Addendum: Monastic Practices and “New Monasticism”
Our author Charles Cummings is basically writing for an audience of Monks and Nuns who are living in a cloister or monastic setting or perhaps novices who are just beginning to practice the walk of Monasticism. He writes, “a selective, prudent use of these practices might be of benefit to persons “in the world”, wishing to follow traditional christian methods of spiritual deepening.”
Monks in the world.
New Monastics are these “persons in the world.” They follow the lonely path of Monasticism, and they also have some kind of community or communities to sustain them in their journey, but they may or may not live in community, and they may or may not be celibate or single. They are a “new breed” of Monastics or perhaps others would argue an “old breed” of Monastics coming back into contemporary society. They are complimentary NOT in contradiction to those many men and women who have embraced traditional Monasticism living in community and accepting the vows and disciplines that their vows require. There are issues that are still not resolved because they are still very “new” in the view of the entire tradition and history of the church. I would hope to at least bring up some issues that perhaps others are afraid to address which I would call the “Monastic Practices of New Monastics”. These are issues that our author could not conceive of discussing at the time the book was written or even perhaps would refuse to discuss due to his own situation and restrictions in his own tradition.
Outward Signs (habits, crosses, robes, vestments)
What do we wear? It a constant question for new monastics and when do we wear them? Most Monastic habits or clothing are adapted from the daily clothing of the poorer classes of society who lived from the middle ages on. The outer sign or robe of Monastics has always been simple, usually somewhat “drab” (white, black, grey, shades of blue or green). The question that people ask is, Can a new monastic wear Robes that only people who have lived in enclosures and nunneries can wear? There are a number of ways of responding to this question.
First, is the need for any monastic to identify themselves in the world since they themselves are a symbol of a way of life, of an attitude, or as we have seen of a series of very specific monastic practices that nearly all of them practice to some extent. These symbols can be simply a cross that the community shares in common or can be a specific habit that a community has agreed to use as a specific symbol of that community. More and more New Monastic Communities are opting for some external symbol especial now in a society where many of those symbols have been lost or nearly forgotten. We live in a time when some people are advocating that priests and ministers wear “casual clothing” to celebrate religious ceremonies and that bishops “drop the use of Mitres,” because they are antiquated and look ridiculous in a contemporary setting. (many recent discussions of this in the Church of England).
Second, in keeping with the monastic value of simplicity and humility, I believe that every community needs to speak very specifically to when and where it is appropriate to wear a monastic symbol whatever that might be. We live in a time that “religious clothing” is now more commonly seen at costume parties, mardi gras, carnival, vicars and tarts parties, gay pride parades, and dress ups, than in other public settings. Many Roman Catholic monks and nuns have modified their clothing or chose to wear habits or robes only in certain settings such as during prayer, or when doing public work as a vowed religious. There is a great challenge to keep the outer symbol from becoming something of a mockery or even something that might look ridiculous depending upon where and when it is used. We live in a time of great “tension” between religious and secular. There are constant discussions about what if any “religious attire” is appropriate in a modern cultural setting (from Orthodox Jewish, to Muslim traditional to Buddhist, to Monastic Christian). Perhaps those of us who chose to bear that outward symbol and even bear some rejection by society for wearing that symbol can be and should be a bridge between the extremes. Doctors wear white gowns, judges wear black robes, clothing is a symbol of self expression and self identity, why not religious clothing too? If piercings, baggy pants, colored hair, tattoos, high heels, bell bottoms, gothic dress, and whatever modern culture might think up are all generally acceptable ways of dressing in modern society, why not allow and embrace the continued use of traditional religious symbols as part of the entire scheme of self expression and self identity?
A good question.
We live in a time when sexuality like dressing up or dressing down is more about self expression and self selection than it is about morality or ethics. There are constant discussions about the morality of certain sexual acts (rape, sex with minors, consensual sex, pornography, and monogamy etc.) that will continue to be part of society as it changes its attitude towards what is appropriate or inappropriate sexually speaking. For Monastics we have sexual baggage that has carried us through more than 2000 years of intolerance, denial, condemnation, torture, and vilification of sex, and lots and lots of incontinence when it comes to keeping the traditional vows of Celibacy in the church (from the Vatican down). Human Sexuality will always be an issue in modern christian life. Many issues really need to be not in the public realm of discussion as much as constant discussion and dialogue with spiritual directors, and superiors of religious orders and mentors, who are able to help each and every Monastic in integrating their sexuality with their Monastic Call and their commitment to following Christ. All people are expected in the christian tradition to live out their sexuality with integrity and caution. Order, decency, balance, prudence, respect, even chastity, are still values that all religious communities hold in common, be it traditional or new.
Can monastics live sexually integral lives? Yes they can, whether they are married, single, or celibate. The challenges are different for each and every state of life, but the values that they are called to live individually are the same. They are all called to be true to their vows, in whatever form they take. If celibacy is not a vow taken in many newer monastic communities than it is important to establish what the boundaries are in terms of healthy sexuality and not causing scandal or harm to others who see the monastic person as a public and religious figure. The same goes for priests, bishops, and deacons who are married for example. As to singles, again it is important to set clear boundaries around what is considered appropriate and what is not in each and every community.
