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Archive for the ‘New Monasticism’ Category

Here’s a glimpse into how connected my world has become.

A few months ago, my girlfriend Lisa Washio, co-director of The Pink House in Fresno, California (an InterVarsity Urban Projects program that immerses young adults in a 10-month residential apprenticeship in biblical community, urban ministry, and leadership development) called me from a pub in New Orleans. She was hanging out with interviewees Mike Brantley of Communitas New Orleans (Episode 21) and Scott Bessenecker, InterVarsity’s associate director of missions (Episode 29), plus other members of Communitas. Also in attendance was our mutual friend Josh Harper of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, California (Episode 16), InterVarsity’s national coordinator for Urban Projects. As well, there were Phileena and Chris Heuertz, established leaders within the new friar organization Word Made Flesh, who are presently embarking on a new venture that I’m very excited about, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, through which they hope to help people integrate contemplative spirituality with social activism. In fact, I was eager to meet Phileena and Chris in my travels, but their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was too far from anywhere by bicycle!

So what am I doing now, six months after the journey’s end?

First of all, I want to say that it has been a journey in itself readjusting to ordinary pedestrian life after 14 months on the road. Thankfully, I had the close company of friends in Collegeville, Minnesota, to lighten the burden of transitioning. Even so, the visceral sense of not knowing who I was or what direction my life was headed was fairly acute for the first couple of months. In this condition, I found it extremely difficult to reengage theological studies at Saint John’s School of Theology for one last semester. Thankfully, I did manage to complete my classwork, yet my eye was more focused on where the real fruits of the tour were emerging. In previous posts, I’ve alluded to Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” as characterizing my own experience of being stripped and given new life in the process of making this bicycle tour. This sense of being given a new life only increased after the traveling ceased. In fact, in a fairly short period of time, I’ve gone from a dizzying sense of groundlessness to a new inner stability, interwoven with new relationships and opportunities, about which I will say more below.

Regarding my thoughts in response to what I learned and experienced on tour, I resonate strongly with a chapter I came across in an anthology of reflections on centering prayer, “Three Contemplative Waves,” by centering prayer teacher David Frenette (see Thomas Keating, et al, Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer [New York: Lantern Books, 2008], 9-55). Frenette’s basic thesis is that, over the past half century, the Christian contemplative tradition has undergone a profound renewal and transformation toward what he calls “incarnational contemplation”; that is, toward an emphasis on integrating contemplative practices such as centering prayer in the context of the everyday life concerns of work, marriage, family, and social justice. He identifies the first two phases of this renewal—firstly, developing new ways of understanding the relationship between contemplation and various areas of human concern, including integrating the insights of developmental and transpersonal psychology; and secondly, developing practice forms accessible to people living in the world—with the work of Cistercian monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Significantly, Frenette believes that we are currently on the cusp of a third phase of contemplative renewal, namely, the emergence of lay intentional communities that support and express these new patterns of contemplative living in the world.

Now, Frenette is writing from a different but related context than that of the majority of communities I’ve visited. Whereas the contemplative renewal Frenette traces has its roots firmly within the monastic tradition (most of its seminal teachers, for instance, have been monks—Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, John Main, et al), the new monasticism-new friars movements I’ve covered are emerging from outside the classic monastic and mendicant orders. Whereas incarnational contemplation until now has focused primarily on interior practices and personal transformation, the greatest strength of the new monasticism-new friars, as I see it, has been a deep commitment to embodying the radical social teachings of gospels, most often in poor urban neighborhoods. Whereas incarnational contemplation has thus far developed structures for local support groups and extended retreats, the new monasticism-new friars have focused on communal forms of social engagement. One other contrast that I believe is particularly relevant here is that of demographics: while both incarnational contemplation and the new monasticism-new friars are fairly diverse, their demographic centers of gravity split between older Catholics and mainline Protestants on the incarnational contemplation side of the coin, and younger evangelicals among the new monasticism-new friars.

