By Peter Pearson
Around the time of the Second World War, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this."
In the Acts of the Apostles we read: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the communal life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…Those who believed shared all things in common…” (NAB- Acts 3: 42-45). Another translation of the same phrase states that they “remained faithful.” Those who gather around and in the name of Jesus strive to remain faithful to his mission and his message, to the way that he lived and died in faithfulness to God. How that fidelity has been lived out by his followers has varied greatly throughout the centuries.
Monastic/Religious Communities and their Origins
Echoing the example of the first Christians, there have always been men and women within the Christian tradition who have sought to live a more radically dedicated Christian life in response to their baptism. During the first several centuries of the Christian era there were many martyrs who sacrificed their lives as witnesses to the Lord Jesus. They died for Christ. After them, other believers chose to live for him in a way that also witnessed to the power of the gospel message. Individuals and groups that came to be known loosely as the virgins and ascetics emerged as they gathered in private homes and the doorways of churches to pray the psalms and to encourage one another in the life of faith. In the third century, not long before Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, hermits like Paul of Thebes headed out into the deserted places of Egypt to focus their lives more completely on prayer and penance. Later, Saint Antony also went into the desert and other seekers gathered around him. Together they began to establish the first Christian “monasteries” in the Egyptian desert. By their common life, these early monks were able to learn from one another and to counter the excesses of penitential practice that sometimes occur among people who are passionate about God.
Saint Basil, one of the Cappadocian fathers in the fifth century created a rule for the ascetic, cenobitic (community) life, as distinguished from the more eremitical (solitary) practice of Saint Antony. He was greatly influenced by his sister Macrina and his friend Gregory of Nanzianzus. Together they began to map out a life of ascetic discipline and gospel witness with one end in mind – union with God. His Rule is still the basis for Orthodox monasticism.
In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia lived for a while as a hermit and shortly thereafter a community of monks gathered around him. He wrote his Holy Rule, a guide to monastic living in community which quickly became the norm for the Western Christianity. In the north, the Celtic monks and those who lived under the Rule of Benedict were the impetus for the spread of Christianity throughout that part of the world. They have been credited with saving the intellectual treasures of Western culture during the Dark Ages. Over the next several centuries, monastic groups of both men and women flowered and died and were reborn in reform after reform.
The thirteenth century saw a new spirit of religious fervor arise within the church. Holy men and women such as Francis of Assisi, Clare, and Dominic felt called to a radically different form of life, focused on the gospel but outside the confines of the monastic enclosure. Their followers came to be known as mendicants and they took to the streets to serve, to preach, and to pray wherever the Spirit led them. Others like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Sienna enriched the church as a result of their deep mystical witness which has been an inspiration to believers throughout the centuries. Subsequent generations have seen hundreds of variations of both monastic (cenobitic/eremitic) and mendicant life throughout the church in which the poor were fed, the sick tended, the illiterate taught, vocations were nurtured, truth was explored, the arts flourished, and all of this was supported by the ceaseless prayer of the contemplatives.
The reformations in Europe took a heavy toll on the religious orders of Northern Europe and the British Isles. Monasteries and assets were seized while the monks and nuns were exiled or worse. This left a large geographical area completely devoid of any religious communities for centuries.
Monastic/Religious Communities in the Anglican Tradition
Although the monasteries and religious houses in England were dissolved during the 16th century, Anglicans began to rediscover religious life in the 1840’s as a result of the Catholic Revival and the Oxford Movement in England. Today there are dozens of Anglican religious orders taking their inspiration from Benedictine, Franciscan, Carmelite, as well as other established communities. Along with these are communities which hearken back to Celtic origins or are completely new entities. Throughout the world orders of Anglican monks and nuns, friars and sisters, hermits and consecrated women can be found where ever the Anglican Communion’s presence is known.