Much of this has to do with issues of development and maturity of the members in any religious community. There should always be adequate screening and discernment in any person pursuing a religious vocation in order to assure the highest amount of commitment and integrity possible in the person entering a religious community.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to New Monasticism is the challenge of self discipline for those who chose to embrace this way of life. The monastic rule of each community is there to help each person frame their living and their daily routines around the given understandings and structures of each community. The problem in a new monastic setting is that lack of daily contact between members like in a traditional setting which allows for people to “do or not do” what they promised when they entered monastic life. There is less accountability on a daily basis unless there is constant dialogue with other religious communities that are in contact with each and every individual. That is why I recommend highly that each and every person that choses to embrace a monastic community needs to have various points of reference and accountability. They are accountable for example to their priests, pastors, and superiors, with whom they should have regular contact. They are accountable to their families and children if they have them. They are accountable to their parishes or churches that they also belong to. It it essential that each and every religious community create ways for individuals to be accountable to varied groups and organizations as they live out their monastic vows in a pubic and private manner. Yes, there will always be certain matters of conscience that will need to be addressed from time to time. But every Monastic needs to have constant supervision and mentoring if they are to be successful in their life following a religious call.
Half monk Half person or (mini monks?)
Now the challenging question. What are “new monastics”? are they Mini Monks and Nuns? Are they a watered down version of a Monk or a Nun? This is a hard question to answer unless one looks a little at the history of Monasticism. The reason men and women went to the Desert in the first place to become Monastics (the word mono speaks of alone or solo or apart) was to go deeper, to escape or avoid the many mistakes that other christians were making by buying into the then current waves of power, politics, institutional corruption, and love of money. In the history of Monasticism, by the middle ages there were many many Monastic institutions that were in disarray and various times in history were suppressed not only because of secularism or political whim but because of obvious abuses within the Monastic Communities themselves. In other words, each and every Monastic Community stands on its own as to how and where they are living out their commitment to their professed lives as monks, nuns, monastics in the world. The same stands true for traditional and cloistered communities. In modern times very few traditional and cloistered community have escaped the scandal of sexual abuse for example. They may have tried to keep it under wraps but they have not escaped the problem.
I can only wish to say that New Monastics are as dedicated and fervent as traditional Monastics are, living in convents and monasteries. But even within Convents and Monasteries there is a huge gap or gamut of dedication and commitment depending on each persons ability, maturity, and knowledge. The rule of St Benedict does not seek or ask for anyone to come to the community that is above average or superior to the rest. The school of Benedict is open to the “person on the street”, who feels the challenge and the call with out any exception or hierarchy or distinction. Even young people (children) were admitted into the monastery during the time of Benedict.
All monastics whether traditional or new are called to complete with the best of ability the vows that they make as monastics, be it in the world, or in the cloister.
Integration with Traditional Monasticism
I am proud to see that the Episcopal Church in its dealing with this relationship between New Monastics and Old Monastics or between traditional forms of Monastic life and contemporary forms has opted to create a system where both groups are in constant dialogue, discussion and sharing of ideas. I myself could not have made the progress that I have currently made on this path if it had not been for the many traditional Monastics who have been teachers, examples, shelters, and beacons of light to follow in this very specific and sometimes challenging journey. There will always be a prominent place for traditional monasticism and traditional monastic practices.
At the same time, I believe there is a huge need and desire among many many Christians to come closer to the Monastic vocation within the context of their present life situation. The Parish Model for living a religious life is no longer the only viable model for Christians today. Some people need more. Some people need something smaller, more concentrated and in someways simpler and more obvious, and definitely less “social” than many parish models that exist today. Parish life in its most challenging form has become more about keeping people entertained and involved and has not always led people to deepen their religious commitment and prayer life. Not that it cannot do that, but sometimes it is way too preocupied with keeping up the building and paying the salaries than being a “religious community”.
Again, parishes are not exclusive or separate to new Monastics. Both are part of the whole. Almost every person that I know who is a new monastic is very involved in some way in the life of their local parish community, and by no means lives in isolation.
So in the wider scheme of things, there will always be the need of traditional models of religious life, both traditional monasticism and traditional parishes and cathedrals. The nuance is that with time I believe that there will be more and more smaller Monastic communities of people springing up. AS this happens, some might up ending to look more like religious sects than authentic christian communities. That is why there is always need for accountability no matter who they are or what the group claims to be or do. The more accountable a group is to the wider church, the more healthy I believe that they will be and the longer they will function within the wider church.
There is a healthy tension between the independence that the Monastic movement brings and the restrictions or accountability that the wider church will always try and exercise on these communities. Neither extreme is good for either side. Monasticism will always need in some ways to be an independent and critical voice of the Institutional Church. Thomas Merton is a perfect example of a Monastic who though part of the church, could and did always call the church to task. Joanne Chittister OSB is also a perfect example of the independent Monastic Voice to call the church always back to it’s spiritual center and commitment as the Body of Christ. Henri Nowen was also another perfect example of the Monastic Freedom to call the church into alignment with its original principles and values set forth by Jesus himself.
