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new monasticism: old words with new accents

November 1st, 2005 by isaac · 8 Comments

Paul recently posted a comment on an ancient post (as far as blog history goes) about a new monasticism. I’ve been reticent to jump into that hot topic. There are plenty of other places to find that conversation. Those two Christian powerhouses, Christianity Today and The Christian Century, have definitely registered NM on most of our horizons. But Paul asks a good question, and I can’t help but being drawn in. Here’s the question:

“So why not use Jesus’ life (and his community) as the model we’re striving for? Why define this way of life as a ‘new monasticism,’ and compare it with prior monastic examples, rather than simply comparing our way of life with Jesus’ Way?”

The question definitely makes sense to me. Why import that messy movement of monasticism into our reading of Jesus? Why don’t we just read Jesus and the way of Jesus as such?

The question provokes further inquiries into the role of an interpretive community that reaches through history, and an honesty about our distance from the text—the way a whole lot of readers and events stand between us and the Bible. And this is good news because we need all the ears we can get. I think the story of Israel and the stories of the disciples show us quite clearly that the people of God are hard of hearing. Most of the time we stumble around long enough until God gets ahold of us. That’s why those voices of history, that living tradition of interpretation, are important as hearing aids. They help us hear stuff that we couldn’t hear before. We hear through them. We can’t hear crystal clear because our ears resound with the tones of today—particular problems, certain grammars, and specific echoes all come to bear as we read Scripture. Our historical moment supplies unavoidable filters that accentuate certain tones in the words we read and tune out others.

So, it seems, examples of folks through history whose lives embody a way of reading Jesus and his Way provide keys into unlocking meanings of the text, ways of reading that lie hidden below our radar screen, tones that escape our historically formed ways of hearing (think about the ways dogs can hear certain whistles while humans can’t). We look back to examples throughout history as a way of getting new lenses through which to read Scripture, more windows through which the light of the gospel can shine.

All that is part of what is behind these communities gathering under the banner of monasticism. They want to find ways the history of the church can bear on the life of the church today. It’s a desire to have a history, to tie ourselves to a past, to locate ourselves in a stream of saints stretching across history. It’s an attempt to find in the past a new vantage point from which to see the present, to shed more light on the present in hopes of seeing what we might want to hide, to set us free from the delusions of the present. Looking to past embodied interpretations of the way of Jesus explodes our narrow imaginations, our constricted accounts of what is possible and impossible. So, I think it’s best to think about these Christian communities as exercises in historical imagination. They communally embody a form of life that attempts to make the past bear on the present. Their existence shows us that there are more ways of living faithfully than we thought of before. As it says in Schools for Conversion, “These essays attempt to show how some Christians in the church in the United States feel the Spirit leading them to creative ways of life that may provide the hope of new possibilities for faithfulness” (p. x).

But Paul’s comment also brings up another important issue about how the past also reveals pitfalls. There is no pure example of faithfulness to which we must return. It’s always a critical engagement with the past in order to learn from mistakes. Those mistakes teach us about our own tendencies, our own shortcomings, and thus signal a warning about the (im)purity of even our best motives. Yes, some streams of monasticism may have turned into a stagnant pool of cloistered self-righteousness. My mom tells stories about growing up in a family struggling to find enough food for dinner while the priests in the local monastery feasted like kings behind their grandiose walls. That’s bad. And I think it’s clear that the communities who gather together under the banner of a new monasticism do not follow those dead-end streams. The list of the neo-monastic marks make it pretty clear that the communities exist for the sake of the world; they outline their shape by commitments like hospitality to strangers, relocation to abandon places in order to be in solidarity with the forgotten, care for God’s earth, and peacemaking in the midst of violence.

There are many other ways that this new community of communities reform the past as they critically appropriate it—like re-understanding the place of married people and single people. But I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently Rowan Williams’ wonderful exposition of early desert monasticism, give the sort of vision of monasticisim that these new communities locate themselves in. In his now classic work The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes,

“The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasiticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.” (p.46)

Bonhoeffer’s read of monasticism highlights the way grace was preserved at the borders of the church during a time when the seculariztion of mainstream Christianity birthed cheap grace, a grace without the cross. Monastic communities, for Bonhoeffer, serve as a living question agitating at the edge of the church provoking imaginitive re-negotiantions of what Christian discipleship is all about. It’s a living protest against versions of Christianity that fit all too well in the mold of civil religion—that is, a Church whose purpose is to produce faithful citizens of the earthly city (the pagan city as Augustine calls it in The City of God). Thus, these neo-monastic communities are embodied questions put to the rest of the church. They call the church’s attention to hidden places, urban spaces just below our trained sense of vision, and invite others to find new life here, to find new life by giving one’s life to another.

