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I am a cradle Episcopalian. That is, I was born and baptized into the Episcopal Church as opposed to converting later on in life. That being said, I did not actually learn much about my own church history until I was well into high school and only because I started looking into it on my own initiative. In college I eventually majored in Religion (with an emphasis on world comparison) and had still further opportunities to delve into my own religion’s history. In all that history that I read, and all my life as an Episcopalian, my contact with monasticism was minimal. I, like most Protestants, had the image of austere Catholic monks, shrouded in shadows and dark robes, chanting in the dark hours of the night behind a veil of incense. Or the image of the corpulent and jolly Friar Tuck.
It is a wonder to me that I ever encountered contemplative prayer at all. I of course studied meditation and such practices through my courses in Religion, but to actually practice it? It was early in my freshman year that I was l fortunate enough to hear a lecture by Fr. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O while he was visiting UGA in which he guided us through centering prayer. After that, I was of course hooked.
When I started practicing on my own as a contemplative, I found so few outlets within my own religious sphere up in Athens, GA. My chaplain at that time was a low church Lutheran convert. He was tremendously adept at pastoral care with college students, but not very helpful in the contemplative realms. However, when that chaplain left for another college chaplaincy gig up north, we were assigned an interim chaplain that was to be my saving grace. This visiting interim priest, who would later become my Spiritual Father, was not only knowledgeable about our church’s contemplative expression, but actually practiced in it.
Finally being keyed into the Episcopal monastic tradition, my studies and practices went delving into the depths of that tradition. The culmination of that would be my eventual formation of a Religious Order here in Atlanta to make sure that contemplative spirituality would become accessible and more prevalent in the Church again.
In the ten years since that advantageous introduction into monastic tradition, I have studied the ancient Orders in great depth. I have studied the contemplative sects of the other main world religions as well and seen how they have fed one another. No man is an island, and neither is any religion. When I started looking into monasticism throughout Christian history, I discovered a view of Christianity that was never mentioned in my upbringing in the Episcopal Church or even in my college courses. What I discovered was a Christian history that could not be separated from this monastic influences and yet for 500 years now, Christian history has been shaped in order to make no mention of its monastic roots.
Today, traditional monasticism is dying. There’s no other way to see it. Despite resurgences here and there in the cloisters, the Religious Orders of the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions are gradually disappearing. Orders are having to consolidate their member houses and monumental monasteries that were once alive with prayer are now empty and crumbling across America and Europe.
For most Christians, monasticism is a romanticized past at best. I’ve lost track of the number of fellow Episcopalians that have come up to me since I’ve donned the habit and asked with surprised curiosity, “You mean there are Episcopal monks?” And how could I fault them for that ignorance when I would have asked the same thing for most of my early life?
The monastics across the centuries used to be an endless field of countless blossoms of spiritual growth. Now we must ask, “where have all the flowers gone?” The monasteries were the fonts of spiritual practice, a balance to the clergy that were the bureaucrats and politicians. Now all we have left are churches that are businesses more than they are houses of worship and priests and pastors that are more concerned with money and numbers than they are the true spiritual development of their parishioners. And now we have Christians who are becoming disillusioned with their faith because they find no fulfillment in it. Church is just entertainment on Sunday and they’re left spiritually dry the rest of the week.
What truly surprises me is when a solution is rediscovered that has lain dormant in our tradition for centuries, there is a violent backlash from other Christians. I was astonished to find entire websites and Christian groups dedicated to slandering contemplative prayer. And my God!, the lies they lay down to discredit it! Still, I understand that this vehemence comes from two roots: ignorance and fear. That is ignorance of their own Christian history and fear of anything different from what they think they can control in their religion. There was one series of blogs I came across a while back (that for the life of me I can’t find again) that tried to even offer the background on the Religious Order and try to prove how they weren’t Christian. I really wish I could find that blog again, because the historical “facts” they he was laying out were just plain incorrect. To offer a few other examples of those against, feel free to check out these sites: http://jesusfreakrkg.wordpress.com/2007/02/02/a-better-way-to-pray-the-old-way/ , http://freedomtofollowjesuschrist.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/contemplative-prayer-vs-biblical-prayer/ , http://simplicityinchrist.org/2006/06/13/beware-of-contemplative-prayer/ , http://www.lighthousetrails.com/aboutus.htm . Truly, these people astound me. I pity them for their misguided fears and my heart aches for the damage they are doing to other Christians who may desperately need to rediscover the practices of their ancient religion.