From the point of view of the monasteries themselves, at least in the Christian West, there is the related phenomenon of the vitality of many monastic houses tipping more and more toward an engagement with the wider world. Many monasteries now have far more Oblates (lay people who commit themselves to living out the spirituality of the monastery in the world) than in-house monks and nuns. For example, at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California—of which I am an Oblate—there are presently approximately 50 Oblates for every monk. This widening gap underlies Ivan Kauffman’s conviction, which I share, that the future of monasticism in the West lies in the direction of celibate monastics forging new collaborative relationships with lay people.

So here is my reading of the situation in a nutshell: On the one hand, many monasteries—their numbers shrinking and median age rising—are leaning uncertainly into an unknown future, while some lay or “incarnational” contemplatives grope toward yet-to-be-determined communal forms of life. On the other hand, a vibrant, youthful network of mostly evangelical Christians is busy at work experimenting with structures for intentional community, seeking roots in ancient tradition while embodying fresh responses to present circumstances. And if there’s anything that I have to speak into this situation, after having explored communities on both sides of this equation, it is this: Monasteries and their associated movements stand to benefit profoundly from the youthful idealism, fresh perspectives, courage, and creative imagination that I see permeating the new monasticism-new friars. The new monasticism-new friars stand to benefit profoundly from the maturity, depth of prayerful interiority, historical rootedness, and accumulated wisdom of the classic Christian monastic and contemplative traditions. Hence, I see vast potential waiting to be tapped through forging enduring collaborative relationships among these various Christian movements, all of whom lay some claim to historical monasticism.

I have no general prescription for how this relationship-building might unfold, except to say that I believe that people like Phileena and Chris Heuertz, who are already rooted in both worlds, are in an ideal position to step into this creative overlap and make things happen; for surely, the Spirit broods over this field of possibility, awaiting willing hands and hearts. Phileena is especially well-positioned as someone steeped in the teachings and practice of centering prayer and widely respected as a leader within the new monasticism-new friars. As well, Lisa and I are already beginning to envision possibilities for a community or center of some kind in Fresno. We are both Camaldolese-Benedictine Oblates (or at least, Lisa will be shortly), and whereas my experience and training lie mostly in the classic monastic and contemplative vein, Lisa is more firmly grounded in urban ministry along the lines of the new monasticism-new friars. And, she has deep relational roots in Fresno. Hence, we intend to draw upon our many relationships in the area, maintaining close ties with nearby New Camaldoli Hermitage, to develop a way of life in community that integrates monastic rhythms and contemplative practice with service and hospitality to our neighbors.

At this point, our aspirations are in the early germination stage, and the specifics of what we decide to do will be the outcome of a long process of prayerful discernment and consultation; or, to paraphrase Scott Yetter of Nehemiah House, of listening for what God is doing in the neighborhood and how we can participate. For now, I am back at New Camaldoli Hermitage with a load of books underarm that I need to read for comprehensive exams in order to complete my monastic studies degree. Hopefully, I will finish by May and will then make my way to Fresno. I have no timeline to offer as yet for our endeavors, but I will check in periodically on this blog with updates (if you haven’t inferred this yet, I am an irregular blogger; hence, if you want to be kept informed, I would recommend signing up for an e-mail subscription at the top of the sidebar to the right).

In the meantime, I will continue to watch in wonder and gratitude at how God breathes new life into weary limbs and weaves meaningful connections out of what once appeared to be mere disjointed bones.

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Odometer reading at the end of the tour: 5037.4 miles.

Yes, I am home! In fact, I arrived in Collegeville, Minnesota, a month ago. I’ve refrained from telling you until now because my brain has felt like it’s just been abruptly removed from a washing machine. I’ve wanted to say something that might sum up the journey but my thoughts have been rapidly moving targets, and any attempt to pin down a coherent perspective quickly bursts into a kaleidoscope of fluid impressions. I originally intended this month before my last semester of theological studies to be one of thoughtful reflection on what I’ve gleaned over this tour of communities. I’ve found instead that the best I can do is to let the psychic tumult, after bringing 14 months of living on the road to a sudden halt, to settle by itself, without my interference, into patterns of understanding, and questions and aspirations that spur me to explore further. Practically speaking, this has meant long walks and long naps more than hard thinking. Fruitful dormancy.

