Reflections on New Monasticism

An article from the Anglican Religious Life Year Book 2012-13
by Brother Stuart Burns OSB of Mucknell Abbey

The rich proliferation of experience in the field of new monasticism reflects fresh life. It heralds, I believe, the beginning of a new age, a new way of ‘being Church’. The era of Christendom – the religious culture that has dominated Western society since the fourth century – is over, however much many church-going Christians may not recognize or wish to admit it. When Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman Empire and its successor states, what developed was church and state becoming the twin pillars of a sacral culture, each supporting the other. This is no longer true and the great institutions of that era are now crumbling, even where they haven’t already disappeared. We are therefore entering a new era and a new paradigm is beginning to emerge.

There are hints that behind the materialism that has marked the recent ‘consumer society’, there is growing a search for spirituality – rather than formal institutional religion – which will affirm the global interdependence of all peoples and honour the many different forms the quest for spiritual integrity will take. The expressions of Christian new monasticism are attempts to live the Christian gospel with a fresh integrity. The temptation is to seek the recognition and approval of the institutional Church – but in a new era, I think we should sit light to seeking formal regulation and structure for these communities too soon, while at the same time seeking to protect people from abuse. It’s a tricky tightrope to tread if these communities are to be truly prophetic, because by their very nature they will challenge much of the ‘double think’ of the established churches and, not least, denominationalism itself.

A second temptation is to focus on the natural desire to increase the numbers of the core community rather than deepen the life of the members in the Christ-life and leave the increase to the Holy Spirit. Seeking to create community is like seeking to create happiness. Christian community results from engaging together in rediscovering the Church’s original mandate to be a missionary people, a community on the move, as were the first Christians – focusing outward rather than inward. No community is static but always in flux as existing members ‘journey’ and new people come. One of the vital missional elements in community is to create an atmosphere in which the visitor can encounter Christ: ‘Where two or more are united in my name, there am I among them.’ (Matthew 18.20). This can only be achieved by engaging in the paschal mystery. Jesus’ new commandment to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15.12), requires us to lay down our lives for each other – our way of doing things, our opinions, etc. When we know how to peel a potato, can we allow someone else to do it a different way?! It takes courage to risk, and courage is the fruit of trust, and trust can take years to grow.

Many, if not most, of us who are attracted to community life are damaged and fearful people, and when we live at close quarters with each other, it doesn’t take long before some of the deep buttons begin to be pushed. St Benedict tells us to ‘support with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body and character’ (Rule, chapter 72). It’s not an easy thing when we find ourselves irrationally irritated by someone from whom we have no escape! Fear of conflict will impede the growth of trust in a community; it is vital to address it and not to be afraid to seek help from outside the community. It is important, too, not to underestimate the difficulty of holding together those who temperamentally need clearly-defined boundaries and expectations with those who temperamentally need to travel light. The great thing is to be able to see difference as gift, as invitation to grow in mutual charity, rather than as hindrance to a peaceful life in community. There is a common and mistaken assumption that members of a community will be naturally compatible: it was not so among the men Jesus chose as his disciples – Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans and Simon the Zealot was a violent Jewish nationalist – and it is not so now.

I am reminded of something Brother Ramon SSF used to say. He believed that when the Religious Life was recovered in the Church of England in the nineteenth century, a great mistake was made in adopting the Roman Catholic pattern of many different orders, some ‘active’ and others ‘contemplative’, rather than following the Orthodox model of having only one monastic order with different expressions so that, as people journeyed, there could be times and levels of withdrawal and others of missional engagement, as appropriate. One of the gifts of ‘traditional’ monastic life is its ‘long haul’ perspective of life commitment: a life commitment to live with the same bunch of people come what may, so that rather than walk away, one has to work through the difficulties. Important, too, is that this is a two-way commitment: the community’s life commitment to the individual gives that member security to face the dark, frightening issues that normally lie buried, too deep to be faced and healed, and supports them as they do so. And the fruit of that is – or should be – a depth of acceptance and freedom among the members of the community that means that other people can be welcomed and accepted as they are – as people were by Jesus.

One important element in many of the new monastic communities is the presence of children. Benedict had children (though not usually the children of his monks!) in his monasteries, ‘given’ by parents to be members of the monastic community, to be brought up and educated and become adult monks. Children are an aid in ‘sitting light’ to the less important structures and opening us to the immediacy of the demands of charity. They also have the capacity to our prick our bubbles of self-importance and self-righteousness and keep our feet on the ground: ‘How can you say you love God whom you cannot see, when you do not love your neighbour whom you can see?’ (1 John 4.20).

When God invites groups of individuals to journey together into community, it is usual to find that, once the initial flush of enthusiasm is over, the members discover that they are not naturally compatible soul mates. This is why it is always useful to have a wise person around who can ‘hold the boundaries’ and help the community to deepen. The prime vocation of the monastic is the choice of God and the gospel-life and not to the community; that is secondary. Whereas the demands of charity and the community can be all too obvious and insistent, very often God seems to disappear and we are left floundering. Again, there is need for wise accompaniment for each individual as well as for the community as a whole. When the almost overwhelming temptation is to assume that it is all a big mistake, and we feel ready to throw in the towel and give up, this is precisely the moment to stay put and explore the invitation to growth.

The trouble is that at the moment there seems to be a dearth of humble, mature wisdom in this field. We are at the beginning of a new era and there are very few obviously holy ‘starez’ or ‘gurus’ to turn to for counsel. They do exist – very often in the most unlikely places, and like the starez of the Russian forests and the gurus of India they have to be searched out and, often, persuaded that they might have wisdom to share; wisdom gained from their own journey into God and their humanity (there is a great truth that the wiser one is, the less wise one feels – just as the holier one is, the less holy one feels). Their circumstances and religious traditions may be very different from those of the new monastics, but if their wisdom is of God it will cross these differences. Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ remains the same for all time and for all who seek to follow him: ‘Love one another asI have loved you – Follow me.’

It is a great joy when we see very different expressions of monastic communities, ‘new’ and ‘old’, working together. We need each other, and we need to be able to draw on each other’s experience and wisdom. It is vital that the ‘new monastic communities’ both share with each other (not least by using the Facebook group) and also develop strong relationships with some of the more traditional monastic communities so that such treasures as they have – both spiritual and material – can be shared and a strong, vibrant network of community life be part of the Church as it emerges into the new era.