In developing my ideas on secular monasticism, I’ve been attempting to both to hone my thinking and to let it run completely wild. I found a great opportunity to do so in The Future We Deserve. I submitted a few inter-related pieces for this collaborative book on:
- Secular monasticism
- Art monasticism
- Spirituality as game
- 3rd-party spiritual certification
Here’s the 1st:
In contrast to other types of intentional community, monasticism is in decline [1. “Between 1978 and 2004—nearly the entire span of John Paul II’s pontificate—the number of men in monastic and religious orders (not including priests) decreased by 46% in Europe and 30% in the Americas, while the number of women decreased by 39% and 27%, respectively. Compare this to the trend in the global South: During the same period, men in monastic and religious orders increased by 48% in Africa and 39% in Asia, with women increasing on those two continents by 62% and 64%.” http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/re-monking-the-church-new-monasticism/] in the global north. Is it a social form that has lost its relevance to the developed, and increasingly secular world?
If we consider monasticism as an exaptation (a useful by-product) of religion, we can ask the question: What would secular monasticism look like? [2. (By “secular” I mean everything that isn’t the domain of one particular religion; spirituality in general and the interfaith movement are thus considered secular).]
A secular monastery is a structure, independent of any one spiritual lineage or religious tradition, for increasing mindfulness and compassion in the world. As a structure in space and time, and as a social structure, it is designed to foster gratitude and awareness.
Secular monasticism is an empty, open framework for a community that
- appropriately adapts time-tested elements of monasticism.
- assumes the spiritual agency of community members and fosters this capacity
- provides a means by which members can discover how their goals overlap
- provides an agreed upon structure in space and in time to best achieve these common goals.
Elements of Monasticism
What distinguishes monasteries from other types of intentional community, such as communes, ecovillages, student cooperatives, land co-ops, cohousing groups, ashrams, kibbutzes, and farming collectives[3. http://wiki.ic.org/wiki/Intentional_Communities]? Some of the elements unique to monasticism include:
- Unique structure in space (architecture with equality, eco-efficiency and mindfulness in mind)
- Unique structure in time (shared schedule of work, meals and contemplation together throughout day)
- Unique governance & social structure (monastic rules & vows about things like celibacy, renunciation & poverty, hard work, silence, etc.)
- Unique practice (e.g. meditation, prayer, chant, “lectio divina,” art-making, study, debate, philosophy, mysticism)
- Unique goal (e.g. whatever it is that contemplation leads to, whether that’s God, the absolute, non-dual awareness, awakening, concentration, peace, knowledge, etc.)
- Unique members (avowed monastics who may or may not be separated by gender)
- Unique relationship to society and ecology at large (ecological sustainability, a degree of separateness from society, subordination to a centrally organized spiritual lineage or religious tradition)[4. http://otherhood.org/elements-of-monasticism/]
What can we tweak in this equation to keep monasticism relevant? What is monasticism without religion? Without celibacy? Without separation of men and women?
Monasticism vs. Intentional/Spiritual Community
Secular monasticism has the potential to combine best aspects of spirituality and intentional community, without the shortcomings of both. Intentional community brings the resilience, teamwork, and social fabric of having a common vision, and has an emergent eco-efficiency that more siloed family-unit living lacks. Spiritual community further narrows the vision and the goals of living together, and often grows out of a set of moral, philosophical and practical teachings that can ease some of the typical problems of living together. On the other hand, where intentional community often fails is in having a lack of resolve and depth, lack of discipline, disparate motivation, and the positive and negative results of exchanging efficiency for egalitarianism. Spiritual communities are often disordered and lack sufficient governance, transparency and accountability to protect the individual community members and the sustainability of the community as a whole. In the latter, it could be said that “spiritual authority” is not sufficiently isolated from “municipal authority.”[5. Vinay Gupta – http://openenlightenment.org/?p=475]
Many of the early Western monasteries also conflated municipal authority & spiritual authority in an almost guru-like figure (e.g. compare the early, very vertical Rule of the Master to the relatively horizontal Rule of Benedict that followed it). Yet in the religious monastic traditions that have survived 1500 years in the West, final spiritual authority is almost entirely held by a set of texts (which are often canonical and unquestionable), and municipal authority is held by a person or group of people who have been chosen by the community to lead. The key is this: the Abbess is the role-model who leads by example, but is not herself the Christ. She has final decision-making authority, but is accountable to the monastic rule and the vows she has taken, which are often the same as other community members. The same holds to varying degrees for monasteries in Theravadan, Tibetan, Zen, Vedantan, Taoist traditions.
The members of a secular monastery might take up residence in a building that is ostensibly no different from the monasteries that monks have been living in for thousands of years. They might vow to wake up at 6:30am, chant 5 times a day, meditate for 3 hours a day, eat some meals together in silence while a text is read, work at a trade for 4 hours a day, and yet could be mixed-gender, only voluntarily celibate, and devote themselves to a highest goal of their own choosing (e.g. God, dharma, self-knowledge, wisdom, or the perfect blueberry pie).
Or by entering a certain co-housing community, you would take a temporary vow (perhaps for 2 years minimum) to wake up at 7am, meditate together 3 times a day, eat dinner together and read a certain poem together at the end of the day. For several weeks a year, the community might invite a teacher from outside and transform itself into a silent meditation retreat center for its members.
One living example of secular monasticism is art monasticism.
Secular monasticism that combines monasticism and technology is called monastech.