I needed to stop. Actually, I could have kept on bicycle-camping. I grew so comfortable with the predictable yet always unique daily rhythms that they became interwoven with my sense of identity. I bicycle-camp, therefore I am. The community visits were becoming exhausting, however. I am highly sensitive to physical and emotional environments, and so with every new community my psyche was hard at work beneath the surface, constantly sensing, adjusting, and readjusting. This subtle activity often made sleep difficult. And just as I was growing accustomed to one community, I was off to the next. Yes, exhausting.

Now, after a month of stability, the dust is settling, patterns are beginning to emerge, and aspirations are stepping forth to lure me into the future—a future, in fact, that begins next Wednesday, with the first classes of the new semester. For simplicity’s sake, I want to name three themes that stand out most to me at this time: economy, education, and contemplation.

With Mandy Creighton and Ryan Mlynarczyk, whose own bicycle tour of ecovillages inspired my tour of communities, at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Rutledge, Missouri

Community and Economics

Of all the interviews that touched on this subject, I was most moved by my conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the example of his community in Durham, North Carolina, Rutba House. In this regard, I think of David Janzen’s reflection that there are two basic motivations that draw people to community: a vision of a better way to live than what the dominant culture presupposes, and/or the desire to heal amidst communal bonds and a meaningful way of life. I have certainly been drawn to community by both of these motivations. In terms of the first—the aspiration to live into a particular vision of life—I think it’s quite common for people to subject themselves to somewhat narrow parameters of possibility because too many structural elements that make up their lives are taken for granted. For instance, while it’s true that monastic spirituality has been spilling over the cloister walls and monastic practices are being appropriated into lives that include family and work and the general round of worldly responsibilities, rarely does this appropriation sink so deep that social and economic structures are changed in significant ways. Monastic (Benedictine) Oblates, for instance, may incorporate liturgy, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, some degree of community, yet still remain relatively autonomous (like the majority in our society) in their socioeconomic status, alone or with their families. This, in spite of the fact that the Rule that is their guiding inspiration prescribes a radical sharing of goods, to the extent of naming private ownership a grave evil!

Communities like Rutba House take the appropriation of monastic practices to this more fundamental structural level, of sharing goods in common (a modified common purse) and using those shared resources to love their neighbors and rejuvenate their neighborhoods in concrete ways. As I see it, this may be the particular gift of the new monasticism to the evolving monastic tradition, especially as it expands beyond the cloister to include families and others deeply engaged in the wider community: the development of new structures of shared living that take the material, social, and economic dimensions of monastic life as seriously as prayer and spirituality. In fact, they are doing something quite profound: demonstrating that prayer cannot be separated from economics, that spirituality has no meaning without being a force for breaking down social barriers. Hence, I am inclined to agree with Mike Brantley who perceives new communities such as Rutba House and Communitas, and new orders such as InnerCHANGE, as the “reconnaissance mission” wending their way through new territory, laying down the systems and structures that will allow those who follow to function and flourish in new forms of religious life.

What every community needs: Jesse working the bar at the Milkweed Merchantile, Daincing Rabbit Ecovillage

Community and Education

On the cusp of reengaging classes after over a year of highly organic, improvised, practical learning, I’ve been thinking a great deal about education. Let me just march out my bias up front: I don’t believe school is a very good place to learn for most children and adults, and especially in terms of learning a subject like theology that cuts so close to identity, purpose, and matters of ultimate meaning. I recognize that many will disagree with me, and I accept that there are those who do thrive in a holistic way in academic environments (meaning, they’re enriched and transformed by academic study as whole persons). In a superficial sense, I also thrive. I am good at school. I get good grades. I know how to jump through the right hoops. But inwardly I am painfully aware of how little this flurry of activity penetrates the surface. In fact, I spent 19 years before arriving at my first college class after high school. Yet I was not idle during that extended hiatus. Far from it! I was highly engaged in my education, though you wouldn’t know it by my resume. Rather than school, I instinctively sought out learning experiences that were as practical as they were reflective, and that were embodied in a way of life. In other words, I sought intentional community as a context for education because I instinctively knew that context educates more than content.

