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Contemporary Monasticism

January 2, 2008

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The Margins of a Spiritual Wilderness
We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change.Along the margins of the mountain ranges of North America, where unmanageable fortifications and regal satellites of rock surrender to low plains, lies a series of lesser ridges. They are known as the ‘outer range’, and winding through these barren lowlands is what the Native Indians call ‘The Trail’ – the pilgrimage to go beyond the here and now, and on toward the colonies of heaven. To many indigenous cultures ‘the trail’ is widely regarded as the most precious gift we have, and during the autumn of 1994 I remember sitting in the bar of a small town due south of the Adirondack Mountains with an old Indian. That night he told me the story of the ‘coal holders’.

As the seasons changed, when winter would eventually arrive, the tribe would have to move camp. Each tribe would designate coal carriers, and as the fire burned low, when the time came to move on, someone would have to carry the last hot coal to start the next fire at the new campsite. The old man explained that the community needed this fire to cook with, to sleep near, but most importantly this fire was the place of communication. It was the sacred place of storytelling, of dance and song. In short it was the heart of community. For many a weary pilgrim today it may feel like the fire has gone out completely. For those spiritual refugees who have connected to something they know to be true but no longer know where to go to explore and develop that connection our current spiritual climate may seem very cold.

We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change. Our world is beginning to groan and toil for something beyond the inadequate patterns it has experienced and knows. Humanity is tired and longing for a life liberated by a spirituality that offers hope and gives rise to a world of justice and peace. Our common task, it seems, is to discover a new way of being human. It is this new way of being which intrigues me. I find it unfortunate that ‘church’ has become a by-word for the hypocritical and the insipid. Is it possible that a place can be found where spiritual refugees are able to be heard, can believe and belong without conforming in some way to an institution which makes us feel fraudulent, masking who we really are?

Bonhoeffer’s Monastery Without Walls
More than fifty years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the renewal of the Western church would come from a new monasticism whose only connection to traditional monasticism would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). New conceptions of church have been a central component of contemporary Protestant mission in the West. This plurality of ideas has led to many different types of church communities. These changes appear to have risen from the conviction that traditional churches are themselves a problem. Many have come to believe that, if the Christian faith is to become a viable alternative within a post-modern culture, then the form of the community of faith must journey towards the blurred edges of the post-evangelical mood and be re-evaluated and reformed. It is a genuine practical concern about the possible manifestations of Bonhoeffer’s new monasticism that has led me to ask: can, in this macro-cultural context, a contemporary monastic movement bring about the kind of reformation of our incarnational religion that will enable Christian people of the West both to relate their faith to the world, and also form, in a micro-cultural context, the kind of community which allows them to explore that faith fully and so bring rest for their souls?

Ronald Roheiser prudently observes that, ‘we, the children of Western culture, post-modern, adult children of the enlightenment, struggle with practical atheism. Our churches are emptying and, more and more, the sense of God is slipping from our ordinary lives.’ An observation I concur with and one that saddens me, as I always get the idea that Jesus is more interested in the ordinariness of our at times mundane difficult existence than anything else. Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting a return to ‘camp side community’ where the coal carriers of today become the embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount. To push the analogy a little further it may be that in the imperishability of salt we have a guarantee of the permanence of the divine community – that community being a new monastic order. Historical and sociological insights urge theologians to look hard at situations where church praxis is worked out. Ideas in isolation are not enough. Theology needs to be seen in relation to the events which will eventually shape it. Bonhoeffer’s theology is best understood as an account of the continuity of God’s identity interpreted through the identity of Christ – which would then inform the Christian identity through the Sermon on the Mount. Christ then lives in and works through the new monastic community, so demonstrating a Christological pattern of human relationship that affirms the intrinsic value of integrity and faithfulness.

Some scholars say that Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship can be read as theological manuals on Christian community. There are complimentary themes of meditation and immediacy that originate in Bonhoeffer’s work. He suggests that the ‘disciple community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it.’ The elucidation of such propositions occurs in the way Bonhoeffer develops his doctrine of community. He suggests that when salt loses its flavour it in fact ceases to be salt, suggesting that judgement hangs over the Christian community depending upon whether or not it seasons the world. It would seem that at this moment in history we need the coal carriers more than ever – illusions don’t keep us warm at night.