The Twentieth Century's Ecumenical Monastic/Religious Communities
Around the globe, the twentieth century saw the rise of some daring, new experiments with religious community and monastic living. In the 1940’s Roger Schutz, a Swiss Protestant man began to live a monastic life in a farm house in a small village in France. Soon others joined him from a variety of Christian churches and the ecumenical Community of Taize was born. Now, seventy years later they number almost one hundred brothers and annually welcome thousands of young people to join them in prayer and conversation. Their unique style of simple sung prayer has gained international popularity and has enriched the lives of many who cannot worship in conventional, institutional ways. In the early 1960’s, other communities sprang up in response to the liturgical renewal and the spirit of openness created by the Roman Catholic Church’s visionary movements articulated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In that environment of faith-filled creativity many of the “givens” in religious life were re-examined and re-evaluated. As a result, several new ecumenical religious orders and communities have emerged. The Iona Community in Scotland, the Community of Sant’ Egidio, based in Rome, the Bose Monastic Community in northern Italy, and Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont are a few among many which are known for their rich prayer, their emphasis on eco-spirituality, their dedication justice and peace, as well as their invitation to abide with them for a time of rest. More recently, the Benedictine Women of Madison were released from their vows as a Roman Catholic Monastery. They became a non-canonical and ecumenical community so that their welcome could be more genuine. This was a bold move made in the spirit of radical hospitality and one that was not completely understood by some yet applauded by others.
New Forms of Community
Within the recent developments in the Emergent Church in which alternative forms of expression are being tested by people from many different backgrounds, “New Monasticism” is a movement of young people who have committed themselves to a revitalized interpretation and expression of an old way of life in community. They have created this with the joyful passion and energy of youth that just might change the world. These Christians are moving into what they call the “abandoned places of Empire,” the poor neighborhoods in inner-cities, to share a life focused on gospel living based on prayer, service, care for the Earth, reconciliation among Christians, economic equity and justice, as well as providing a contemplative presence. This adventure seeks to glean the very best from monasticism’s long history and to reinvent them in today’s society. Although they admit that they do not know what will come of this, they are happy to know that “God has not abandoned the world” and that something important is happening in their gatherings that speaks a message of hope to a battered world.
Perhaps more than anything else, the New Monastics help us to see that in all of these variations on a theme, being “monastic” or “religious” is not the point of anything we do. The point is simply to be better people and better Christian witnesses to Jesus. We seek to become more loving, more prayerful, and more attentive to God as God comes to us in each moment by participating in these traditions of prayer and work. Using these tools and belonging to these communities helps us to become more present to God and maybe to help others in their quest to go deeper with God as well.
The Community of Solitude
Among the recent and innovative expressions of the monastic tradition within Christianity, the members of the Community of Solitude are finding a place in today’s church. The founders of CoS had been vowed members of a Benedictine community in the Episcopal Church which is itself attempting to live out that tradition in a new way. After a period of discernment, they decided to embark in a new direction that focuses on the eremitical roots of monasticism. Consequently CoS is an ecumenical monastic community in the tradition of Taize or the Benedictine Women of Madison. It is an intentional community sharing a common life of solitary prayer united through a common vision rooted in the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Community’s Constitution. This is lived out through common practice in the daily recitation of the Divine Offices, Lectio Divina, and the study of those teachers and masters who have gone before us, especially the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the Camaldolese saints. From this flows the apostolic work of service to the world through prayer, silence and solitude. CoS does not restrict admission to the community based on age, gender, clerical or marital status. Any baptized Christian who accepts the traditional Creeds of the Church (Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian) is welcome as Christ. CoS believes that if people are called to this way of life by Jesus, no one can stand in their way. And once called to this way of life by Jesus, they become disciples who cannot stay as they are because they are on a path of irrevocable transformation. The Community of Solitude seeks to echo the witness those who have gone before, our spiritual forbearers, without being locked into the forms of the past. It’s all about remaining faithful.
The Rev. Peter Pearson is priest in charge at Saint Philip’s Church in New Hope, Pa. He is a former Benedictine monk and icon painter.