Many American Christians know something about “monks” and “nuns” — people who give up their “normal” lives in various ways to live in a way that is dedicated to God. Those dedicated lives sometimes play out in intentional communities, sometimes called “convents,” “cloisters,” or “monasteries.” But most people do *not* know much about the history of monasticism in the Christian tradition, despite its relevance for our world.
In fact, monastic impulses go back almost all the way to the time of Jesus. Beginning in the third century, we begin to hear stories of people going out into the wilderness in an attempt to follow Jesus more fully. In the Western tradition that has influenced the Christianity with which most of us are familiar, the most important early movement was that of Benedict of Nursia at Monte Cassino in Italy. In fact, Benedictine monasteries still exist all over the world, still living out the ancient ideals with which their movement was founded.
But I don’t want to discuss “ancient monasticism” today — you can read about that in many good places — but rather a phenomenon called “new monasticism,” which you may know something about. New monasticism is a movement that has arisen in the last 20 years or so, and it tends to be rather like the “coenobitic” (or “communal”) monasticism of the ancient world. Further, it tends to be a rather urban phenomenon; most new monastic communities are not going out into the desert or mountains, but rather trying to transform neighborhoods and cities from within.
New monasticism is an attempt to revive the ideals of ancient monasticism in our modern world, and just as ancient cloisters were different, so new monastic communities are different. Some highly emphasize a form of poverty, with members selling all their possessions and holding a common bank account. Many emphasize chastity, whether by having men’s and women’s houses, or by having a number of chaste, single members. A challenging virtue for many new monastic communities is that of obedience; the members are influenced both by American individualism and by our ideals of democracy, so that leadership and authority can be challenging things to negotiate.
Why are these relevant for us?
- First, these are people who are trying to follow Jesus in a radical, thoroughgoing way. And you know how compelling such intense lives can be in our culture.
- Second, most new monastic communities are indeed communal, and people in our fragmented, individualistic society really value communities in which people can find authentic relationships with other human beings.
- Third, many people in our world are rather anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment, and new monastic communities often exist outside the bounds of traditional church structures. It’s not that the people involved are not part of a church, but that the communities themselves are not under the authority of a particular church leader. Also, the communities themselves may not be anti-establishment, but people may be drawn to them because they can seem that way.
So, what if you want to know more? Well, a first step is to learn about some of the “new monastic” communities that are well-known in American Christianity. Two examples are the Simple Way community associated with Shane Claiborne, and the Rutba House in North Carolina, for whom Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove often serves as something of a spokesperson. Then, you might spend a little time reflecting on and learning more about the movement/impulse as a whole, as in this news story or this feature piece. And finally, you might look around and see if there is anything like this in your hometown. For example, students from the university where I teach have founded a couple of these movements. I have had wonderful conversations with many of them about their common work. You may find your own faith challenged and stretched… and then manifesting itself in new ways in your life!