Attempting to find unmixed attention in a modern intentional service community

This is a guest contribution by Kristen Estabrook, a former Hilden at St. Hilda’s House in New Haven. Saint Hilda’s House is a partnership among Christ Church, New HavenBerkeley Divinity School, and the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, which is designed to allow young adults to turn their Christian faith into action, both by living in community and serving in the city of New Haven. 


In March of 1911, the rector of Christ Church, New Haven led a procession through my current home. With holy water and incense, he blessed every room. Mary S. Johnson and Josephine A. Lyon had recently moved into this home, St. Hilda’s House, on the corner of Broadway and Elm with the intention “to establish and provide for a place where a certain body of women could live a life of devotion and humble service,” as Lyon writes.

One hundred and seven years later, in August of 2018, the current rector of Christ Church, New Haven led a strikingly similar procession through this same home, commemorating and blessing four strangers and me as we committed ourselves to these same intentions: to live a life of devotion and humble service within our shared home, St. Hilda’s House.

1911 and 2018

St. Hilda’s House is full of quirks. Ceilings so low that anyone over 5’9” has to duck beneath her door frames; a back staircase so steep and narrow that each time I descend it, the act of not falling requires my full attention; uneven floorboards in the kitchen that rise and fall under our feet like molehills. I wonder if, decades ago, the deaconesses were charmed as I am by these same quirks. I wonder if these quirks have metastasized with time.

In the living room of St. Hilda’s reside the framed photographs of the deaconesses who filled this home in the decades before our arrival. They smile with shyness and mischief at the camera and at one another, against the same backdrop in which I now spend my days. I imagine how they must have related to one another then, and to this house, and to this city. I know the answers to be, in many ways, decidedly different from ours.

Dating apps, movie nights, and a never-ceasing group text have been real ways in which we’ve related to one another and to this place throughout the year. We watch an absurd amount of Netflix. We spend our allotted grocery money shopping at Costco. We had a birthday party for our cat and posted the pictures on our house Instagram. (Follow us @sainthildashouse!)

https:/instagram.com/sainthildashouse/

We navigate intentional Christian community and our commitment to voluntary poverty while swiping le and right. We walk out our front door to face Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, and the slew of other corporate giants positioned across from us on the other side of Elm.

The city in which we live, in many ways, only vaguely resembles that of the deaconesses. Yet, the religious disciplines we practice and the commitments we’ve made intimately mirror theirs.

Just as they walked across the courtyard and 
through the doors of Christ Church each day,
so, now, do we.
Just as they attended daily morning prayer
in the Lady Chapel one hundred years ago,
so, now, do we.
Just as they loved and cared for one another,
not without trial,
so, now, do we.

In 1911, the deaconesses dared to imagine a life in this house so full of quirks and demands and divergence from the norm. Beyond imagining, they dared to create it. In 2019, we inhabit the home they envisioned, committing ourselves to live in intentional Christian community, service to the city, devotion to God, and voluntary poverty.

We pass Patagonia, J. Crew, and Urban Outfitters as we walk down Elm Street, back towards home. We walk through the doors of Christ Church and recite prayers that feel both routine and profound, the very same prayers recited by our foremothers over a century ago and countless other Christians across millennia.

Left: Mary S. Johnson and Josephine A. Lyon | Right: Dayna Horsey and Kristen Estabrook

As my time in this home comes to an end, I begin to wonder if I have cheapened my experience here, if I have failed to receive some grand offering here within this home by way of my insistence on distraction as I swipe, binge, and scroll.

I wonder, what gifts might the world have offered me if only I’d been paying attention?

It is 2019 and I am not alone. We the people tend towards busyness, self-absorption, and distraction. We swipe, binge, and scroll. I wonder if we cheapen our experience here, if we fail to receive some grand offering here, within our shared home. With all of the swiping and the binging and the scrolling, have we seen our neighbor? Have we opened ourselves to receiving the gifts our neighbor might offer us—gifts which cannot be purchased?

I wonder what it meant, really meant, for the deaconesses to live a life of devotion and humble service. In their day to day actions, in the way that they prayed, in what they bought and what they earned, in the ways that they regarded strangers and responded to the news, how did they live in devotion and service? I wonder how to do that well inside of this home. Even more so, I wonder how to do that well outside of it.

Unsure of the answer, I pray.

Upon my departure from St. Hilda’s House, the time and space once filled by the words and rituals of morning prayer will beckon to be filled differently. Time can be so easily, so mindlessly filled. I fear how I might fill it—binging, swiping, scrolling. Shopping, spending, wasting. Will I resist all there is to click and buy and crave, and instead, preserve this time of prayer?

I think of the words of the poet Marie Howe, whose poem entitled “Prayer” begins:

Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important calls for my attention—the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.
Even now I can hardly sit here

among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside already screeching and banging.

Marie Howe. “Prayer.”

Amidst the garbage trucks and luggage, the J. Crew sales and other such “more important” demands on my attention, will I have any time to pray? The French philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil wrote that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

 I think of the rarity of “absolutely unmixed attention” in this day and imagine the scarcity of the act to make it all the more sacred.

For most of my life, I understood prayer as knees bent on wooden floors, hands clasped, thumbs pressed into foreheads: “Dear God, it’s me,” followed by a litany of requests and repentances. Only recently have I begun to expand and reimagine my understanding of the practice and purpose of prayer as something embodied, and not just on bended knees.

The Irish poet and theologian Pádrag Ó Tuama understands prayer by its derivation from the French word, ‘prier,’ which means ‘to ask.’ He says, “We all ask, and we all come in contact with deep desire. That, in itself, is an experience of prayer.” 

God, I ask again, is there any time to pray? Deeply I desire the answer to be yes. Perhaps I must insist that the answer be yes. Not once, not twice, but every day: asking, desiring, insisting on upholding that which is most important.

God, one last thing.

Will you open me up to the gifts of the world?

I ask, I desire, I insist.

Yes.


Kristen Estabrook is a Maine native, who loves coffee and libraries and fall in New England! She attended the College of Wooster, where she studied history and religious studies, and spent the past two years teaching elementary Special Education in Tulsa, Oklahoma through Teach for America. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Nancy Horn says:

    Wonderful article Kristen! You are so special! Nancy

    Like

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