Still, there is hope. With the budding movement of “new monasticism”, we find Protestants that are following their own deep yearning for something more fulfilling, to rediscover a tradition that has been in their religion from the start. To counter the above list of sites, here are some that are trying to re-approach monastic living: http://staidensmonastery.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/the-unexpected-monastics/ , http://www.st-aidens-monastery.org.uk/ , http://adventuresinmercy.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/big-bad-ugly-contemplative-prayer/ , http://christianviewpoint.wordpress.com/2008/06/29/contemplative-prayer-is-biblical/ , http://christchurchleaders.wordpress.com/rule-of-life/ , http://eliacin.com/2008/06/11/open-space-at-msh-for-those-seriously-seeking-community/ .
Today’s youth are not afraid to be Christian and counterculture. In fact, they’re discovering the truth, that to be truly Christian is to be counterculture in our day and age. Jesus was a radical. And so many monastics through the centuries have been happy to follow in that same radical path.
First and foremost, before we can even begin to explore monastic expression throughout Christianity, I would suggest two books that take a very fresh and accurate look at Jesus. The first which does a beautiful job of showing Jesus as the radical that he really was is “What Jesus Meant” by Garry Wills http://www.amazon.com/What-Jesus-Meant-Garry-Wills/dp/B001AYDBY2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232215905&sr=1-1 . The second book I would recommend which delves more into Jesus’ radical spirituality is “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Jesus-Transforming-Mind-Perspective/dp/1590305809/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232216062&sr=1-1 . The common task that each of these two books attempt is to peel back the centuries’ worth of intentional misdirection that the Church has layered over the real Jesus.
To sum up these two books, though very crudely, would be to say that Jesus taught us to love as God loves (unconditionally without boundaries or exceptions) and to experience that very God within us in order to be transformed by it. Now, there is a whole lot more that goes with that and these books do a great job of discussing where and why the church has veered from that. Suffice it to say, I have a feeling that Jesus would have a great deal of difficulty claiming modern Christianity as the faith he was preaching. Still, there have been throughout the centuries those radical Christians that have tried to return to that ideal which Jesus was for Christianity. It’s easy to find them when looking through old Church history – they’re usually the ones being called heretics. Of course, after they die, the Church finds it ok to praise them, but oh so rarely during their lifetimes – and a great number of these were monastics.
(By the way, I choose to use the word monastic as a label rather than just an adj. because for me it can include male and female, cloistered or not. And despite MSWord yelling at me and putting an angry red line under it, I’ll continue to use it though I will sometimes interchange it with monk or contemplative. But understanding that these latter two come with their own baggage, I will try to stick to the generic monastic which can include monks, nuns, friars and tertiary seculars).
Before I begin to address monastic history, however, I think it necessary to point out why we should rediscover this tradition and what the damage has been since its downfall. For those that say contemplative spirituality is not Christian and is only a new development of practices borrowed from the East, then I encourage you to look back at the 2000+ years of monastics in both Christianity and its Jewish roots. Contemplative prayer, the practice of experiencing God internally and in every moment has been at the heart of Christianity since Jesus taught his first disciples. It was why John the Baptist was a desert hermit. It was what fueled the merkavah mystics and the Essenes of Judaism before, during, and after the time of Jesus. And it was in these monastic communities that this spirituality was harbored and allowed to flourish. How it came to be isolated in the monasteries I will discuss later, but what is important to note here is that with the fall of monasticism so went the most enriching form of spiritual practice in Christianity. As I said before, the monastics were the balance to the clerics. Without them, the Church has been skewed ever since.
For various reasons that I will explain, the Protestant reformation divorced Christianity from monasticism. They were rebelling against the corruption that had taken root in many of the cloisters, but unfortunately in dispelling all of monasticism rather than trying to fix it, they threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Ironically, the corruption that the Protestants then were charging against the monasteries is common practice in many of their churches today. But again, I’ll get into that later.
In addition to being a font of spirituality for the Church, the monastic Orders were also examples of a true Christian life. Theirs was a life based on prayer; exploration towards, of, and with God; hospitality; and love, especially for the outcast.
