While I wait around for the green light on a prototype Unmonastery in Matera 2013, I have been thinking about how to design such a thing. It is inevitable: people I mentioned it to have been asking questions - and since there is absolutely no precedent, all answers have to be made up from scratch. Provisionally, I would group them into three categories.
What kind of projects?Quite naturally, people want to know if their pet project would be welcome at the Unmonastery. Can I finish to write my book? Can I learn to cook Thai? Can I experiment with a new way of growing carrots? Some projects are difficult to fit into the mould for practical reasons: for example, if yours entails growing bonsais you are likely to need a longer time that the prototype Unmonastery has to offer. If you want to build a Lego particle accelerator, you are likely to need more space than we would be given. For others there are no physical constraints, and the choice is a little more difficult. A fundamental decision is whether to allow people to join the Unmonastery to do something that does not require the collaborations of others unSisters and unBrothers, but simply peace and quiet. This was part of the landscape of monasteries, after all: I guess people who wanted to be left alone to meditate on whatever it is they wanted to meditate on gave their monasteries something in return, maybe something as simple as another pair of arms for the daily chores. In the case of the Unmonastery, though, the whole point is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts - so, in a sense, somebody finishing away her book and not interacting much with anyone in the process is somehow wasteful. Difficult one. My hunch is that an effort should be made to bake into the deal with interesting people searching for peace something that they can contribute to the whole project, maybe something unexpected.
What kind of institution?A fully successful prototype Unmonastery turns into a new institution that fills a previously empty niche in society. Though this will emerge (or not) at least as much as it is designed, a lot of thinking needs to be given to how to organize an Unmonastery. Some decisions appear to be very down-to-earth, but they actually contribute to the cultural wiring. For example: who does the dishes? Is it better to hunt for funding to hire cleaning staff or demand that unmonks and un-nuns contribute to the keeping of the house? There is a cultural element there: if you take turns in washing everyone's dishes, somehow you go deeper into the feeling of community. Or: can people bring their children? Of course it is more welcoming to allow monks and nuns to bring along their offspring: on the other hand, given limited capacity, children might be displacing other potential unmonks.
What relationship with the local community?As Eimhin pointed out, no point in "installing solutions". People want to be part of discovering and mounting solutions together with the local community. So how is this managed? How do we make sure that somebody from, say, Ireland, who does not speak any Italian and spends one month in the Unmonastery in Matera has a meaningful interaction with the locals? At a minimum, we need not one UnAbbott/UnAbbess, but two: one from the nascent Unmonastery global community, to manage people coming and going, and one from the local community, to connect the dots. But there are many, many more choices to make. Do we start by making a list of issues people in Matera are working on? Do we aim at sharing new, strange (for them) things which they are presently not engaged with - but which could be life-changing? Here is a particularly intriguing one: do unmonks/un-nuns wear attires that clearly identify them as such? It seems weird, but it could be a great way of signifiying "it's ok to talk to me, I am here to make something new in this place".