time clergy stipend, and appeared to be a dying church. Mother Cathy, resident at the Motherhouse, was able to accept the position without the usual compensation. The congregation makes a modest contribution to the Community. Free from crushing financial burdens and anxiety about its own survival, over the past year St. Alban’s has been transformed, blossoming into a lively, dedicated, exuberant church, remarkably and generously involved in a variety of creative outreach ministries. Community/parish relationships are mutually enriching, as every resident of the Motherhouse is involved somehow at St. Alban’s, while parishioners often donate time and expertise to maintaining and improving the Motherhouse facility, and gather at the “homely house” of Rivendell for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners and other festive occasions.
This “Rivendell Plan” has now been successfully implemented in other small congregations in the area. Rivendell hopes to extend this model of priestly ministry and Christian life to other areas, envisioning community houses with two or three clergy, along with lay persons, living simply and relinquishing “career advancement,” sustained in a common life of prayer, and able to serve, perhaps, three or four small congregations in the area. The Community also wants to continue to support others engaged in ordained and lay ministry by offering spiritual and intellectual nourishment, retreat and Sabbath time.
Yet the motive force of the Community is not only to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in more places, but to celebrate it with our lives, always and everywhere. The Rivendell Community reflects on its work of prayer and hospitality as embodying two facets of the Eucharistic pattern: In the “east-facing,” the royal priesthood gather up the world and present it to God; this movement is embodied in continual prayer, both liturgical and personal, intercession and oblation, willing identification with the poor and needy, in union with the One who bears our sin and carries our sorrows. In the “west-facing,” the life-giving Body and Blood are given back to the world – a taste and foretaste of the consecrated, transformed, redeemed life of the Kingdom of God. This movement is embodied in offering retreats, opportunities for quiet, rest, reflection and challenge, spiritual direction and education, and homely, routine tasks of hospitality. Like the archetypical “Last Homely House east of the Sea,” Rivendell seeks to create and serve “homely houses” where the beauty of holiness and the radical invitations of the Gospel may be more fully lived, “thin places” where a little of the Kingdom of Heaven may be glimpsed.
The community continues to live and change. Calls to other locations and ministries had reduced the group of Companions in Dunnegan below what was needed to maintain the retreat center, so we passed the property on to Trinity Meadows who are starting their own retreat center ministry at the location. Antioch Chapter was formed in Houston, TX, and Berea Chapter in St. Loius, MO, where old and new Companions are engaging in new ministries of hospitality and social justice. In Memphis a new Rivendell house, Constance Abbey, is open and engaging in street ministry beside St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.