For these reasons, Christianity needs monastics again. For that reason I pray that these “new monastics” can rediscover our monastic tradition and make it work for our modern age. I am with them in that venture. But before we do, let us discover the monastics that have come before us. To begin, however, I will start at the end – the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent revolutions in Europe that destroyed monasticism as a scapegoat. For those that have a prejudice towards monasticism and have been taught over the years why its destruction was justified, and why the Protestant reformers were acting gloriously as they killed hundreds if not thousands of innocents, I hope this can shed some light on this episode of history so we can then explore the history of monasticism from its roots without preconceived ire.
We have a saying in our Order that “coincidence is when God happens.” Whether that coincidence is just poignant irony or repetitious synchronicity, when things start to line up, I can’t help but be attentive. Over the past week, I’ve now received two emails from friends telling me about this movement they’ve read about online on one site or another. Added to that, it was only just this past month that I picked up a book which turned out to be my first real introduction to this movement. And just prior to that, I came across one blog and one magazine article that touched upon it. Each of these instances directed my attention towards a movement called “new monasticism.” What strikes me as truly curious, is that having been a contemplative for over ten years now, and having founded a monastic community going on five years ago, this is the first time I’ve heard of this movement. Needless to say, with the constant barrage assailing me about this movement, I’ve had to look into it.
The first mention of new monasticism that I came across was a magazine article about an intentional evangelical Christian community that was trying to be “monastic.” Now, I don’t put that in quotes to be condescending, but simply because, as the article went on to explain, they had no idea what they were doing. But as we say down here in the south, bless their hearts, they were trying. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by a group of people trying out intentional Christian community, especially from a denominational background whose roots would not have had any monastic contact since the 1500s. For the life of me, I can’t track the article down again, but the gist of it was this: a group of families had decided to move in together and try to live like the early Christian communities did. In the end, however, or at least at the time the article was written, they had moved in but couldn’t figure out how to live together, let alone in true fashion of the communities described in the New Testament. What I saw in this was a heartfelt desire (which I myself shared!) but no resources or grounding to pull it off. Essentially, it sounded like they were being ground under the wheel that they were trying to reinvent.
It was no more than a week later when I came across the book “Punk Monk” by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig http://www.amazon.com/Punk-Monk-Monasticism-Ancient-Breathing/dp/0830743685/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231890555&sr=8-1. (Ebay truly is a wonder). First off, this is a remarkable book. The story that these two gentlemen relate is compelling and most of all encouraging for our day and age. The book relates the formation and history of “24/7” prayer rooms, a.k.a. “Boiler Rooms”. Started in Reading, England, these two founders were non-Anglican Christians. I feel I must make that distinction, because part of the wonder of their work is that, even though they were in the cradle of Anglicanism and its monastic history, they came across that historical connection almost by accident. The story begins with an idea to have prayer “24/7” as a local parish for the youth. From there, it grew into an outreach program specifically geared towards have a facility available for constant prayer, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As the organizers quickly discovered, prayer is perfect instrument for outrach and they were soon taking in the troubled youth and homeless individuals of the area. From there, Boiler Rooms as they call their 24/7 prayer facilities have sprung up in other countries around the world. In parts of the book, the authors draw from the Rule of St. Benedict to add support their practice of continual prayer and community (if not communal) living.
Now, from what I can tell, other groups of evangelicals in the US had begun trying to build Christian communities of their own. One of the most notable that associates with what is now called “new monasticism” is the community led by Shane Claiborne (Potter Street Community, nee The Simple Way). The term “new monastic” apparently wasn’t actually coined until 1998 in Jonathan Wilson’s book “Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World”. Though this idea was not new, he outlined what he saw as the essential tenants of what a new form of monasticism would be. Here I draw from Wikipedia, source of all knowledge:
(1) it will be “marked by a recovery of the telos of this world” revealed in Jesus, and aimed at the healing of fragmentation, bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ; (2) it will be aimed at the “whole people of God” who live and work in all kinds of contexts, and not create a distinction between those with sacred and secular vocations; (3) it will be disciplined, not by a recovery of old monastic rules, but by the joyful discipline achieved by a small group of disciples practicing mutual exhortation, correction, and reconciliation; and (4) it will be “undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment,” by which the church may recover its life and witness in the world.
