The New Monasticism: Some Notes, Part I

I have been trying to avoid this topic like the proverbial plague, but alas it’s time to touch base. It’s like wrestling an octopus–just too many arms! First of all, I need to add that whatever I say or observe is tentative, partial, and provisional and based on what I see “at a distance.” Both good and bad things can easily be missed. I will simply consider what people say/claim about themselves and this phenomenon of “new monasticism.” It is only a personal reflection on something very complex and diverse, which only time will reveal for what is at its heart. I am very open to having my mind changed!

The term “new monasticism” is rather fuzzy and it raises a whole bunch of questions. Exactly what is “new” here? And in what sense is this “monasticism”? And precisely what do you mean when you say the word “monk”? This reminds me of the Supreme Court Justice who once said about pornography: We don’t know how to define it, but when we see it we know what it is! (About this question of monastic identity I have pondered much on these pages in the past.) From a Russian “fool” playing in a village to the strictly structured and strictly cloistered life of a Carthusian monk, how do you get all this under the same umbrella? And really maybe the only truly “new” thing in this area were the Desert Fathers and all the rest of us have been feeding off this real “newness” for the past 2000 years–such at least would be my leanings.

Protestantism jettisoned the reality of monasticism in the Reformation for various historical and theological reasons but then began a slow recovery of sorts. In the 20th Century Bonhoeffer, that inspirational and charismatic Protestant figure, called for a kind of recovery of monastic life in order to recover and renew the heart of modern Christianity. A few years later Taize was founded as a special monastic experiment within the Protestant ambience in Europe(very different from a lot of American Protestantism). And there were a number of other experiences. However, it is only in the last few decades that this thing of “monastic life” has gained numerous adherents within evangelical Protestantism.

Within the Catholic scene there also was a kind of ferment in “rediscovering” monastic life during the last century. There was Winandy doing the hermit thing in the early 60s when the hermit life was very much in disfavor. There was Bose in Italy and the Spiritual Life Institute in Arizona(which had its ups and downs and has re-emerged in Colorado in a very different package). When Merton broke the ice on the hermit life and made a big case for it, there was quite a flurry of interest and activity on the part of the established Trappists. Unfortunately most of these experiments faded away.

So there has been considerable activity before the “New Monasticism” arrived on the scene, and I think the term “new” is not quite accurate or appropriate. (But we live in a consumer culture in which the term “new” has very positive and attractive features–implying “better.”) It probably should be called “alternative monasticism”–in the sense that all these groups form an alternative of sorts to the established monastic orders in so far as either they or the old monastic orders are truly monastic. Or perhaps they are simply an alternative to the Christianity-as-usual humdrum of parishes and community churches. That is an open and valid question.

It is interesting that many of these ventures found their inspiration and support and guidance from established monastic figures, like Merton, like the Benedictine Bede Griffiths, like the Trappist Thomas Keating and many others. The Protestant communities often have had their own inspirations in many cases. What is happening in the established monastic communities is truly puzzling. Their inability to evolve and their apparent ossification is troubling, yet some very traditional groups are doing reasonably well. They too are attracting some young people who are seeking a deeper Christianity.(Recently I saw an article of some cloistered contemplative Dominican nuns who have attracted some very educated women who simply want that deeper life.)

One very important aspect of this phenomenon of “New Monasticism” is the re-discovery and emphasis on contemplative Christianity and the mystical path. This is a major contribution of these groups and a major positive and a true alternative to the “business as usual” Christianity in the regular parishes and churches. So these are people who are thirsty for something deeper than what sadly the regular church life provides. This is true for both the Protestant and Catholic scene. For evangelical Protestants, contemplation and mysticism always had seemed “unchristian,” not Biblically rooted, etc. Some of these groups have broken through that mistaken view and they are to be congratulated. In the Catholic scene contemplation and mysticism was relegated to the “pros,” the monks and nuns! Not meant for regular lay folk! There has been quite a ferment within Catholicism to correct that odd view but one wonders how far it has gone in the average parish or the usual religious education.

I will repeat for the 99th time that famous Rahner quote: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not be.” Indeed. The “New Monasticism” has taken this very seriously. But I am afraid it has gotten this very precious reality tangled up with being “monastic” and monastic identity. Note Rahner did not say, “The Christian of the future will be a monk….” The two are not interchangeable terms. For centuries even Catholic monks had lost the contemplative ground and center of their life, turning it into a kind of penitential exercise–making up for the sins of the world! So monks themselves had to rediscover the contemplative/mystical point of their life and this being the point of all human life. As Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima put it: The monk is not some special kind of person but only what all people should be. From the Desert Father who had a vision of a doctor in the city who lived constantly in the Presence of God to Abhishiktananda writing to a housewife advising her not to worry about running around to ashrams but to simply attend to the Absolute Reality of God in her daily life, this awareness and experience of the Divine Reality has never been relegated to only monastic life by those with wisdom and true knowledge. The doctor does not need the label “monk”; the housewife does not need the label “monk” or “nun.” So why do these “New Monasticism” folk want the label “monastic” and why am I questioning their monastic identity? There is both a Protestant version of this problem and a Catholic or Catholic-rooted version. In this particular posting I will consider only the Protestant version.

Consider the following:

From Wikipedia: The middle months of 2004 became a defining moment for the movement, when there was a gathering of a number of existing communities and academics in Durham, North Carolina, where they drew together something like a “rule of life,” referred to as the “12 marks” of new monasticism. The gathering took place at a new monastic community called “Rutba House,” of which some founding members were Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove.

The “Twelve Marks” of new monasticism express the common thread of many new monastic communities. These “marks” are:

  1. Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire” [at the margins of society]
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us
  3. Hospitality to the stranger
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
  7. Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community.
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life
  • Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
  • Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
  • Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.


Now all of the above is extremely commendable, something one wishes would really catch on in the Christian community, something that should be the real norm of standard Christian life, something that is so far superior to your average church life that it boggles my mind, etc., etc.   But the fact is that there is nothing there that makes it “monastic” per se. Yes, some of the things that you read in these “12 Marks” and in other literature from this movement could be found in many monastic communities, but that which is of the central essence of the monastic identity is either downplayed or even nonexistent. And that’s ok because I think these folks are actually recovering the real meaning of Christian community for everyone, never mind the monastic thing. And that calls for an inner depth, a true mysticism, and a more profound engagement with the so-called world and with each other in community than regular church life provides. Now why they choose to call this “monasticism” instead of simply Christian community may be for a number of reasons. One of which may simply be that some of these folks were truly impressed and inspired by the intensity of religious experience and expression when they encountered real monastics. So like in that old Nike commercial, “Be like Mike,” they wanted to be like Merton or Griffiths or Keating or whoever. However, apart from this particular skewing of their vision, these Protestant “new monastics” have much going for them and I wish them only the best, and one hopes that their religious experience will deepen with time.

And another thing, not unrelated to the above, that stood out for me in this list was the inclusion of married life. What I mean to say is that married life and monastic life are mixed up here in a kind of confusion about these two very different paths. This does a disservice to both ways of life. There is absolutely no need to tag a married couple as “monastics” when they have their own path and which can be as deeply contemplative as any monk’s. And really the two ways do not mix without seriously compromising the essential values of both. Now I realize that in some of their literature (both Catholic-rooted and Protestant) these New Monastics claim that they are all about a radical transformation of monastic life and its meaning. This is a new age and calls for a new expression. I for one don’t buy that at all. Gimme that ole’ time religion! At least as for the essential values. Married life and monasticism have a very different inner dynamic, and if you don’t recognize that then maybe you don’t have a grasp of the real implications of either life path. (By the way, this does not mean that married people cannot temporarily take up a kind of monastic life as in a lengthy retreat.) What I find interesting in what these New Monastics are saying in all this is that they would more benefit from studying the example of the Sufis rather than Christian monks. Sufis come in all “shades and colors”; some of them, including their very holy ones and mystics, have been married people. But I think the evangelical Protestant New Monastics are probably less keen on having Sufis as their teachers! It’s also very interesting that Buddhist monasticism has had this kind of problem also—there have been married Buddhist monks, but as Merton mentioned, “the Dalai Lama was not thrilled about that.” Generally even Buddhism considers “married monks” an aberration, not a norm. And when Zen Buddhism came to the U.S. there were even more problems in that the modern American wants to “have it all”–be married, have a family and be a monk, all at the same time! (In India, the classical thing was to pass through these various stages of life but eventually you left EVERYTHING and became a sannyasi.) In Zen Buddhism there is a lay ordination into Buddhism called “Jukai”(Japanese) and a monk ordination called “Tokudo.” There is a certain fluidity between the two, but they are two distinct paths. Here is an interesting quote from an American Zen Buddhist leader, John Daido Loori:

“Nagarjuna said, ‘When lay trainees can become Bodhisattvas and enter nirvana, why is it necessary to take monk’s ordination?’ And then he answered himself, ‘The difference in path is not the objective, enlightenment, but the degree of difficulty in attaining this. It is most difficult for the lay person because of other responsibilities, much easier for the monks, who can fully devote themselves to practice.’… Dogen, although often speaking of lay practice and monk practice as being identical, elsewhere in his writings emphasizes the distinctions, making the same point as Nagarjuna. The enlightenment of a monk or a lay person is not different. Both monk practice and lay practice can result in deep, profound realization; one indistinguishable from the other. What is different is the respective occupations of monks and lay practitioners, the difficulty of attaining realization, and the possibility of completing the training…. From Nagarjuna’s point of view, it’s much easier to do monk’s practice than it is to do lay practice. In the world, we have many responsibilities and gravitate in many directions: family, job, property, children, neighborhood. As one develops as a lay practitioner, these activities and the thrust of one’s life take place within the matrix of the Dharma, but the main focus of lay life remains one’s family and career. The focus of the monk’s life is the Dharma matrix itself. A monk is married to the Dharma. The major occupation of a monk is the Dharma. Nothing else. One hundred percent of the time, every day. A monk has essentially one vow, and that vow is the Dharma.”

Wise words.

Now returning to what I said earlier about the core or central essence of monasticism. This is of course something that cannot be put into words, but when we say “silence” and “solitude” we are getting very close to the essence of this path. No matter what form monastic life takes, it will always orient itself toward these values; and of course the hermit is then the exemplar par excellance of these values. Now looking at the literature of these amazing Protestant communities I don’t quite see that same emphasis. Yes, they are recovering the contemplative dimension of Christianity and the mystical path and in this regard they are beginning to discover something of the value of solitude and silence, but it doesn’t play that central role in their vision. There is a different “flavor” to their life, and of course that is perfectly ok. I certainly do not mean a kind of pyramid structure/hierarchy where hermits are on top, then come communal monks, then lay communities. This may have been a common picture from recent centuries, but wise figures in the past and almost everyone today would say “NO.” These are only different paths toward the goal of a mystical Christianity, a personal and deep awareness of the Divine. Housewife, doctor, communal monk, or hermit–each is simply responding to the Divine Reality as best as he/she can. As Merton put it, some of us simply need to be hermits in order to be truly ourselves.

But here something else must be added. The hermit life is actually very important for the whole Christian community and for the health of all of monasticism. And to neglect the importance of solitude and silence in Christian monastic life is to undermine its very reason for being there. But the hermit is also there as a sign for all Christians, as a sign of the transcendent nature of their faith and way, whoever they are. Within Christianity the hermit has a similar role as the sannyasi within Hinduism. And as Abhishiktananda put it so well, no matter what the needs of the world are, you still need these people whose only purpose in life is to live in the Divine Presence and to bear witness to it. They are the witnesses to this Presence in all times and all places. They are not there to teach, to foster civilization, to celebrate liturgy, even to pursue justice, etc.–all of these are truly worthy pursuits but not for the solitary one. And if there is going to be any kind of monastic renewal or monastic golden age or even a recovery of monastic life, it will be something that occurs because there are these men and women living in solitude, outside the various spotlights of society and our media culture, in small hidden-away hermitages, leading a life that is age-old and always, always ever new.