In Where God Happens, Rowan Williams explores the fourth-century world of the desert fathers and mothers. His account of those first monastic communities displays a world that holds a hope for abundant life for present communities that wish to learn from the past. He writes,

“You ‘flee’ to the desert not to escape neighbors but to grasp more fully what the neighbor is—the way to life for you, to the degree that you put yourself at their disposal in connecting them with God. The unusually community that is the desert monastery of the first generation is not meant to be an alternative to human solidarity but a radical version of it that questions the priorities of community in other contexts. And this remains the most important function of any monastic community today—for the church and the wider world alike.” (p.33)

For the early desert Fathers and Mothers, going to the desert served their attempts at discovering what it really means to be a neighbor. Their witness to us consists in calling us to discover the joy of suffering with another, the hope birthed in self-renunciation for the sake of one’s neighbor. As Williams puts it, they question our priorities, those commitments that blind us from love of neighbor. This is the sort of vision that seems to form the neo-monsatic commitment to “relocate to the abandoned places of Empire” (mark #1). Sister Margaret McKenna’s essay at the beginning of the book shows how the urban ghettos are these abandoned places, these deserts of the Fathers and Mothers. This sort of relocation is a journey to discover those hidden neighbors whose lives are necessary for the operation of the economy in which we share. This movement to marginalized communities offers the church sites for meeting the neighbors who live at the bottom of the economy so the rest of us can keep on going on the top. They are our neighbors, we just don’t take the time to learn what it means to be the sort of neighbors Jesus calls us to be.

These are the sorts of ways these communities can make the past speak the new life of the gospel to us. They use the examples of monastic communities to help see how the church names a living tradition that belongs to the dead as much as us. And they can still speak to us, if we want to listen. A new monasticism prods our imagination in ways that make us look back to those old embodied interpretations of the way of Jesus and listen to how we can make those voices speak the gospel to us and the world in new accents, in fresh tones.

Tags: theology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Nov 1, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Wow, great post. I’ve been hearing a little bit of the buzz lately about the “new monasticism” as well (probably from those same Christian magazines).

    Per your Bonhoeffer remark, I wanted to add something that I thought was also important, which I noted back when I blogged the first chapter of his Cost of Discipleship back at the beginning of May:

    Not to sound too hopeless about the church, Bonhoeffer illustrates how there has been at least one constant example of the life of costly grace since the time after Jesus was resurrected: the monastics. The life of the monk is very costly because they must give up everything in order to follow Christ. If nothing else, they survived to remind us of costly grace. Unfortunately in a paradoxical kind of way, the life of the monastic was pointed to by those attempting to secularize Christianity as an example that only a select few individuals could achieve such a costly life, thus excusing their own cheap grace!

    Bonhoeffer then highlights Martin Luther as the character in the story who points out that we are indeed all called to the same costly grace that the monastics pursue, but in whatever setting we may find ourselves.

    I hope to resume blogging that book sometime!



  • 2 isaac // Nov 2, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Yeah, your comment points to how Bonhoeffer progresses after the passage I quoted. As you point out, the mainstream church sedated the explosive potential kept alive in the monastic tradition by calling them “saints.” I think it was Dorothy Day who told people not to call her a saint because she didn’t want to be dismissed so easily. So, as Bonhoeffer notes, the church “relativized” the powerful witness of monasticism. I think our contemporary N. American church can follow in these same steps. These new monastic communities put a question to the church. They, like that desert monasticism Rowan William describes, “question the priorities of community in other contexts.” But as soon as the question emerges, our impulse is to dismiss it, to relatize it, to tame it. Our impulse is always to contain the strange, to explain it away, to make it fit in what we already know. I wonder if these communities offer fuel for our imagination—embodied questions that invite us into new worlds of faithfulness. That’s why I think that book (Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism) offers a great resource for churches to gather together and have a conversation about new ways to be faithful that look at the present through the light of other moments of the church’s history. (Even though I worked on that book, don’t worry, I don’t get any money from sales!)

  • 3 Daniel Greeson // Nov 4, 2005 at 9:11 am

    great post, new monasticism has really grabbed my attention lately..

  • 4 paul rohde // Nov 5, 2005 at 11:13 am

    “We look back to examples throughout history as a way of getting new lenses through which to read Scripture, more windows through which the light of the gospel can shine.”

