New monasticism

January 15, 2008


Taking the idea of monasticism off the shelf of Christian history, dusting it off, and redefining it for life and ministry in the postmodern world are the “new monastics.”

New monasticism (or neo-monasticism) is a trend of reawakened interest in how Christians in antiquity developed communities centered around a Rule of Life and/or vows, and a daily rhythm of prayer. Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds are discovering value in the example set by the ancient monastics, and are looking for how the principles behind these communities may be relevant to the 21st century Church: principles of spiritual discipline, simplicity, and radical obedience to Christ.

The term “new monasticism” has its root in a letter the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother in 1935: “…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…” [italics added] Another often-referenced source for the term is Jonathan R. Wilson’s book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World [Morehouse].

Exploring new monasticism can mean different things, ranging from simply adopting a community’s Rule of Life — a basic guideline for the kind of life the members of the community are expected to live — and seeking to adhere to it in one’s current situation, to moving into an intentional community that works to bring new life to a forgotten region.

For some, new monasticism may mean becoming a member of a third order, for example, the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis (www.tssf.org). Third orders, or tertiaries, allow lay people to join monastic societies by agreeing to live according to the society’s rule and going through a trial period as a novitiate. The rule of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis is composed of the Holy Eucharist, penitence, personal prayer, self-denial, retreat, study, simplicity of living, work, and obedience.

Others may feel inspired by communities with Celtic roots, such as the Northumbria Community (www.northumbriacommunity.org), the Lindisfarne Community (www.icmi.org), the Iona community (www.iona.org.uk), or the Community of Aidan and Hilda (www.aidan.org.uk). Similar to Third Orders, membership in these communities involves agreeing to remain in contact with the community and living according to its rule.

Still other dispersed communities connected by a commitment to a Rule of Life include The Order of the Mustard Seed (www.mustardseedorder.com), which has “rediscovered” roots stretching back to the 18th century, the newer and smaller Order of Mission (www.missionorder.org), and the Emergent Order (www.emergentvillage.com).

New monasticism is also manifested in small, intentional communities that have been sprouting up across the United States. One of the most visible of these is Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina (www.newmonastiscism.org). Founded by Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove after a trip with a Christian Peacemaker Team to Iraq, members of Rutba House share meals and pray from the Book of Common Prayer, and seek to bring new life to the neglected section of the city they live in. In 2004, Rutba House hosted a conference on the new monasticism that resulted in the publication of a book: School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism [Cascade].

The Simple Way (www.thesimpleway.org), a community living with and serving the poor and homeless in Philadelphia, is another example. The Simple Way was founded by Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, and five others. An annual family reunion at The Simple Way’s community has become a gathering place for members of several similar intentional communities.

The new monastic movement is not unified or homogenous, but there are several important commonalities in its different streams: a desire to set some sort of Rule of Life that will allow members to structure their lives around radical commitment to Christ, and, in contrast to the “old” monastics’ withdrawal into cloistered communities, a passionate involvement in the world. Bonhoeffer’s vision of a new type of monasticism is being realized. Let’s hope this current is indeed strong enough to bring restoration to today’s church and healing to the world.