“Some have become domestic communities and are eventualizing in what we now call “the new monasticism,” a way of being in which Christians, bound together under vows of stability, living out their private lives together in radical obedience to the Great Commandment...
Life on the margins has always been the most difficult and, at the same time, the one most imaginatively lived.”
— Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence
As some of you may know, I'm part of a New Monastic community that has put down roots in the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport, LA. A new mona-what? If that's your question...no worries. It's a common one. And while it's not the easiest question to answer adequately, I write today in hopes to do it some justice.
WHAT IS MONASTICISM ANYWAY?
Let's start with the word monastic. Think of the communal life that has been shared by the monks, nuns, & mystics throughout history. I'm not exactly talking about Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or The Reverend Mother singing "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music–though they are both awesome characters. But I've digressed. Back to reality...
Monastic movements have sprung up throughout history as a means by which to preserve the character of the Church in the world, to remind the Church who She is in times when Her sense of identity is in jeopardy. The New Monasticism is no different in this basic premise. However, the world is different today than it was in the 4th century for the Desert Mothers & Fathers, in the 6th century for St. Benedict his fold, and even in the 16th century for the Reformers.
OK, SO WHAT'S NEW ABOUT IT NOW?
Monasticism today in many ways looks different. Many exciting ways. Most notably, the New Monasticism goes into society–relocating to the abandoned places of imperial culture to embody the kind of life we hope to preserve, rather than retreating from society to do so. Put simply: Same goals for the Church and for the world. Different geographic starting place & execution strategy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer–20th-century German pastor, martyr, and expert on Christian community–wrote in a letter 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…”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Perhaps one of the simplest ways to describe the New Monasticism would be "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity." However, we've abstracted and complicated (or worse, ignored) the Sermon on the Mount so much in the American church that we hardly have a picture in our minds of what exactly "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity" looks like in the real world anymore. (To read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount see Matthew 5-7, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49.)
OK, SO WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
In 2004, a group of New Monastic communities came together to articulate some of their primary common threads–something like a summary of the "rule of life" that was guiding them and a starting point that future communities in the movement would be shaped by. There is much diversity among the communities all over the US (and the globe), but these are 12 values generally upheld by most communities associated with the movement. You can read the official 12 Marks here, and the following is our particular community's current adaptation of the language to best translate into our context:
1. We make sure we are located in an abandoned place of the empire. If we are not, we relocate.
2. We share our economic resources with fellow community members and those among us who are in need.
3. We make our homes and our lives hospitable to the stranger, maintaining a willingness and preparedness to open our door to friend, foe, neighbor, and traveler alike.
4. We lament for division within the church and our communities, combining that with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation (for the hate and division concerning race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender, and all types of othering that isolate and dehumanize those made in God's image).
5. We humbly submit to Christ's Body, the Church, dedicated to always pursuing unity and seeking to be the church we dream of rather than complaining about the church we do not see.
6. We are committed to intentional formation in the Way of Christ and the community's agreed upon lifestyle (common rule) along the lines of the old novitiate–valuing the depth and freedom of discipline as we embody a new way of being in the world.
7. We nurture the common life among members of intentional community by following the rules of relationship (eat, play, study, grieve, share, celebrate together, etc).
8. We support celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children, committed to coexisting as one family.
9. We live in geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life, understanding and promoting the wisdom of stability.
10. We care for the plot of God's earth given to us along with supporting our local economies.
11. We make peace in the midst if violence and practice conflict resolution within the community along the lines of Matthew 18, committed to the nonviolent enemy-love exampled by Jesus.
12. We are committed to a disciplined contemplative life of prayer, agreeing to silence ourselves in a busy world that we might free up the space to listen to God and respond.
I can't help but be a little overwhelmed by writing those out, uncomfortably aware of how far we have to go before our lives fully reflect these statements. But we know values shape our lives, so we stay committed to aspiring to live in line with these values–trusting that we'll be molded into a people that embodies them at some point. And trusting that the mere but earnest attempt is the willingness to which we are called that can make us better little by little, in turn making the world around us better little by little.
OK, SO WHERE'D ALL THIS COME FROM?
The New Monastic movement's birth is hard to pinpoint, but stirrings of what is now a global movement seemed to take shape in the UK in the 1970's & 80's, following soon thereafter in the early 1990's here in the US. One of early leaders and articulators of the movement here in the US was Jonathan Wilson, who proposed 4 characteristics of the New Monasticism in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, published in 1998:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- it will be "undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment," by which the church may recover its life and witness in the world (p72-75).
...4 statements that, I think, are proving themselves to be prophetically accurate in characterizing the movement.
OK, SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ME?
In short, I don't know.
But I suspect it means something, and I hope you'll consider what that might be. And remember, the invitation is always open to come & see...
This writing was largely theoretical, I know. That was intentional, as I hoped to provide some foundational understanding of what motivates those of us pursuing this sort of life-together. However, there are plenty of places to read stories about the day-in-and-day-out practicalities and experiences in New Monastic life, which surely get closer to the heart of all this.
Here are a few of the many places you can find those stories:
- britneywinnlee.com Gandhi Got Out Again: A Blog About Intentional Community (Stories from neighborhood life here in Shreveport)
- jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com New Monastic Leader, Founder of Rutba House & School(s) for Conversion
- redletterchristians.org Red Letter Christians' Goal: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.
- The list of books we read as part of the Yellow House internship. Great stories. Great resources.
- Reba Place Fellowship, a community in Chicago, IL
- The Simple Way, a community in Philadelphia, PA
Note to the reader
I've grieved the lack of understanding &/or the misrepresentation of this movement lately, and it's moved me to share some words from my very small perspective, from our very small corner here in Highland to attempt even a brief overview of the New Monasticism–one of integrity, one that might make a little sense. One that I hope at least sparks curiosity, clears up a few things, &/or opens a mind or 2 to the possibilities that such a lifestyle holds for the Church and the world, for families and individuals, for adults and children, for people and environment, for neighborhoods and cities, for countries and the world.
Thank you for reading,