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St. Brendan the Navigator of Clonfert. Naomh Breandan in Irish Gaelic, lit. Holy Brendan (Breannain in Old Irish). Lived c. 480’s – 570’s. One of the twelve Apostles of Ireland. He is most famous for his seven years sea voyages that may have taken him to the coast of N. America. Back in Ireland, he helped argue on behalf of his friend St. Columba when he was being excommunicated for starting a civil war.
In this icon, he is portrayed with the correct Celtic tonsure (from ear to ear), and carries a boat, signifying his sea voyages; along with an abbey church, recognizing the monastic houses that he founded. His name is on parchment as a reminder of the Holy Scriptures that Ireland maintained for the Church during the dark ages, and is illuminated after the Celtic fashion. The knot work fish is symbolic of the Easter Mass that he celebrated on the back of a gigantic fish during his voyages. The name is written in Irish Gaelic in honor of his homeland.

St. Brendan, pray for all of us who venture in our lives, in search of that Holy Paradise where Jesus dewells and God reigns forever. Amen.

This icon is a mere 2.5″ x 4″ and will be one of three icons I am writing for a miniature Celtic triptych. The other two will be St. Aiden (same size as St. Brendan) and St. Columba in the center (slightly larger and standing).

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Here’s this week’s final lesson on Celtic Christianity.  For those seeing this post through Facebook, be sure to go to https://brotherkenneth.wordpress.com to hear the audio.  God’s Peace.

Our latest lesson was on St. Aidan of Lindisfarne.  For those coming across this on Facebook, you can access the audio at https://brotherkenneth.wordpress.com/

This week’s lesson: St. Columbanus, the Irish monk that invaded Europe.  For those finding this through Facebook, go to https://brotherkenneth.wordpress.com/ to access the audio.  God’s Peace!

Our lesson on St. Columba.  For those finding this update through Facebook, be sure to go to https://brotherkenneth.wordpress.com to access the audio.  God’s Peace!

This week’s lesson was on St. Brendan the Navigator.  For those seeing this through Facebook, you’ll need to go to brotherkenneth.wordpress.com directly to play the audio.  Enjoy and God’s Peace! 

Contemplative spirituality did not spring from Christianity as an isolated and independent event. Nor is it just a recent fad borrowed from the Far East as many fundamentalist would try to report. Contemplative spirituality has been rooted in Christianity from the very beginning. First, let us look at the setting in which Christianity was born.

Hopefully we can all agree that Christianity was born out of Judaism. The teachings of Jesus were in relation to Jewish Law. Jesus was a practicing Jew. His Apostles were all Jewish. For that reason we must take a close look at the array of Judaism during New Testament times. For the majority of Christians, when asked “what were the sects of Judaism when Jesus was teaching?” they can provide the usual suspects: the Pharisees (those bound to the Law above all else) and the Saducees (those bound to the Temple). Granted, those are fairly over simplified summations, but they are not actually our focus here. Beyond these two groups so often mentioned in the Bible, there were other sects of Judaism that were scattered across the deserts of the Middle East. Significant to our discussion, there were ascetics and mystics.

Hopefully a greater majority of Christians today are familiar or have at least heard of the Essenes. This group of Jewish ascetics followed communal practices, voluntary poverty, and celibacy by some. If we follow the various accounts by Josephus, Philo and Eusebius, there were actually several groups that fell under the title Essene; the Qumran community being only one of them. The best estimates put this movement as lasting for several hundred years, and specifically during the time of Jesus.Another group of Jewish ascetics were the Nazarites. Nazarites were qualified by certain ascetic vows that they took as a form of personal sacrifice to God and renewal/purification. Some of these vows included not going near corpses, avoiding grape derivatives and not cutting one’s hair. Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite of sorts. The shortest term for Nazarite vows was thirty days. There were also those who took Nazarite vows as lifelong vows and even infants that were dedicated to the Nazarite path before birth. Nazarite influence is far more closely linked to Jesus’ formation and ministry than many Christians would acknowledge today. Nonetheless, the influence is there and plain to see. John the Baptist, for instance, lived a life of an ascetic Nazarite. Then when Jesus is baptized by John, the first thing he does is run off into the wilderness for 40 days for fasting and interior discipline – a typical period of time for Nazarite vows. 

