“Re-monking”: What can secular monastics learn from Christian “New Monasticism”?

Posted by on Aug 18, 2010 in Otherhood | No Comments

In “Re-Monking the Church: new monasticism“, Dr. Chris Armstrong (author of the book Patron Saints for Postmoderns) asks:

Can Western monasticism’s “father,” Benedict, still give us an antidote to cultural compromise?

His question is inspired by the words of historian Mark Noll:

“For over a millennium, in the centuries between the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks.”

The cultural compromise Armstrong is talking about (I assume he’s referring to Christians not approaching “the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel” in their day to day lives) is also relevant to the interfaith and secular world. For many folks—Christian and decidedly non-Christian—who find inspiration in the life of Jesus, the “highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel” are tough things like unconditional love, non-violence, compassion, forgiveness, and self-knowledge.

Can Benedict give non-Christians an antidote too? Can we “re-monk” what’s never been “monked” before?

Dr. Armstrong writes:

But what if someone does not desire—or does not sense God’s call—to make the lifelong vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience required of monastics? Do the spiritual resources of the monastic tradition have anything to offer to the person who has made commitments to spouse and family, or is pursuing a secular vocation? History gives a resounding “yes.” After all, monasticism was never intended to encompass a different set of spiritual values than those followed by all Christians. It offered a means of living the Christian life with more single-minded intensity.

For nearly a millennium, there have been people (one might call them “monastic groupies”) who have connected themselves to a monastery in a less formal way, committing to certain spiritual disciplines while remaining in the world. The option of becoming a monastic associate or oblate has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity as both Catholics and Protestants have sought in monastic spirituality something they feel is missing in their own lives.

Add to “Catholics and Protestants” the list of other potential seekers—cognitive scientists, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, panentheists—and you have the basic point of this blog:

How is monasticism the solution for what many feel is missing in our lives? What can we get out of a more monastic life? How can the history of monasticism teach our communities to live together better?

In his post Dr. Armstrong identifies two primary elements of monasticism that offer something attractive to moderns:

  1. The Lure of Tradition
  2. The Longing for Connectedness

These are two of the major Elements of Monasticism that we’ll be exploring at “In Otherhood.”

Another element that Armstrong briefly mentions is separation from the world. But communities can take monasticism even further:

But historically, of course, monastics have not stopped at separation—nor do these “new monastics.” Benedict founded a monastic way in which hospitality to the stranger and the needy is a prophetic witness to the world. Thus these new quasi-monastic communities have dedicated themselves not only to contemplative disciplines and submission to a communal rule, but also to solidarity with the poor, racial reconciliation, and peacemaking.

But is monasticism just another vehicle for spiritual materialism?

A few candles and a few chanted prayers do not a prophetic community make.

Church of the Servant King’s Jon Stock says, “It’s awful hard for us Westerners not to approach Benedict as another technique, another consumable, another path to self-actualization.”

I have to wonder: how bad would it really be if Benedict’s antidote is just “another path to self-actualization”?

Asbury Seminary’s Christine Pohl admits that Benedict’s four pillars—”life under a rule, life lived in commitment to a particular people and place, obedience, and ongoing conversion”—present a challenge to modern Western Christians, with our “wariness of vows and commitments, and our individualistic and mobile lifestyles.”

In future posts, we’ll look at these very Benedictine elements—”life under a rule, life lived in commitment to a particular people and place, obedience, and ongoing conversion”, that is Stabilitas Loci, Obedientia, and Conversatio Morum—as well elements from other monastic traditions around the world.

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