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.