Darrah Johnson has written a masterpiece of a story for The Washington Post Magazine about young Catholics living in an intentional community known as Simple House (or, more fully, A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus). Johnson concentrates most of her 7,900-word story on Laura Cartagena. Small details adds up to an honest narrative about the challenges of living simply. In one moment Cartagena firmly resists a housemate's suggestion of using shower caddies in a bathroom. In another moment she rushes to the comfort the survivors of a young man who was murdered. (Simple House volunteers had visited and prayed with him only a few hours earlier, Johnson reports.)
In one moment Cartagena grows impatient because she's being delayed in meeting her boyfriend. Later, she leaves for a convent in Italy for further contemplation about whether she should become a nun.
These details sound flat in summary, but Johnson weaves them together in a way that makes the ministry of Simple House come alive. As Cartagena struggles with whether she should become a nun, readers may cheer her along in either direction. Johnson tells the story that well.
There are many finely wrought paragraphs in the story, but I'll highlight only two. The first involves Lucy (a "72-year-old homeless schizophrenic who came with the house when it was donated") and the other involves Cartagena forming Simple House with one of her friends, Clark Massey:
Lucy is now the only person in the rowhouse with her own bedroom, a sparsely decorated, tidy space where she makes her bed every morning. The other three bedrooms are shared by the missionaries. It's not entirely clear what Lucy thinks about the sudden influx of young women, though she sometimes seems overwhelmed and annoyed. Somehow, she has come to believe that Simple House is a funeral home, and that people come here to die. Laura has tried explaining that Simple House helps people live, not die, but Lucy persists in her morbid impressions. "I don't know why you just moved in here," she has informed some of the new arrivals. "You're not going to last very long." Lucy lights a cigarette at the stove.
... She was a student at Catholic [University], and they both volunteered with the same organization, working with disadvantaged children in Northeast Washington but never really getting close to them. Laura and Clark decided they could do better. During long walks around the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when Laura's much shorter legs worked double time to keep up with Clark's long stride, they brainstormed ways to create a more intimate and loving ministry. They wanted to live like Jesus, among the poor, befriending the poor. They wanted their lives to be the antidote to something Mother Teresa once said: "Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is very unfashionable to talk with them."
Be sure to visit the photo gallery that accompanies the story. If you enjoy reading transcripts of online chats, this conversation involving Johnson, Cartagena and Massey is worthwhile. Cartagena says she liked Johnson's story but she would not have written it as Johnson did.
Massey and Caragena say that members of Simple House take no vows of celibacy. "All volunteers are committed to chastity and voluntary poverty while they are at A Simple House, but it is not a life long vow," Massey writes. Duly noted.
For the ministry's self-portrait, Cartagena refers readers to a newsletter archive. The newsletters are okay, as self-promotional material goes, but they're deadly dull compared to Johnson's story.
Painting of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, attributed to Giotto, is used under a Wikimedia Commons license.