We even find a hint of this in the Gospel of Matthew. Granted there is some interesting exegesis out there surrounding this passage, but I’ll let you google it and see the other interpretations. The particular passage I’m referencing is when the author of Mathew says that Jesus “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:23). First off, there is no mention of prophecy in the Old Testament about the city of Nazareth or a Nazarene. There is, however, prophecy about a redeemer of Israel being a Nazarite. Is it possible that the author of Matthew, being one of the later gospels written, confused the terminology of the prophecy?

Quite possibly.

(For the “sola scriptora” and “biblical infallibility” camps out there, I’ll be happy to discuss the foundation to that claim, but I’ll allow for that in the comment field rather than taking up that tangent here.)Suffice it to say, this is one interpretation, but even without it, the ascetic influence and practice of Jesus is still evident in his life and in those around him.

To head off some of the more ardent claims against Jewish asceticism, I’ll go ahead and point out that a great number of Jewish scholars today and over the centuries are highly adverse to the idea of any form of asceticism in Judaism. Most often, they claim that it is in fact a complete antithesis to being a good practicing Jew. They say that Jews only fast a few times a year, with Yom Kippur being the most accepted time to fast.

I have difficulty swallowing the idea that fasting has always had such a minor part in Jewish tradition. Considering it is mentioned a number of time throughout Hebrew scripture, from the prophets to the Book of Jonah and scattered throughout the Psalms to say the least, I would said that the ascetic practice was certainly not condemned across the board during the time of Jesus as some scholars have tried to posit. The fact that even the most observant Jew who would seek to follow all of the 613 mitzvot can only do so if they include the 10 vows specifically intended for Nazarites shows how rooted ascetic practice actually is in Judaism. It may not be a central quality, but it is an aspect of it nonetheless.

Beyond the ascetic practitioners in ancient Judaism, we also have classes of mystics. The most often mentioned would be the prophets. Prior to the fall of the second temple, the prophets were key figures who served to balance the religious interpretation of the king or high priests. These prophets encountered God on a very personal level and relayed what they gathered in that to the Jewish people. The priests recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s sometimes unique understanding and experience of God and allowed for their message. Often these prophets were calling the Jewish people back to a more religious and God centered life, while other times their message was directed specifically at the hierarchy who had fallen from God’s plan.

Let me stress this again. The prophets were a fundamental part of Judaism in this role and the priests and kings recognized the legitimacy of an individual’s experience of God even if it was not necessarily Orthodox or in the accepted fashion. After the fall of the second Temple, the role of prophets was down played by the rabbis as much as possible. Without the Temple, the rabbis and the Law became the cohesive force of Judaism in Diaspora. It did not serve their purpose of unity to have prophets with their own experience of God saying anything contrary to the solidifying orthodoxy of rabbinical Judaism. Here history repeats itself as the hierarchy and an institutionalized religion fears and subsequently represses the personal ecstatic experience of God.

Another class of Jews that responded to a personal mystical experience of God were the Merkabah mystics. Drawing from the Prophet Ezekiel and his description of God’s chariot (represented in Hebrew by the three consonants m-k-b), the Merkabah mystics taught that one could ascend spiritually to stand before the presence of God. These practices were strictly guarded and highly restricted. The horror stories and lore around unprepared individuals that experienced God before they were ready was used to scare away any mediocre inquirers.

The basics of it were this: through specific practices and acquired knowledge (gnosis), one could ascend the heavenly realms to stand before the throne of God. This ecstatic experience was not for the feeble spirit. Stories were passed down of individuals who were spiritually unprepared but, regardless, ascended to God’s presence and went insane because of it.