When I wanted to pursue my love of creation, I spent 2 ½ years in an ecovillage. I had little desire to study “ecology” as a compartmentalized subject. When I wanted to deepen my meditation practice and live according to Buddhist values, I spent a year in a Zen Buddhist meditation center. Emphasizing intellectual study in this regard would have been, in the words of one Zen teacher, like “scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.” Now, with 3 years of graduate studies under my belt, I can safely say that my learning in community has been more profound in its own way than what I can glean through school. I simply don’t learn well unless intellectual reflection is closely tethered to and integrated with doing and seeing and hearing and tasting and smelling and immersion in a whole way of life.

Contextual education in community that organically integrates action and reflection, with room for self-direction and spontaneity—that’s my aim, both as a lifelong learner and as an aspiring educator. And the person whose work has inspired me the most in this regard through the course of this tour is Mark Scandrette. I find his model of “learning laboratories,” and the insight that learning Christianity needs to be like learning a martial art that requires practical training, deeply resonant with my own thoughts on what makes for meaningful education. Additionally, many of the communities I’ve visited have various forms of internships, apprenticeships, and formation processes. At the same time, I sense that many communities are looking to grow in their capacity to form and educate their own members and those who come to them seeking to learn. Hence, I see tremendous potential in this new generation of Christian communities to develop as centers of education and formation, perhaps even affiliating with academic institutions.

Camp-Cat waits.

Alright, it’s late and I need to go to bed soon, so I will leave community and contemplation and thoughts on where I go from here for another day. I’ll post what I’ve written so far because…well, a month after I’ve completed the tour that’s been the scaffolding of this whole endeavor, I have to say something!

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Scott Bessenecker is Assistant Director of Missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational university student ministry, and has been involved with InterVarsity’s overseas mission projects since 1986. He has written numerous articles for publications such as RELEVANT and Mission Maker magazines, and is the author of New Friars; How to Inherit the Earth; and editor of Living Mission. Inspired by folks like Viv Grigg and others who see the need for a new kind of Protestant monasticism to take root to serve  urban slums, Scott developed the Global Urban Trek, through which takes young people overseas into slum communities to live with, to serve, and to learn from those embedded in poverty. In this way, Scott seeks to foster what he perceives the Holy Spirit doing in our day: inspiring a new generation of young Christians to bind themselves to the lives and struggles of the urban poor. Drawing a connection to the movement stirred up by Saint Francis of Assisi during the rapid urbanization of the 13th century, Scott refers these contemporary missional young people as “new friars.” He lives with his wife, Janine, and their three children, Hannah, Philip, and Laura, in Madison, Wisconsin.

In our conversation, Scott outlines the similarities and differences between the new friars and their close cousins in the new monasticism movement. Both are ecumenical in composition, led largely by young, Western evangelicals who seek to learn from the classic religious orders; both embody a similar, downwardly-mobile, communal solidarity with the poor. Yet, while new monastics are most often drawn into local Western communities, emphasizing stability of place, the new friars tend to be drawn into the world as if by a centrifugal, outward-moving energy and global vision. Similarly, Scott distinguishes between the new friars and conventional Protestant missions. While the latter have tended to reflect a modern Northern European capitalistic, individualistic, product-driven value system, the new friars—valuing community, contemplation, and ongoing spiritual growth—are seeking to create new wineskins outside the old structures. In discussing his work with young people through Global Urban Trek, Scott emphasizes our need to detox from the spiritual sickness engendered by affluence in order to learn rightful dependence on Jesus Christ and to walk in solidarity with the poor. Scott also speaks of the rediscovery of contemplation and spiritual direction among Evangelicals, and the necessary reciprocal relationship between activism and contemplation. Finally, while recognizing that the new friars may remain relatively small in numbers, Scott voices his confidence that the movement will not only endure but have an impact far exceeding its size, helping urban youth develop a prophetic imagination for what God’s kingdom can look like in slum communities.