The new monastic life must embrace both the need for community as the essence of an authentic spiritual journey and the importance and freedom of individual interpretations of that journey. Those wishing to communicate and build relationship with a post-Christian culture need to implement this with some urgency. Only a dying minority have an interest in mediocre uniformity. Many are tired of those who would espouse theoretical knowledge, what is longed for is a sharing of a practical knowledge of how to live as an individual who is part of and co-responsible for a community. Bonhoeffer states that, ‘the community which is the subject of the Beatitudes is the community of the crucified.’ Contemporary missiology is concerned with amalgamating strands – restoring those broken and embracing those which survive. Scholars such as Lesslie Newbigin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were some of the last voices of modernity who believed community was key to living fully. Mike Riddell and Dave Andrews are two of the first voices giving perceptive insights of how we embrace and build community from within the complexities of post-modernity. At some point we must ask the question; does anything connect across this paradigm shift? I suspect authentic and lasting renewal comes not from a Pentecost experience, but from moments immersed with the fragrance of Gethsemane and Calvary.

In other words the Enlightenment (modernity) was the old paradigm; just maybe the new monasticism (post-modernity) could be the new. A principle central to the ideas of post-modern monasteries without walls was an equally essential aspect of any historical monastic order, namely solitude. Solitude is something post-modern people crave but struggle to find. Jesus often retreated to be alone, to find privacy and nourish his soul – to that place where God mystically and tenderly exposes our weakness and nourishes and sustains us. Thomas Merton describes this mystical solitude as contemplation and I believe that this contemplation (solitude) is a helpful eschatological vision to manifest a simplicity that will assist in building an authentic community of faith.

Vows of the Contemporary
Matt Rees believes that this simplicity will come from three ‘essentials’ of the contemporary monastic – community, rule and vows. These ‘essentials’ require the development of shared rhythms, resources and hospitality. Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have long been a part of the monastic life. A new monasticism needs to re-establish the meaning of the vows through contemporary expression, e.g. vows of generous justice, reckless love and unconditional listening. One should not abandon traditional vows but reinterpret them in ways which will make sense in the post-Christian world.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ commits us to live simply, to be committed to ecological stewardship, and to have a deep concern for the poor and marginalised. Bonhoeffer believed that vows give a framework to counter the excessive individualism that permeates our culture, so enabling something Tom Sine calls, ‘the future of God through creative community,’ where our lives, energy and resources are poured outwardly to re-establish a new age of economic justice, a life source for the broken, and rest for the weary. Realisation and experience are vital for the bare bones of this idea to find some flesh, for there too many weary pilgrims asking the question, ‘where can I go?’ For what it’s worth, I would call for the re-shaping of local churches and for small groups to grow around contemporary hermits. I was talking with Ray Simpson of Lindisfarne recently and he told me of a young pastor who admitted to the feeling that somewhere deep inside himself he was called to be a monk, but that he did not know what that meant. When I asked Ray how he answered the man he said that it could mean adopting a new rule or rhythm of life. It might also lead to the church as a whole adopting a set of values and practices which include daily prayer and regular meals together.

These comments are important. This position of not quite being sure where we are travelling, not fully understanding the realisation of a mystery once more I think is a healthy one. We are inundated with varying analysis of the slow haemorrhage of the contemporary church, but to the thinking Christian this is not news. What most disillusioned pew leavers need is practical assistance on what physically is possible as an alternative. Mike Yaconelli, in pastoring a church for people who don’t like church, pioneered a new ecclesiological paradigm. It is something Moltmann calls the ‘Open Church’, and what Bonhoeffer called ‘the Church for others.’ So many have lost faith whilst living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, and so what has developed is a pseudo-spirituality of the individual, where the West, it seems, is seeking to transcend itself. This becomes problematic because it creates isolation and fragments any kind of hope for a communal pattern of living. Yet to embrace the fragmented, marginalized, and flawed people of our communities, who are suspicious of Institutions, might just be part of the mystery which helps reconnect them. Most of my own friends, particularly those who don’t profess any kind of faith seem to want to explore uncharted territory, not to escape, but to find some way back home. The new monastics will be spiritual guides who will listen to stories, and having listened will offer some helpful clues for the general direction to be travelled, maybe offering some hospitality, a meal or a warm bed for the night, before allowing the pilgrim to journey on. Bonhoeffer alluded to this when he said that ‘prayer and action on behalf of others were two essentials that the new monastics would be limited to.’ This new monasticism is not trying to convince the community of faith to return to the historical manifestation and understanding of monasticism, but rather the opposite, that the new order would radically become fully engaged with the world.

Hospitality – Church around the meal table
Jesus did not have a home, he relied on the kindness of strangers for the niceties of life that you and I probably take for granted – a cooked meal, a bath, and a place to rest ones head for the night. In both Jewish and Celtic traditions the household becomes the main expression of ‘church’. Contemporary expressions of monasticism would perhaps encourage household development of prayers and rituals for significant daily happenings, primarily because they are more natural and organic than the evangelical model of cells. With a covenanted, organic, relational, small community in mind, my wife Claire and I decided that our home would become exactly that: a safe haven for a few vulnerable pilgrims to join us in the sharing of our journeys. One of our group describes it so:
Church is about relationship: Church around the meal table allows intimacy, confidentiality and security. Ideas can be voiced, ignorance’s confessed, mistakes allowed for and blessings shared. Time can be given to explore the nature of spirituality, the impact of the previous week’s experiences and points raised by that Sunday’s sermon. Because there is no particular agenda there is flexibility for change and sensitivity to what needs to be spoken about.