The practice of Jewish mysticism would remain restricted but still continue through the centuries. Its later evolution would take the name of Kabalah. Until the mid 20th century, it was still primarily a teaching that was passed on orally. It is a tremendous loss that the majority of that oral tradition which was strongest in Eastern Europe was all by exterminated by the Holocaust in the 1930s and ‘40s. As Judaism today tries to reclaim this esoteric piece of its heritage, the old restrictions are being cast away as women and younger adults are being allowed to study what remains of the Kabalistic tradition in the hopes of saving it.

All of this was present in Judaism during the time of Jesus. And much of this was present and of great influence in his teachings and practice. This is what we will discuss next.

 

  

By the time Martin Luther was formally excommunicated in 1521, monasticism as we would most commonly recognize it had been around for over 1200 years. In his early adult life, Luther felt called to the monastic life and joined a friary where he delved into Religious life and study. Unfortunately, he was not suited for this Religious life and amidst his own spiritual frustration and discontentment with the Roman Catholic Church, challenged the hierarchy with his 95 theses. When he was eventually excommunicated for pointing out the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, his theology and teachings became distinctly anti-Catholic. One of his major condemnations was of monasticism, and this targeted focus would shape the movement and spirituality for all Protestants to follow.

Let us take a brief moment, however, to address the major concerns that Luther had. First and foremost, he was appalled by the corruption of the Catholic clergy, specifically the selling of indulgences. When you have a religion whose authority rests in a select minority, it does not come as a surprise that his solution was to hand that authority to the majority (provided they were male), and thus his emphasis on the universal priesthood. He also had a problem with the texts used for the Bible. Though few Protestants know it, Luther tried to throw out the Book of Revelation. He also set aside the texts that we now call the Apocrypha. As far as the Bible was concerned, he believed it should be available for all, so he translated it into German himself while in hiding.

Pertaining most importantly to our discussion here, he also had a problem with the Religious Orders. Unfortunately, his reasons for condemning the Orders were not singular, there were several at least. For one, he was drawing from his own poor experience as a friar. As a practicing contemplative, I would like to point out that there are as many paths to contemplative experience as there are people. Much to his discredit, Luther should have sought a different route than the friary of which he was a part. In the end, he was projecting his own inner turmoil on the system that he was expecting to fix his problems. So his answer to that failure was to blame the system entirely for it and abolish it rather than trying to fix it. Granted, towards the end of his life, Luther regretted that severe action, but by then the damage was done and the Protestant Reformation would continue on without the wealth of that spiritual heritage.

To his credit, though, he was also protesting the elevated position of the monastics. By that point, it was not an uncommon teaching that the most direct route to heaven was through monastic living, that the sacrament of monastic vows were greater even than the sacrament of marriage. This was a derivation that Luther was certainly justified in calling out. Contemplative life is a route to God, but it does not supersede other callings in life. Truth be told, as the Celtic Christians practiced, contemplative life is not even an antithesis to married life. But most of all, monastics are not better than everyone else. We are servants to God just like everyone else. For centuries, the Church had raised monastics on a pedestal, and it took Luther to knock that pedestal back down.

A number of the Religious Orders in Luther’s day had grown corrupt just like the rest of the Church. These monasteries and Abbeys were wealthy in land and riches. Their power was immense. Many monasteries had become homes of sloth, with monks keeping fat off the work of the peasants. Should these Orders have been shaken instead of being razed to the ground? Most likely. Should they have been abolished out of hand? Not at all.

We must understand that the furor of the Protestant Reformation that took hold of Europe and later Britain and then America, was a grab for political power and wealth as much as it was reassessment of religious values. The kings, princes and nobility saw the schism of the Catholic Church as a chance to gain autonomy and absorb the wealth of the church in their lands. This may not have been Luther’s objective, but it became the driving force that would propel Protestantism onto the stage of Europe.

