(For aspirants and inquirers)
“Monasticism begins in longing and dissatisfaction.”
(From the Book Secular Monasticism)
Longing and Dissatisfaction
These words jumped out of the page at me when I was in the process of study and reflection as a novice and formalizing my Vows as a member of the New Benedictine Community. This was so because I had asked myself many times over; ‘where did this longing come from?’ Wasn’t I happy as a parish priest? Had I not found stability when I embraced the state of Marriage to JJ? Did I really need or want anything else? But the longing started years back, when the institution that I had given most of my heart, mind, and soul to, had little room for gay priests, at least gay priests who chose not to remain closed in a closet. My first 20 years as a priest in the Episcopal Church and the 10 years of formation before that both as a Roman Catholic Seminarian and latter as an Anglican Seminarian, were filled with constant fear, (of rejection), guilt (for having been made different than most of the human population), and anxiety (over the constant barrage of rhetoric and discussion about the ‘homosexual predicament’ within the christian church, a storm which continues to rage even as I write this article. How many Bishops said I could not be ordained? How many others were in the closet themselves and feared exposure both as RC’s and Anglicans.
An emerging church
My journey towards this ‘New Monasticism’ arose about 10 years ago, when I had already began to embrace
the concept of an ’emerging church’ from within the existing known institution which was a new expression of living in christian community with loser ties to the “historical structures” of patriarchy and hierarchical structures That many of us were so accustomed to. As numbers in church attendance started to dwindle ( something that had already begun to happen unbeknownst to most of us in the early 1960’s. (In England at a rate of 1%! Every year to the present) ; so was the desire of many within the institution to think outside of the traditional lines of religious life. Something had to change, the old ways were not working any more. As I was embracing this emerging church preached and proclaimed by prophets such as Phyllis Tickle (RIP), Brian McLaren, and latter Shane Claiborne, I felt that many of these ‘new church expressions’ were kind of a ‘fly by night’ expression of church grounded in seeking a kind of ‘quick fix’ of ones religious longings, struggles, and disillusions with the fading institutional church. Soon new expressions of church outside those four walls were springing up everywhere some even sanctioned by the Institution itself like Fresh Expressions in the C of E. Amazing new churchy ministries began to appear over night…. Such as Skateboarder churches, Washing clothes for the homeless (laundry love), pub churches (theology on tap), online and avatar churches, and the new growing mod churches like the kind that are found in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Burbank, with sexy Gospel singers and sleek looking youthful preachers. As exciting as this was for many, it just did not do it for me. (As worthy as they are as valid expressions of the emerging church) Many of these expressions felt shallow and short lived which now proves to be the case for many instances. That is why it is “emerging” with no strict order or definition or long term commitment.
But the idea still stuck with me…
Something New! Something emerging from the ashes of the old. This is what I am looking for.
After many years of belonging to the “organized structure” of the church, I felt empty and searching. I was tired of christmas bazaars, fund raisers, altar guilds, Diocesan pledges, clericus deanery meetings where no one shows up, vestries, annual meetings, fights about music in church, long discussions sometimes abrasive about the cultural wars defining who belonged and who didn’t that always left me with the question , ‘where is God in all of this?’ Why do we come here to Church on Sundays anyways? To serve our own interests? Or to serve the Living God?
In whom we live, and move, and have our being.
A new kind of Monasticism
“The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ.” Dietrich Bohnhoffer
As I continued to search and long some more I found myself for a year and a half living in a desert wilderness. I had not stopped praying, as a matter if fact I was praying even more, searching for answers. One of those answers was a weekly and monthly touchstone with a Franciscan mission of San Luis Rey and a Benedictine monastery called Prince of Peace in Oceanside California. Both of these active religious communities were about a mile or two from each other. I faithfully spent at least one or two overnights a month at the Mission and nearly every Sunday went to the Monastery for Sunday Solemn Vespers after my three Masses at the parish I was interim for in San Clemente CA.