Then, this past week, I had one priest and one friend electronically tap me on the shoulder about this “new monasticism”. My friend in particular directed me towards this article: http://www.culture11.com/article/36309?page_art=0 An interesting article to be sure. It does raise one good point, which was a question I myself have encountered for our own Order, namely, “are these people just play-acting at being monks?” This article then led me to the next which addressed in its own way “new monasticism” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/september/16.38.html
There is a great and sincere attempt in the four point outline of community above. Like most of the evangelical “monastic” communities that have sprung up, I see a greater similarity to the Franciscans and other tertiary Orders more so than I do the essence of the Benedictines. What I also see, and I do not wish to sound condescending in this, is an evangelical grasp at a tradition that has been too long removed from their religious structure. Nonetheless, the fact that the yearning for a spiritual community is there is proof positive of that ubiquitous direction that Christians (and other contemplatives) will be drawn to. Though these are strong well thought out tenants, I find them lacking for establishing a viable intentional monastic community. I also sense in these rules a knee jerk reaction to traditional monasticism that is coming from a denomination that does not know what monasticism really is.
In this regard, the evangelicals are not the only ones at fault. The great majority of Western Christianity is lacking in knowledge of their own church history. I know many Protestants that can tell me about their founding figure and what role he played in subverting the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether it was Luther and his theses or Calvin and his “ideal” Christian community, the present heirs of these Christian revolutionaries are the heirs of an intentionally misleading history. Beginning with Luther who condemned the Religious Orders, for five hundred years now, Christian denominations have tried the eradicate the monastic influence in the development of Christianity. To think that I know of many seminarians who have never hear of the Desert hermits, let alone the Religious Orders that spread and developed Christianity. For five hundred years, Protestants have tried to expunge even the hint of monasticism from their churches. And now they are being called to live as monastics have done since the time of Jesus and they’re having trouble figuring out how it works. I know what that yearning for intentional and spiritual community feels like, so my heart aches for them when I hear about their difficulties. But they have inherited an intentionally incomplete religion.
Please understand that I do not claim they are inadequate simply because they are not like traditional monastics. Quite the contrary! At the heart of my own Order is a mission to redevelop monasticism so that it is accessible to our modern world. I understand that if contemplative spirituality is kept solely in the traditional cloisters then it will die out just as the cloisters are dying. Mine is not a call to revive an ancient system in totem. But I recognize the orignal purposes for which these communities were created and see the very same needs here today. For that reason, monasticism must be renewed if not also reinvented for our modern age. But starting from scratch is hardly the most efficient means to that end.
I am encouraging and supportive of any group that is trying to live as Christ lived, whether in community or even on their own. To live a life of love without distinction is a challenge beyond measure. To want to live that life with others in community as St. Francis did is admirable. To want to live a life of hospitality as St. Benedict called for is wonderful. But there is more to being a monk. Internal growth as well as outward activism have been defining characteristics of monasticism through the centuries, but there is still yet more.
I think what these groups are doing is a wonderful thing. I pray they will continue to grow and continue the good works they are accomplishing. But to help in my own way, I’d like to offer a chance to fill in the gaps. Through the next several posts, I’ll lay out our monastic history. For those Protestant Christians that say monasticism and contemplative spirituality is heresy or anti-Jesus, then I’ll help show you a history you’ve probably never had a chance to see. For those that want to reconnect to a tradition as old as the Church herself, I hope you’ll find comfort in reading about others that have longed for and done the same things you are doing now. Christianity is about communion – union through community. When our history isn’t being intentionally erased we can see how we are connected with countless other Christians for thousands of years.
Intentional spiritual community is human nature, I would say. At the very least, it is an intrinsic part of Christianity. Contemplatives were there from the start in the forms of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Monastic communities have grown and developed into many differing forms, but they have all had basic purposes for formation that they have all shared. And though the religious reformations or culture itself has tried to kill it off, it continues to wax and wane. In the mid 20th century, monasticism (primarily Roman Catholic) saw a surge of new vocations. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874410,00.html It was not isolated to the US and Europe either. Like a wave crossing the globe, the decade following the resurgence of western monasticism would see its steady decline. But Christian communities that had roots in monasticism elsewhere across the globe were rediscovering their ancient tradition. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,914100,00.html
In the end, we must recognize that monastic life is a necessity for the world. Even the cradles of traditional monasticism have recognized that if monastic life is to remain viable in the world, then it must change. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,925531,00.html But before we can try to redefine monasticism, we must rediscover its past. Whether we are Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican or Protestant, it is important for us to remember from whence we have come.