The Basics for the New Monastic
There isn’t that much that really separates the New Monastic from the Old Monastic. We live by the same rule of life. We practice nearly all or most of the Monastic Practices established by Charles Cummings in his book “Monastic Practices”. We are responsible to Religious Superiors, Mentors, Visiting Bishops, and the like.
What makes us different is that we have to live our Monasticism visibly and openly in the public square, where other monastics have the luxury to be in united communities many times cloistered or at least separated from the rest of society by chapels, enclosures, gardens, and the like. Perhaps the “intensity” of our monastic living varies from person to person. There are those of us who pray “less” than the traditional monks and nuns, but there are also those of us who pray “more” than traditional monks and nuns. Those of us who do not take vows of Celibacy have to learn to balance our family lives with our vocations as Monastics which is a constant juggle depending upon our family commitments. But all of us both traditional and modern have to adapt and accommodate ourselves to the “modernities” that surround us. Traditional Monasteries have to pic and chose how much access their community has to social media for example. I just saw one of the superiors here at St Otillien in his cycling outfit off to do exercise. All monks must take good care of their body, mind and soul.
How one spends free time and down time is always a challenge for all of us in society today. What we see visually and how we get information, is a major challenge to our religious lives. How much do we keep out? How much do we let in?
These are just some of the issues facing “new Monasticism” today. We have not discussed yet issues of Ecumenism and Inter-religious dialogue in New Monasticism. We have not discussed how the Church is or is not adapting to these new forms of religious life and what the challenges are in keeping the dialogue open and honest. There will be more and new issues that will come on the horizon in the days to come.
There are good books out there about intentional christian communities and New Monasticism. One of them is “The intentional Christian Community Handbook, for Idealists, Hypocrites and wannabe disciples of Jesus, ” By David Janzen. In his book he sets up some basic principals that every Intentional Community should live by. These are some good and healthy conditions that would help anyone who is new to “New Monasticism”.
Each community should have these basic characteristics
and I concur with all of them.
1. Sees that the primary purpose of its life is to become disciples of Jesus, dying to self so that they may be raised into a new way of life that takes on the character and mission of the One they follow together. In other words, they already have a leader.
2. Takes adequate time (at least a year) to work on its relationships, mission, and spiritual unity before moving into a more common life.
3. Has significant previous community experience among its members.
4. Has a mentoring relationship with a pastor, coach, or someone from a more mature community.
5. Has a pattern of visits to and from other intentional Christian communities so that the members can imagine other ways of doing things than their own.
6. Has a relational connection to the larger church of Jesus Christ.
7. Has a modest but focused mission that fits its members’ gifts, location, and discerned leading of the Holy Spirit.
8. Has a core of members with a vowed long-term or lifetime commitment.
9. Affiliates with a larger association of communities in a covenant of mutual care and support.
The other Manifesto that I find helpful is the Manifesto set up by Joanne Chittister’s “Monastery of the Heart”, which is a kind of response and extension of New Monasticism from her traditional community.
Her questions are valid for each and every religious community be they monastic or not.
Do you desire that God becomes the rhythm of your day?
Do you believe there is wisdom in ancient traditions like the Benedictine way of life that offer insights and alternatives to alienation, violence, injustice, oppression and ecological devastation?
Do you prefer thoughtful questions not definitive, dogmatic answers to spiritual issues?
Do you bow before the dignity of each human being regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or religious tradition?
Do you care to be a loving listener to the heartbeat of the world?
Do you yearn for community, a network of seekers who wrestle with the great mysteries of life?
At the beginning of his book, Sacred Reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer, constitute the threefold footing of our monastic vocation says Charles Cummings. These practices are the Monastic Style of life that evolved in the West after the Desert Mystics and St. Benedict I have tried to elaborate how these practices and the many others in the book relate to those of us who are Professed Monastics in the Church without the boundaries or borders of a Monastic Enclosure. I have also tried to bridge the gap between traditional monasticism and new monasticism which seems in some circles to be getting smaller and smaller thanks to the hard work of the many religious communities involved.
These writings are the fruit of my Month Stay in two Monastic Communities in Germany, The missionary Benedictines of St. Otillien, and the Jerusalem Community. Without the availability of these communities, I would never have found the space or the silence to pray, reflect and write. I am deeply grateful for their hospitality and welcome. Nothing that I have written necessarily reflects their own traditions, beliefs or teachings which would support or reject anything that I have written here since they too have their own disciplines, traditions and beliefs according to their rules of life and practices. This being said, They have been generous in giving me the space to think and pray as I make my way through the issues facing both Old and New Monasticism today.
One thought on “Monastic Practices and “New Monasticism””
To decide to follow a monastic style of life is a strong statement of intention. Witness is an important part of this life and to wear if you so wish a monastic habit should be accepted in charity. I remember working with a trendy priest who approach the school confessional by wearing casual clothes he was surprised when most of the children refused to approach him for confession, when asked afterwards why, they said we were not sure he was a priest