During this time I was living alone as my spouse was in Mexico trying to find a way to reunite legally after our marriage had been discovered in the Anglican Church in Mexico and I was forced to retire from active ministry in the Anglican Church in Mexico. As I barely began to experience a deeper peace and acceptance of my situation after months of remorse once again, many tears of sadness and anguish that went deeper than I could ever imagine, my life began to find a deeper rhythm and focus as I spent significant times of prayer day in and day out, one day at a time, observing the ancient traditional hours of daily prayer. The ancient monastic practices of the Divine Office, A solemn observation of the fixed hours of prayer, the liturgical change of seasons with a certain simplicity and not an over preoccupation with externals (like easter hunts and christmas bazaars) and a daily doses of “order” in a life that seemed “out of oder and many times chaotic”, slowly began to filter down into the deeper recesses of my being.
But now some new questions began to arise.
Where does this longing for new (new) and old (monasticism) forms of living come from? Are my desires only my desires or are there others out there who are feeling what I am feeling?
What Andrew Fritz Gibbon the Abbot of the ‘non-denominal’ celtic community of
• A desire for authentic and true spirituality, beyond the merely formal routine of church. • A connectedness with others who share the journey. • A deep ecumenism, joining with, learning from, and welcoming all. • A historical perspective, learning from the old paths. • A heart for the liberation of all sentient life, equality, fairness, and justice for human beings and non-human beings alike.
(Andrew Fitz Gibbon, Secular Monasticism, a journey AFG
Abbot of Lindisfarne Community)
These were the things that I too was so deeply looking for in my own personal setting and circumstances. I did not want to leave what was familiar and known (my life as a priest in the Episcopal Church) but go ‘deeper’ beyond the administrative nightmares I was living day in and day out in my job as rector of a parish. Where might I find a ‘niche’? I am married, I do not have the freedom to live in a monastery in Community with a bunch of monks. I don’t need to dress up (I have a cassock and a sacristy full of vestments when I want to look pretty). But I want this rhythm, this rule, this structure, which could become the backbone of my religious existence. Some form of Benedictine Monasticism seemed to hold the answer.
But Which Monasticism?
“Monasticism is a many splendored thing (and at times not so splendored). It is almost impossible to speak of monasticism in the singular as there were many monasticisms.”
As any historian would agree. Monasticism is multi faceted and multi layered as a tradition and movement within historical christianity. There were anchorites, cenobites, hermits, wandering fools for Christ, and the many contemporary forms we know today (many revamped and renewed after the changes in Vatican II in the 1960’s) Some lived alone, some lived together, some divided the sexes, others didn’t some were priests and deacons even bishops but most were lay and not ordained so much so that Benedict makes clear in his rule that there is no clerical (ordained) privilege in a Benedictine House. Everyone is to be treated with the same respect and honor.
So what about me? Is there some way that I can experience more deeply this long and historic tradition within Christianity and in many other religions without compromising the current commitments I have made publicly before God and Kin? How and where might I find them?
As things tend to go in life, I did not have to find anything, it found me.
The NBC (New Benedictine Community)
As I was discovering this Monk deep inside of me, what I like to call an Urban Monk since most of my work and life has been in an Urban not in a Rural setting (New York, Minneapolis, Mexico City, Los Angeles), I stumbled upon the New Benedictine Community on Facebook. For months I had seen lovely postings by the Prior Peter Pearson osb who is both a monk, and an episcopal priest, an Icon writer and master and the founder of the community. His simple posts with simple phrases about the monastic life spoke to me time after time as I followed his musings. His visuals always left my heart soaring. One day I decided to investigate what this was. I sent a private message to Peter inquiring what this group was all about.
It began with the Vision
“Following in the footsteps of those who have gone before us, we will strive to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in solidarity with the generations of men and women who have gathered in his name, especially our holy father Benedict whose Rule of Life we embrace as a guide for our journey of faith. We do this, filled with prayerful reverence and in community with one another, in the hopes that our lives will serve in whatever way God wishes and wills.” From NBC Community intro.
Ok! I could follow a group like this. But what is NEW about this Community?
“Rather than slavishly recreating the institutions and aesthetics of the past, we choose to be a community that gives flesh to the vision of our fore-bearers in the Benedictine tradition in a new way and yet one that is faithful to the spirit of Benedict’s Rule. We will strive to live this vision, bringing forth the best of all that has gone before us, in a manner that is fitting for this place and this time. ”
Ok! That is what’s new so what else?
“In keeping with Benedict’s foundational insistence on radical hospitality, we choose to welcome all as Christ without exception. This also requires that we remain open to new ideas and expressions of all kinds: religious, political, social, artistic, intellectual, and cultural because the whisper of God may be present there too, leading us into a new way of experiencing and expressing the Reign of God in our midst.
For those of us who are called to this way of life, these words set our hearts on fire and there is nothing for us to do but respond with our whole being.
We invite you to join us on this quest for God in community.”
The clincher! “We invite you to join this quest for God in Community”. Even now as I read these words my heart sings at their perusing.
Starting over again
So here I was, in my early 50’s starting a new vocation out of my original vocation to follow Christ that stemmed from my Baptism. It all came back to Longings and Dissatisfaction. If I was to begin this new path in life, this new vocation I had to understand what these longings and dissatisfactions were leading me in to.
“Monasticism begins in longing and dissatisfaction. The longing is that to which St. Augustine alludes as the inner restlessness: an unrequited desire until the divine satisfies the deepest of all needs.” AFG
The longing of course are the longings that all of us feel from time to time and from season to season. They run deep. Some call it existential angst! We face these especially during times of change and transition. St Augustine new it well. He spent most of his adult life in that process which resulted in his famous Confessions. The Monastic path I believe more than anything is an awakening to that longing for God which runs through the blood of our veins and continues on until the very last breath.
“This longing is painfully, delicately delicious. It is longing to savor. The dissatisfaction, on the other hand is negative. It arises with the frustration that societies, clubs, organizations, and churches too often work against the deepest longings of the soul. The routinization of religion quenches the spirit. The banality of bureaucracy pours water on fire. There must be something more. Longing and dissatisfaction lead to the monastic path.” AFG
I can’t emphasize enough how my journey to New Monasticism grew out of these two seemingly polar opposites. But they are really complimentary. One attracts, the other repels and distances. It is the Pulley that George Herbert talked about in his mystical poetry. In order to find God, we have to “un-find” other things. Jesus called it the ‘grain of wheat that dies’. He also called it ‘losing your life in order to find it’. It was not until I was fed up with what was not fulfilling and nourishing in my life that I could return to the Well and fountain of life.
BY GEORGE HERBERT
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
Where was this ‘Well’?
This well was found in following the traditional practices of monastic life and in joining a monastic community, better said communities that I could be part of. Not taking the journey alone.
C Cummings a Trappist Monk from Australia and frequent writer on Monasticism speaks of this journey that we partake in when we embrace a God given or at least God inspired call, or a vocation in life.
“We give ourselves to God in a particular way of life, in a particular place, with particular companions. This is our WAY! In THIS community, with THIS work, with THESE problems, with THESE shortcomings. The inner meaning of our vow of stability is that we embrace the life as we find it, knowing that this, and not any other is our way to God.” C Cummings ocso
So it had to be. I needed touchstones where I could understand better this call and discover it afresh and anew. I found it as I began the journey with the NBC as an aspirant and latter as a novice now professed (simple vows for a minimum of three years). And in discovering a remote and little known Benedictine Community on Eresing Germany called the Archabbey of St Otillien (Odilia). I discovered this place or again it discovered me on line as I knew that I could not spend every day of my life in a monastery but maybe, just maybe there was a place I could connect to wherever I might be in the world and on a daily basis. I started to listen to the live stream monastic prayers (the Monastic Daily Office) after googling “gregorian chant live”. And there it was The Arch-abbey!