By the mid 1500s in England, Henry VIII would declare himself sovereign of the Church of England and divorce himself and his country from Rome because the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife. In the years that would follow until Queen Elizabeth could finally hold the thrown and provide a sense of stability, England would be bathed in blood for the sake of its own reformation. And the monasteries in England? Henry confiscated the majority when he first declared the Church of England, and his son Edward and his proctors would confiscate the remainder to fill the royal coffers.

In France all the way through the early 1800s, revolution after revolution would see countless monasteries pillaged. Thousands and thousands of unarmed monks, from Germany to Spain, from England through southern France, would be slaughtered outside their sacred homes by mobs who would then pillage and rape these monuments, some of which had stood for over a thousand years.

Why this burning hatred? For what crimes were these monastics condemned? And why had so many monastic houses fallen so far? One by one, we shall address these issues.

One of the most pervasive crimes held against the monasteries was of their wealth. These monks who had been sworn to poverty were as a whole some of the wealthiest communities in Europe. Their primary source of wealth was in the lands they held. For the most part, these lands had been gifted to them from nobility and wealthy patrons. Keep in mind, that the peak of monasticism was during Europe’s feudal age and it was this form that monasticism followed for centuries. The land they held has been acquired legitimately. The peasants that worked the fields were allowed to live off the land. Truth be told, for the majority of this period, the peasants who worked under the shadow of the monasteries were offered better conditions and allowed to keep more of their crops than others under the nobility.

There came a breaking point, however. As is the tendency for base human nature, the poor saw the wealth of the monasteries and by right of might, felt they were entitled to it. As the Protestant Reformation dawned, it is true that many of the monastic Orders were trying to draw as much from their feudal peasants as possible, trying to squeeze the last drop of income from an already impoverished class. Unfortunately, this is where most histories today end the story, leaving out a crucial point. By filling in the rest of this history, we can see that the monastics were more scapegoat and victim than actual oppressor. As much as the monasteries were trying to bleed form the peasants, the monasteries were being bled by the nobility.

As early as the 6th century and well established by the 8th century, it had become common place to have the abbot of a monastery appointed by the local nobility or national monarchy. This period, called the Regime of the Commende, was curtailed on occasion, but by the 18th century was again in full force. Originally according to the commende, vacant monasteries were given to bishops that have been forced from their episcopates. It was not long before this was abused. In only a few centuries, Abbeys and monastic houses were being bequeathed as gifts to princes, mistresses, and illegitimate children. In fact, one of the Medici children was given a number of Abbey churches as a christening gift, one of which had been the Abbey of St. Benedict himself. These appointed abbots, properly called commendatory abbots, whose appointments were even sometimes approved by the Papacy for its own political reasons, rarely ever lived in the Abbey they were put in charge of. They simply saw the monasteries as income, like a child that has inherited his father’s business and expects the trust fund to keep coming in without actually have to manage anything. Thus the monasteries were stripped of their true religious and spiritual leaders and given abbots that had no interest in actually maintaining the spiritual state of the community they had been given. The one instruction they did receive from these appointed abbots was simple: raise money. A number of monasteries were eventually sucked dry and disbanded because the nobility took all there was without concern for the flock they had been given.

Not only were the monasteries being drained monetarily, but spiritually as well. Without an actual abbot overseeing the spiritual development of these religious houses, the brothers (and sisters) that had vowed their lives to the religious life were left on their own, and of course without the necessary leader, spiritual depravity ensued and was allowed to fester unchecked. You can hardly blame the monk for his fall if he came to a monastery where spiritual growth used to be found and was left to fend for himself and thus fell. It would be like blaming an invalid for being sick after he went to a doctor’s office only to find the doctor absent and refusing to ever see him.

When the Protestant Reformation released the valve on the political pressures that had been building up between Rome and the nobility of Europe, the various principalities were finally given the excuse to finish off what they had started. Rather than continuing to try and bleed the monasteries of what they could, they instead turned the peasants against the communities and pillaged them at will. The very people that claimed the monasteries were too wealthy were plundering them to increase their own wealth.