Organizations associated with the new friars movement: Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (see my interview with Craig Greenfield of Servant’s Vancouver); InnerCHANGE (see Catherine Rundle of InnerCHANGE Los Angeles and Mike Brantley of Communitas, New Orleans); Word Made FleshServant Partners; and Urban Neighbours of Hope.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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David Janzen’s experience in Christian intentional community spans the greater part of four decades. In the early ‘70s, David and his family helped found New Creation Fellowship in Newton, Kansas. In 1984, they moved to Reba Place Fellowship, an urban, income-sharing community founded in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Since coming to Reba Place Fellowship, David has assisted in the community’s refugee asylum project, served on their leadership team, directed an affordable housing ministry, and is currently focusing his energies on mentoring the new generation of communities associated with the new monasticism movement. He is the author of two books, each the fruit of visiting and researching Christian intentional communities throughout North America: Fire, Salt and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America (Good Books, November 1996) and the forthcoming Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press, November 2012). The latter, due for publication this fall, reflects David’s responses to questions gathered from visits with contemporary communities, arranged in a developmental sequence according to the needs and concerns of communities at various stages of growth, including advice for those seeking community.

In our conversation, David and I discuss the three historical waves of North American Christian intentional communities to the present: from the energetic idealism and experimentation of the 60s and early 70s, to the less visible but more stable emergence of communities in the 80s and 90s, to the current generation of new monastics eager to learn from those who came before them. While all share a common bond in Christian faith, many inspired by the radical social and economic template laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and the description of the early Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles, each wave has its distinct characteristics, reflecting the social context and concerns of their day. David weighs in on the particular strengths of the current generation, especially their identification with the wider Christian communal tradition, namely monasticism, and their enthusiastic welcome of the help of their elders. On the other hand, deluged by the seemingly unlimited options of our hypermobile culture, and often enough coming from broken households themselves, the current generation tends to bear a woundedness and a reticence toward stable commitments that require special attention.

David also traces the development of three related networks of communities of which he’s been a part: the Shalom Association of Communities (1972-85), Shalom Mission Communities (1996-present), and his current work with the Nurturing Communities Project. The latter reflects the efforts of a dozen or so communities, in light of the needs of the current groundswell of new monastic communities, to establish new community-networks in order to provide help, encouragement, and accountability for one another. In fact, members from participating communities (approximately 50 people) will be meeting this September at Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to explore possibilities and learn from the monks who are hosting them.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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With Mother Hilary Crupi OJN

The Order of Julian of Norwich Monastery in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has been on my radar screen for some years now. In fact, when I entered the novitiate at New Camaldoli Hermitage, I took the name Julian after Julian of Norwich, a 14th century Englishwoman who lived as an anchoress, or solitary, attached to the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, England. Reading Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love had such a profound impact on me, especially in her portrayal of God as completely devoid of all forms of violence, that I realized that part of my life’s work was to live into her radically subversive vision of God’s love. Consequently, I was excited to learn of a monastic order committed to living out the vitality of this vision in the context of a shared life of contemplation, liturgy, and manual labor. Founded in 1985 by Fr. John-Julian Swanson OJN as a contemplative monastic order within the Episcopal Church, the Order of Julian of Norwich weaves various threads of traditional sources (Cistercian, Benedictine, Carmelite) under the guiding inspiration of the words, witness, and enduring spirit of Julian of Norwich.

