Learning from New Monastics

New-MonasticismI would be a terrible monk. My teachers could hardly get me to stop talking in class, and I am not much for “roughing-it” without my social media and electronic devices. But there is something compelling to me about a group of Christians living together and enjoying a simple lifestyle. There’s something that attracts me to the New Monastic movements popping up across America. In fact it’s not merely some personal attraction that draws me towards new monasticism; rather I believe that the contemporary church can learn a great deal from it. New Monasticism can help us develop consistent Christian practices while living under the barrage of sinful cultural liturgies.

Protestants in particular may be unsettled by the recommendation of a renewed or neo-monasticism. We can readily admit to the weaknesses of monastic life. Monasticism has a reputation of being isolated from culture, from the world, even, to some degree, from civilization. The earliest monks isolated themselves to living in the desert. Later traditions adopted practices of not speaking, and of doing life behind cloistered walls away from sin and sinners (or so they thought). For many in the Middle Ages, then, the most spiritually mature were those who abandoned the world to devote themselves to God. Such a program left the church hampered without teachers, leaders, and mentors. It also misrepresented what it meant to follow Christ on earth. It undercut the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in John 17 that we be in this world, even while we demonstrate that we are not part of it. This is not the model that attracts me, and yet, there is much to commend about monastic life.

The American church today has hosts of blind spots and weaknesses, not the least of which is its adoption of individualistic faith. Christianity, to many, is a matter between you and God. The church is not about a community of believers who can hold me accountable, help me grow, and draw me in to service. Rather, the church is a place to entertain me. It’s a social club for Christians, optional for the faith, but totally unnecessary. This individualistic faith means that we don’t think we need anyone, and as a result most of our spiritual growth is minimal. It is into this problem that new monasticism can speak and give us hope of change.

James K.A. Smith says we have a “quantity of immersion” problem in American Christianity (see Desiring the Kingdom). As American Christians we are immersed day after day in the sinful culture around us. That culture is shaping and influencing us whether we realize it or not, and the liturgies of our culture are forming habits and practices in us. We are naïve to think that a once-a-week meeting of Christians for two hours on Sunday morning is a sufficient response to this immersion problem.  Some have responded to this challenge, like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, by joining up into actual monastic communities in urban centers across the U.S. But Wilson-Hartgrove readily recognizes that this is not for everyone, and in his book on new monasticism he does not insist that it is the only way to do church. But it should be evident to us all that we need more than a weekly gathering to sustain our Christian faith.

We need help developing new practices and new habits that will counter the onslaught of cultural immersion we all experience. Smith proposes two particular ways that monastic life can help us with this “quantity of immersion” problem. First, monastic life meant abstention from certain cultural practices. Monastic life from the start meant an abstention from certain majority culture practices that others deemed normal, right, and good. This is not a separatist withdrawal, but a careful recognition of the formative power of certain habits and the realization that to be distinct in the world we have to abstain from them. Smith clarifies:

It may be the case, given the “quantity-of-immersion” challenge we’ve noted, that a Christian community that seeks to be a cultural force precisely by being a living example of new humanity will have to consider abstaining from participation in some cultural practices that others consider normal. Now please note that I am not counseling abstention “from culture” as such, which would amount to pietist withdrawal from the goodness of creation…It would be an abstention from participation in particular (“majority”) cultural practices because of their liturgical formative power…(209-210)

It’s not about seclusion, argues Smith, but rather about living distinctly in the world. It is about forming new habits within this same cultural context, habits and practices that point us ever towards God even while we live here.

Secondly, Smith suggests that monastic life can teach us much about the rhythms of daily worship. Many will readily recognize the importance of daily worship. The church has long emphasized the importance of daily Scripture reading and prayer. These habits are often done, however, in isolation with a bent towards an individualistic faith. Smith offers an alternative approach; he writes:

The monastic traditions (and other premodern configurations of society), on the other hand, point to habits of daily worship that are communal and sacramental, including daily communion – practices of daily gathered worship that are holistic, activating the imagination through bodily participation…not just monks, but also families and students, laborers and lawyers, could find ways to gather daily for worship that is nourishing and formative. For instance, many urban churches offer daily noontime communion, which makes it possible for those engaged in nonmonastic vocations to nonetheless gather with others for full-bodied worship. Often, reflective of “intentional community” (which can take many forms), such daily gatherings can be fostered by geographical proximity. You might say that this is fighting quantity with quantity; Dietrich Bonhoeffer simply describes it as “life together.” (211)

Engaging in daily worship with others helps us to wage war against the inundation of worldly habits that surround us constantly.

New monasticism teaches us to consider how doing life with other believers can help us persist in godly spiritual disciplines and healthy practices. You could go off and join a small Christian commune, and that’s one way to deal with the difficulty of being a Christian in America, to quote Wilson-Hartgrove (see New Monasticism). But you could also adopt and modify the practices of monastic life for our current cultural situation and our modern church structures. New monasticism, then, has much to teach us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: