What Do Monks Have To Do With It? (Formations Blog #1)

(This post is part of a series of blog posts I am writing for my Formations of Christian Traditions class. They are aimed towards progressive Christian college students!)

The January dawn was dark and chilly. I slept in my wool socks and a sweater inside my sleeping bag. My college friends and I roused ourselves from our bunk beds and pulled on extra sweaters and hats and trekked into the pale French dawn. Upon arriving at the Chapel of Reconciliation, we entered into a warm room smelling of cedar and incense, picked up our multilingual prayer books and found our seats on comfortable prayer stools. The morning worship at the Taizé monastery in southern France was quiet, contemplative, and moving. The worshippers sang repetitive chants with simple melodies and single phrases led by the ecumenical brothers of the Taizé community, shared silence, and contemplated short passages of Scripture. When all singing had ended (for it can go on quite a while, as long as there is someone who wants to sing), we would emerge into the bright sunlight and transition to a simple breakfast of bread, jam and spice tea before a Bible study and chore time. In two weeks of praying, singing, communing and working (what I like to call “scrubbing toilets for Jesus”), I, like many visitors to the historic ecumenical monastery, experienced a small taste of what monasticism looks like in the 21st century–and maybe even what it has been like for many centuries.

taizeThe main branch of the Western-style of monasticism seems to have originated, or at least taken a familiar form, in the lives and communities of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were men and women ascetics (people who practiced simplicity in physical and spiritual life–e.g. eating bread and water only, etc.) who lived in the 4th-5th centuries AD, scattered across the Nile watershed in Egypt, Syria and Palestine whose lives and works are preserved in the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers!]).[1] These sayings were collected and penned from stories circulating in the oral tradition by a monk named Cassian in the 6th century AD. From reading the Sayings and examining what kinds of stories were preserved about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we often can discern the ancient editor’s point of view about solitude, community and theology, and sometimes even get a glimpse of what life was like for the early monastics. With these teachings as a starting point, monasticism in the Western Christian world[2] (the Roman Empire and then Europe, primarily) got a move on, and throughout the medieval times and Middle Ages crystallized into different threads of traditions: Basilian (from St. Basil of Caesarea), Franciscan (from St. Francis of Assisi), and Benedictine (from St. Benedict of Nursia) being some of the most famous and widespread strains.

My visit to Taizé was almost five years ago, and contemplation in the style of certain monastic traditions has continued to be part of my life. This is in part because of the “new monasticism” movement, which now is about 20 years old and gaining in popularity among young progressive Christians of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. I have witnessed and participated in several communities engaged in “intentional” or “new monastic” communities. These communities are united by some basic similarities: generally they are governed by a community covenant or rule of life that expresses the values the community wishes to practice. The basic concept of intentional living is cohabiting with others who are collectively dedicated to practicing certain values (spiritual, ecological, vocational, etc.) in a cooperative setting. Common life is important as it is the setting for exploring and expressing the values held in the community. This could be anything from holding all money in common to sharing all food to using politically correct language and practicing healthy conflict transformation styles–many communities all over the world practice their versions of living in community differently. Some intentional communities focus a lot on both individual and community development. Some focus on practicing “downward mobility” and living in solidarity with the poor and people experiencing homelessness. Some focus on able-bodied folks living alongside differently-abled folks and the ways in which these types of relationships can help all involved get through life.

communitysculpture

Last year, I participated in the Belle H. Bennett House Fellowship hosted at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, an intentional community program for young female-identifying people recently graduated from college who want to experience intentional living and do social justice work through unpaid internships in local nonprofits. This was a transformational time for me, where I was challenged and supported in ways I could never have imagined. I learned a lot about myself (trust me, A LOT) and also was able to set apart time for vocational discernment, all the while figuring out what community means to me. This trend of bringing young people recently graduated from college to live intentionally and do good work for their community is growing in popularity and is shared among many denominations (find more out about these wonderful faith-based volunteer programs here).

Here I have compiled a chart comparing some examples of the values of the early ascetics to the values of the “new monastic” movement as expressed by the founders of this movement, including one founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, PA.[3] This list is by no means exhaustive of all of the values that ancient monastic communities observed and new monastic communities live by, but they can give you and idea of some of the similarities important to these models of shared life that transcend time.