Protestants that revile monasticism rarely ever comment on the number of monks and nuns that were slaughtered without a fight. These were religious houses that had gained wealth primarily through the legitimate gifts of benefactors. It’s curious that the French Revolution was crying for the protection of personal property, but had no problem disregarding it when it came to plundering others.

As fate would have it, the peasants who were allowed to destroy and pillage these sacred houses in retribution for the “tyranny” they had endured soon found themselves under far more oppressive lords as the nobility took control of the lands (and peasants) that the monks had originally been holding. But by then the damage had been done. The Religious Orders that had protected the poorer classes were no longer there to shield them.

Another crime that was thrown against the monks was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the populace was claiming the monks to be depraved and unworthy of their spiritual authority. On the other hand, the populace claimed that if the monks were so superior then it was actually a disservice to the community for not marrying and having children. Yes, the monks who felt called to Religious life in community, to find love of God above love of another person, were forced out of the monasteries so they could marry and have kids. They were breaking the edict to “go forth and multiply”!…never mind the fact that Jesus, his mother and many other notable figures in the New Testament were lauded at that time as being celibate.

Still, at what point did anyone have the right to ignore personal boundaries and tell these men and women how they had to live? They choose their form of religious vocation. They were not forcing it on others. Yet they were condemned and forced to live otherwise. I’m reminded of a quotation from one of the 19th century’s greatest social philosophers when he said “Selfishness is not living as you want to live, it’s making other people live as you want to live.”

Next, the populace said that the Religious Orders were not offering any service to the people. This attack was even carried into the 18th century, in spite of the great universities, founded in the monasteries, that helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. I came across an account of one monastery in France that was trying to open a school only to have the city pass an ordinance that forbid monks from teaching, and then only to have the same city governance abolish the monastery because it supposedly gave nothing back for what it took from the community. Never mind the fact that it was the monasteries that cared for and fed the homeless and poor – not the nobility and various governments that riled up the people to let them loose on the monasteries. The same nobility and governments, I might add, that did nothing to fill the void that was then created and left countless men, women and children to die of hunger and starvation across Europe.

Condemn the Religious Orders as you may, but only after you take into account that they were the caretakers of the forgotten; they were the teachers and educators; they were the proponents of social-class equality (when a member of nobility entered a monastery, he was no better than the poorest of the poor that had entered with him); and with monastics teaching the peasants how to sustain themselves through proper agriculture and irrigation, they cultivated over half of Europe.

The ferocity with which the monasteries were attacked is staggering. Again, there were thousands of monks that were murdered in their monasteries. But the vehemence goes even beyond that. Germany and England may have stolen all they could, but they at least left the buildings standing. Now we have the ruins as silent testaments to the holy people who once populated the cities. But in Spain and France, the monasteries were razed to the ground so that not even a cornerstone would be left as evidence of what had once held Europe above ruin. The Abbey of Cluny in France, for instance, was second only in size to the Vatican in Rome. It took them 20 years, but in that time the peasants completely destroyed the religious house. Imagine the history that France has lost! From the years 1830 to 1835, the French emptied and destroyed some 3,000 monasteries. 3,000 in just five years! For those that may think monasticism was some small sideline in Christianity, try to get your head around that number. 3,000 monasteries in France alone in just five years. Add to that the thousands that were destroyed in the centuries before it.

This was not simply reactionary religion. This was pure human violent greed. There was nothing noble, holy, or glorious about what took place across Europe. There is nothing to romanticize about this mob rule. It was hypocritical for these revolutionaries to cry for the freedom of religion when they would not let others practice as they so chose. Yes, some of the monasteries were corrupt. But in no way did that justify the terrible punishment that was exacted. In plundering, raping, pillaging and slaughtering the monasteries and convents, the Protestant Reformation erased the most viable source of spiritual growth and expression that had been the heart of Christianity. With that in mind, I will now delve into the history of monasticism from the beginning.

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.[4]     

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. 

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