Since I was just learning German when I found this site it took me more than a few years to make it a daily part of my routine. But it was part of the longing to learn german and understand the monastic path that just kept leading me deeper and deeper. So much so that finally I was able to physically visit this place and stay there for 10 days. It was like a dream come true. For the first time in my life my past; my childhood growing up on a farm in a family of germans from Russia (Ukraine- Volga Deutsch), my present; my new found monastic vocation, and my future; a professed life as a Benedictine Secular (not living in a monastery) and member of the New Benedictine Community was beginning to come together. At the end of my 10 days I wrote this poem about my life changing experience.
The Bell Tower
I found a part of myself in St Ottillien
It was always there!
Why did I have to travel so far to find it?
Pilgrims must travel.
What did I find?
Was it the german potato salad?
Was it the radishes?
Or the Monastic Beer?
Was it the faces of old Monks from my early childhood?
Or the brick church of my family in the Dakotas?
Was it the fields of grain and wheat and corn?
Or the fresh smell of the manure, and the cackle of the hens?
No…It was that and so much more.
It was God who in his Incarnation
Shows his face in memory, song, childhood,
And love of family and culture. And self.
It was the groundwork that gave me and
Made me all that I am today.
Of the earth, of the Spirit, of the
Holy Water sprinkled on my bed every night by my
It was here, that I found
And my future.
Where am I now?
So as I write this reflection I am at the starting point if this life long journey. I have embraced this new way of life and made Vows to continue on this path for the next few year before I discern “lifetime vows”. I am in no hurry. Now comes the hard stuff, becoming and doing what you say you are “An Urban Monastic living in a Secular not a Cloistered setting.” I will probably write more latter about how that will make itself known. But I can say that right now it is about learning to be a monk which is a lifetime pleasure to which I have arrived at mid-life not as a young anxious novice. I am no Thomas Merton, no Esther de Waal, no Phyllis Tickle. I am me. Vincentosb. I prefer not to capitalize it at this point in my journey. I have not earned those stripes yet if I ever will. But I am on the path. That is the exciting part. It is so far a path that makes sense to me and that I want to share with others. That is why I am taking the time to share these meditations. I am just hoping that I Am not alone in this journey, but that there are and will continue to be more who are interested in joining me and so many around the world on this path.
As I wrote in this meditation, I did not join “a monastic community” but many monastic communities of which the NBC is but one expression. But in joining I now have joined a Monastic Family that crosses languages, borders, denominations, culture wars, genders, institutional divisions, and so much more, because we all are on the same path together. Monastic Life is a huge umbrella that covers huge amounts of space and over many centuries.
As Peter our prior wrote in the NBC introduction
“Our path is simple and yet mastering it will take a lifetime. In her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Joan Chittister, OSB writes: “The Rule of Benedict says, ‘Take care of everything, revere one another, eat and drink moderately, pray where you work, think deeply about life every day, read, sleep well, don’t demand the best of everything, pray daily, and live in community.’ (RB 4) Be sure that one part of your life is not warring against the other.” (“Wisdom”, p. 78)
So What is New Monasticism?
What is tradition within this New Monasticism?
Tradition and New Monasticism
• Tradition as the unpacking of what is contained in the scriptures within a living community.
• Tradition cannot serve as a road block to the unfolding of God’s will in time and space because this is exactly the purpose that tradition was created to serve.
• Tradition is not a sense of “we’ve always done it this way” but one of coming to understand what God is leading us to in this moment.
• New Monasticism is a movement of young (mostly Evangelical) believers who seek to live into the experience of the early Christians as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in a way that is authentic for our times.
• New Monasticism is not afraid to be prophetically radical or radically hospitable.
• New Monasticism embraces the values of community, worship, service, study, and presence among the poor.
• New Monasticism aims to reclaim many aspects of the faith that have been lost or compromised through the centuries of actions and reactions.
• New Monasticism celebrates the best of what has worked in Christian history and yet does not find itself shackled by what is of little value at this time.
A New Path
So I end this reflection reminding myself and others that this is a ‘new path’ within an ‘old path’. Many things about this journey are very familiar and even ancient but other things on this path are new, different, nuanced, and refreshing.
It is too new to know where it will lead. But there are people around the globe who are committing to taking this journey both internal and external. If you are reading this right now, I hope you too are willing to embrace that journey wherever it might lead you.