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.