    I agree, Isaac. I have learned from the insights of the monastics as well as many other Christians trying to follow Jesus throughout history. I wasn’t suggesting that we ignore the testimony of other Christians. I was questioning whether we should set them as our model. The best monastics looked to Jesus and his community as their example and guide and I think those monks would question our modeling ourselves after them rather than him. Wouldn’t they? But maybe I’m misunderstanding your emphasis on the monastics.

    “It’s a desire to have a history, to tie ourselves to a past, to locate ourselves in a stream of saints stretching across history.”

    Yes, I agree. Of course Jesus was also a historical figure who led a real human community, which puts him in our history as much as anyone. Were the monastics more historical or more relevant to us than Jesus’ community?

    Again, I agree than we need to listen to Christians throughout history (for that matter, why focus primarily on the monastics?), but we also need to evaluate and challenge these expressions of what it means to follow Christ, because they have all been a mixed bag. You seem to acknowledge this, right? So what is the basis for that evaluation? I’ve heard people challenge certain beliefs or practices because “that’s not the Dominican way” (I was a Dominican for a while) or “that’s not how the Catholic Worker does things” (I’m in a Catholic Worker house now). And I wonder what we’re trying to live up to. The Catholic Worker ideal? Some monastic ideal? Or do we stand beside people in all those traditions in trying to live out Jesus’ way, using his example to evaluate ourselves and our communities?

    Maybe I should stop there and let people tell me if I’m making any sense…

  • 5 Jason // Nov 8, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    Paul, you bring up some great challenges. What I wonder is whether there is any such thing as a pure Jesus Way? I’m not sure that there’s an ahistorical or atemporal way that we can boil down from Scripture that results in a timeless “way to follow Jesus.” That seems to be what Protestants tried to do time and time again throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as “non-denominational” churches kept forming, splitting, and eventually coagulating into a denomination (Church of Christ is one examnple of this) in an effort to get back to the “NT model” of church. I guess I would argue that the better way would be to realize that the Church has a history with many strands. Each strand attempts to capture what it is to follow Jesus with heart, mind, and soul, but Jesus is too big to fit into one strand. And so we throw our lot in with one of these strands that seems to do it well while also acknowledging the gifts the other strands bring as well.

  • 6 isaac // Nov 10, 2005 at 6:50 am

    Paul, I think you are pressing me in the right direction: “Were the monastics more historical or more relevant to us than Jesus’ community?” That’s an important question. I tried to make sure I didn’t say that examples replace the Jesus and his followers we encounter in our holy texts. You are right, that’s doesn’t seem like the best way to go (although Augustine says holy people are texts too, and sometimes they speak Jesus to us better than the Scriptures!)—at least, that isn’t a direction I feel comfortable going. But what I tried to say (and I guess I said it poorly) is what Jason said: “I’m not sure that there’s an ahistorical or atemporal way that we can boil down from Scripture that results in a timeless ‘way to follow Jesus.’” That’s what I am trying to say: There is no such thing as a pure way of Jesus unmediated by history. We are always looping back to the Jesus of the New Testament through historical mediations; the question is whether or not we want to acknowledge that we are operating in a default mode, using a default lens through which to read Scripture.

    The reason why these communities chose monasticism as their lens through which to read Jesus (remember: it’s always about faithfulness to Jesus and his Way; the examples point beyond themselves) opens up all sorts of interesting paths. One important one is the work of Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. That work served to open up the imaginations of many Christians to unmask the cultural powers at work in Western civilization. As a way forward, MacIntyre pointed to the possibilities of a “new monasticism” that worked to untangle it’s vision of “the good life” from the vision of Empire, of civilization at large. (Although it is quite a different read of today’s world, Hardt and Negri’s Empire also dreams of another monastic moment, but for them the key figure is St. Francis). That’s the piece that appeals to these communities. They feel like our cultural moment is sorta like the one the desert Fathers and Mothers lived in: the modern Empire (for the time being, I like Hardt and Negri’s description of that term) determines the purposes or goals (telos, to use MacIntyre’s term) for Christian community. This is accomodationist Christianity. For these new communities, monasticism is a way to struggle against an accomodated church, a Christianity that isn’t able to separate God’s vision for the church from the Empire’s vision for the church. Here’s how the preface to the says it: “As we looked together at the long sweep of the church’s story…we began to see that the church’s response to compromise and crisis has consistently been one of new monastic movements. When the emperors made Christianity legal and offered the favors of their Empire in the 4th century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers began the first monastic movement by fleeing the centers of power and creating alternative communities in the desert” (p.ix). Then the praface uses this monastic movement to interpret what was going on with St. Francis during the Crusades, the Anabaptists in the 16th century, and the slave church in the American South. Through this history of Christian resistance to the temptation of Empire’s power—a movement that they identify as “monastic”—these neo-monastic communities find a helpful lens through which to magnify the light of Christ into the present. “In an age when ‘Christian’ America is the ‘last remaining superpower’ in an all-out ‘war on terror,’ we’ve begun to think that once again it is time for a new monasticism” (pp.ix-x).