Desert Fathers and Mothers[4] Basic Philosophies of New Monasticism
Renunciation: of the world, namely, bodily pleasures like eating decadent food, drinking alcohol, sexual activity 1) “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.”
Inversion of Social Norms: rejecting Empire and drive to self-betterment 2) “Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.”
Hospitality: early ascetics would often take in novitiates and visitors and serve them humbly 3) “Hospitality to the stranger.”
Pursuit of the Divine: following the pattern of Jesus the Christ 4) “Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.”
Humility: placing oneself as a servant to others and to God 5) “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.”
Voluntary Social Death: for solitary monks, renouncing the world such that one does not exist there anymore (ex. leaving the city, living alone, not participating in commerce, etc.) 6) “Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.”
Common Life: early ascetics would have mentors with whom they’d address spiritual matters and from whom they’d gain encouragement or reprimanding 7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
Celibacy (another form of renunciation of the world) 8) “Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.”
Community (for some early Egyptian monks, they would live in solitary cells but in communities along the Nile River Valley) 9) “Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.”
Simplicity: early ascetics would use only what they needed, nothing more and nothing less (a practice that is now called “enoughness”)[5] 10) “Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.”
Pacifism (sometimes related to humility, sometimes seen to show the strength of the spirit as dominating a human brute instinct to conflict) 11) “Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.”
Spiritual Transformation: the ascetics had many spiritual practices that they would use to try to achieve spiritual purity and union with God (one important one was the practice of Silence) 12) “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”

Looking at this chart, you can possibly imagine the ways the values of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have been interpreted over the centuries, as well as imagine how the “new monastic” values could be interpreted in the future. And, the most interesting thing is, there are not too many differences in the origin of these values and practices: humility, simplicity and community seem to be the basis for both columns.

As you read these values, I encourage you to think about what kind of community you are experiencing currently. Are you living at home and going to a vocational school or a community college? Do you live far away from your family and attend a small liberal arts college? Who makes up your community—is it primarily 18-22 year olds or are there older adults and young children in addition to people your age? What guiding principles create cohesion in your community? Are there practices that you regularly engage in with people around you?

Here’s my challenge to you: try on one of these values for a week! Look at your life and make a list of what activities, practices and rituals you complete during your typical day (i.e. Do you pray in the morning and at night? Do you serve food in soup kitchens? Do you journal? Do you try to use your money sparingly and for good causes?) Try to fit any of those practices into the categories named in the columns above. Then, pick an item from the list of monastic values (either ancient or “new”) that you want to experiment with. Do some research (yeah, just Google it, ok? J) on what kinds of everyday practices you could try that complement the value. If you’ve never done meditative contemplation, try out a lectio divina or a centering prayer. If you mostly keep to yourself during meal times, exercise some hospitality and have a friend join you—or vice versa: eat a meal alone or in silence! Or, for some real challenge [J] try out “voluntary social death” in the form of taking a technology Sabbath and limiting your presence on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Also, follow this blog for the next four weeks, and I will post more about several of the values listed here: Solitude/Community, Silence, Humility and Hospitality. Each week, I will suggest spiritual practices to help you dig deeper into both the history of monasticism (as explored through the Sayings) and the living practices of modern “new monastics.” I do hope you will join me in learning more about the life of contemplation and service to God! If you have any questions, comments, would like to share insights or meditations that really work for you—feel free to post a comment publically or send me a private message!

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. What practices do I find myself yearning for? Create your own spiritual practices and rituals! (For example, mine include baking and drinking tea on my porch–run with your ideas!)

Peace be with you!

[1] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1984).

[2] Though monasticism has taken various forms around the world (Tibetan Buddhism, Islamic ascetics, Confucian monks, etc.) I am choosing to focus on the (more or less) direct lineage of the new monastic movement, which gathers its heritage from the Benedictine Rule and models such as the Taizé, France and Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

[3] Found in Josh Anderson, “The 12 Marks of a New Monasticism,” Sojourners.com, accessed October 21, 2015, https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2007/12-marks-new-monasticism. Also found in Shane Claiborne, “Marks of New Monasticism,” in New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church, ed. Graham Cray, et. al. (London: Canterbury Press, 2010), 19-36.

[4] These values are based on Dr. David Michaelson’s Paper 1 Assignment Criteria handout, as well as gleaned from William Harmless (William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Cary, NC (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004), ProQuest ebrary, accessed 22 October 2015) and by my own reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[5] Bill McKibben, “Enoughness,” Resurgence.org, accessed November 3, 2015, http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article658-ENOUGHNESS.html.

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