Criticising what exists is too easy, and unless we are ready to go beyond theory no reformation will be possible. Communities need to function and be energised. Bonhoeffer suggests that this is part of the completion with the working of atonement, particularly where the family is able to gather together, embracing the invitation to ‘come and eat’. The rhetoric of family values has become hurtful. There is a need for the rebuilding of family systems for it is abundantly clear that our polarities have weakened the community of family. Monastic communities though have always provided space and time for relating. Accountability and liability have always expressed the essence of the Monastic church for our brothers and sisters. As Tom Sine suggests, ‘over the centuries, much of the renewal of the church has come through small communities in which people are organically linked to one another in common purpose.’

The ability to relate to one another with out being inhibited is overwhelmingly difficult in large groups. Certain dynamics, where human emotion is embraced and intimacy nurtured, where we share one another’s joys and sorrows, becomes limited when numbers grow. Small groups also enable counter-dependency, and those who have been part of table church have expressed their gratitude for a place where one can question the taken-for-granted nature of the faith community’s beliefs, values and expected behaviours. It seems to provide a helpful sanctuary and refuge for those Alan Jamieson calls the reflective exiles, so helping the process of deconstructing the faith before re-building it. In other words table church and other forms of a new monastic order recognise that some traditional patterns are not helpful and appropriate for journeying into territory. As another of our group shared:
I guess I’m not in a place where I can speak passionately about the physical church. New concepts, new ideas, new pathways always require a period of hibernation. I am there at present.

Embracing the Organic Rhythm of Spirituality
It is essential that pious demands are not placed on people who are not ready to meet them. One must nurture carefully an earthed spirituality to allow a change of course and provide an open door into a new world. Throughout history story telling has been the primary means of communicating matters of significance. I think it was Walter Brueggemann who said that a metastory, if replaced by a personal story, only makes the Biblical story more poignant in connection to our journeying. Storytelling, eating and drinking around a fire – these are all participatory activities where one can learn, be vulnerable, and begin a healing at grass-roots level in the form of community.

For the coal carriers of today walking into the unknown is a risk. We have to live with contradictions, we have to help one another through the wasteland, but more than that we must continue to nurture what it means to follow Christ, and reform who we have become. The new monasticism will, as does table church, personify desire. There will be tempers and frustrations, but they are saturated in passion. As I look around the majority of churches I visit I see mostly the church is trying to create nice people, and the consequence of this is that most are bored. Was there not a promise of not thirsting any more and life in all its fullness? Too many pilgrims still leave church spiritually thirsty and malnourished. Contemporary monasticism is not about efficiency but inclusion. Douglas Coupland advocates this in his work, suggesting that they key happiness is the importance of a safe, open place to discuss and find the meaning of life, where friends and strangers can begin once more the difficult task of finding community in a fragmented world.

As I listened all those years ago to the intoxicating wisdom of my Indian friend, I realised the need to widen my boundaries, to sift my soul of the muck and mire of my religious ego. We are by nature ritual makers, and there is something profound in that rite of passage that allows us to let go of the past. I am not talking here about some emotionally charged resolution that will be disregarded once normality (whatever that is) reigns. Rather I am speaking of our duty to the soul. It is not just culture that is trying to balance religious obligation with secular freedom: there is a paradigm shift of the soul occurring where we wrestle with principles of inner reform. As we talked about ‘the trail’ the old man explained to me that rather than attending church he went to a sweat lodge; rather than accepting bread and wine from a priest, he smoked a ceremonial pipe to come into communion with the Great Spirit; and rather than kneeling with his hands placed together in prayer he allowed the tenderness and beauty of creation to wash over him for cleansing – the smoke carrying his prayers to the heavens.

My old friend did not regard his spiritual beliefs as a religion in the way many Christians do. His practices form an integral and seamless part of his very being. We need the coal-carriers of Christianity to keep the God-man Jesus alive and well – to keep the voice of the soul breathing – to go clear the land for a new culture. As Douglas Coupland suggests, ‘if you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world – if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order – then you’re wasting your day.’ There is no blue print for the new monasticism, just many differing expressions of community stumbling together towards God. Initially, I suspect it will only attract those who have lost faith with institutionalised church – those spiritual refugees – searching to find a non-threatening home where their spirituality and search for God can be explored. In time I expect the balance to change. Bonhoeffer’s prediction, prophecy, vision, dream – however we package it – may just be the sign-post which will lead us in the right direction to restore and renew the community of God in the West…I hope so.

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