    Paul, let me know if that is helpful in thinking about “why monasticism?”. I don’t think monasticism operates as an “ideal” here. Rather, it is an example that helps us see; it points away from itself and sheds new light on Jesus and his followers. And of course this is circular: the criteria that judges the faithfulness of the examples is the story of Scripture, but the story Jesus of Scritpure is read through a history of interpretation, a history of attempts at exemplified faithfulness. But I don’t think that’s a problem. It just means that our readings of the Bible and history are contingent; our interpretations are fragile, they could change when we come to see things in a different light. And that is what communal discernment is all about. That’s why the end of the preface of Schools for Conversion hopes for more conversation in local churches. The vision could be wrong, or the light of Christ might shine differently in diverse localities. But the call is for discernment. And this is where I may (or may not, depending on where he’s going with this thought) disagree with Jason who writes, “Each strand attempts to capture what it is to follow Jesus with heart, mind, and soul, but Jesus is too big to fit into one strand.” Sure Jesus is too big, but I also want to make sure that this doesn’t lead to a Christian version of American liberalism that uses pluralism to keep everybody safe from challenging conversations because there are a diversity of right ways. So, we get churches that never have to struggle with one another about why they are they way they are becuase everyone retreats to the saftey of “Well, this is just what works for me.” That just doesn’t seem right to me. There is only one Bride of Christ, and that means we need to argue and struggle with one another in order to see how one version of Christianity is more faithful than another, and maybe that means I must give up my vision if you lead me to see something different, something that escaped my horizon of possibility, something that dropped off my radar screen. But there is no way to see how the Spirit moves beforehand, in advance of the encounter, of the struggle. The Spirit of Christ comes in the discernment of the “two or more” who gather.

  • 7 paul rohde // Nov 14, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    Yes, that does help, Isaac. “’s always about faithfulness to Jesus and his Way.”

    In seminary I also studied the “lenses” through which we interpret scripture, so I understand the concept. But then (and now) I objected that Jesus is not just “the scriptural Jesus,” words on a page, but a living person who we can know now. Who both helps us understand the stories of his life and helps us interpret the situations we find ourselves in. There is a pure “Way.” Jesus said he himself was “the Way,” and we do have access to him personally. I hope that doesn’t get overlooked in all the talk about history and lenses.

    I agree with your concerns about us focusing only on one strand of Jesus’ way and being satisfied with that. Whether than means neglecting to challenge (or receive challenge) from other Christians, or resigning ourselves to being like Jesus in only certain aspects of our lives. We truly are the “one Bride of Christ.” And, while it seems impossible, we are called to be like Jesus in all ways.

    So how do you think the monasticism focus fits with that? I know many Christians who would not find common cause with you in trying to be “monastic.” What would that mean to them? (On the other hand, they would recognize the importance of “following Jesus,” though they may differ in their understanding of what that means.) Is that important to your concern about “arguing and struggling” together to find a more faithful Christianity?

    And what about the aspect of monasticism that “sets apart” a minority of the church to lead a more rigorous Christian life (while much less was expected of the rest)? I’m guessing that’s not part of your vision. But I find that hard to separate from the monastic model. Jesus, on the other hand, chose average joes to form his community, mingled with everyone, and called all to follow him and “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


  • 8 peter // Feb 20, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    i was really excited when i first saw the new monasticism. i bought jonathan’s (one of the leaders of the group) books. i also emailed him personally because i was considering doing something like he has done (and still do, just not with him). we had quite a few emails back and forth, and then i read his books. i loved his books until i got to the very end where he talks about mysticism.

    i emailed him about his perspective and finally decided i didnt want to be involved in it. my wife felt from the beginning there was something spiritually wrong with their group. and then i found out he prays to mary and to other dead people. and he practices eastern meditation, etc.

    so while i love the concept of what they are doing, i think we must be careful not to jump without looking. with that said, i am seriously considering something like he has started.

    grace and peace