I arrived at the monastery with no expectations other than to share prayer, a meal, and hopefully engaging conversation. Meeting with Mother Hilary after lunch, we quickly began talking about the life of the monastery and changes the community’s undergoing. Of course, we talked at length about Julian of Norwich. But she surprised me when I spoke of my tour and the new monasticism and she expressed her earnest desire to find ways to pass on the wisdom of the tradition to these pioneers who are building the next phase of the monastic movement. Having evangelical Christian roots herself, Mother Hilary understands some of the struggles and aspirations driving the many young evangelicals who are spearheading the new monasticism. In fact, she’s even taken this question of how to support these emerging communities to conferences with other leaders of religious communities.

Pedaling from the monastery, I felt nourished in body, mind, and spirit, inspired by Mother Hilary’s enthusiasm, openness, concern, and sense of responsibility for sharing the gifts she’s inherited. I hope this marks the beginning of a relationship that bears fruit.

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Photo by Scott Langley

Imagine Benedictine monasteries hosting conferences and providing help to lay people looking to incorporate monastic values and practices into their lives. Nothing new, you say. People have been flocking to such monasteries, especially over the past couple of decades, gleaning wisdom and guidance on contemplative prayer, Lectio Divinaliturgy of the hours, and other portable practices. For now, though, let’s reconfigure this image so that these particular practices passed on to lay people are first located in their monastic context. What might it look like, then, for monks and nuns to transmit the more foundational principles and practices of their way of life, such as common ownership and structures that break down inherited socioeconomic divisions between people?  In other words, what forms might such a monasticism-in-the-world take that, like Saint Benedict and the tradition he consolidated in his Rule, understood concern with economic realities to be as intrinsic to a life of prayer as prayer itself?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is Associate Minister at the historically African-American St. Johns Baptist Church, directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit organization that educates people in Christian community, and has authored a handful of books, including God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth GospelThe Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, and a contemporary paraphrasing and commentary to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Jonathan is also editor of the New Monastic Library Series (Cascade Books) and associate editor of the Resources for Reconciliation Series (InterVarsity Press).

In 2003, Jonathan and his wife Leah co-founded the new monastic community Rutba House in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina (the community is named after the town of Rutba, Iraq, where injured members of their Christian Peacemaker Team were given medical care in a hospital that had been bombed by U.S. forces only three days prior). The community at present consists of two houses and fourteen members (including four children) who share a common life of daily prayer, meals, mutual support, hospitality, and active peacemaking.  They live by a modified common-purse economy, working full or part time and contributing 30-40% of their income to the community. These shared resources in turn cover not only all household expenses (including a car co-op) but also enable them to provide meals, housing, and other forms of hospitality to homeless or struggling friends in the neighborhood.

Rutba House Members and Friends

In our conversation, Jonathan and I discuss the meaning of monastic social and economic relocation in the context of today’s largely urban, non-cloistered new monasticism movement, especially as lived at Rutba House.  For the 4th century monastics of the Egyptian desert, this relocation represented a physical flight from the dominant culture into uninhabited places, in order to focus unerringly upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and to confront more directly the spiritual forces at work in the world and in themselves. As an heir to this tradition, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia configured this relocation in the context of self-contained, cloistered monastic communities. For today’s new monastics, Jonathan believes, the call to relocation is not primarily to uninhabited regions or even to cloistered, celibate monastic communities, but rather to set down roots as families and single people living together in the ‘abandoned places’: those areas scarred by social, cultural, and economic marginalization.

Drawing on monastic sources as well as contemporary civil rights wisdom, particularly John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association movement, Jonathan speaks about how Rutba House has concretely sought to take the values of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution seriously. We discuss the community’s in-house economy and its outflow to the neighborhood, and the ways in which this outflow has fostered forgiveness and friendships based on trust, in place of suspicion. In fact, Jonathan uses the language of repentance to describe this deliberate movement of taking responsibility for inherited economic and racial privilege, and seeking to break down these barriers that divide the family of God. For Jonathan, this movement of small, inconspicuous, locally-rooted intentional communities embodies the kind of transformative social engagement, the leaven within the dough, practiced and prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels and by monastics in every age, according to the particular needs of their time and place.

Other people, places, and things mentioned in this interview: 12 Marks of the New MonasticismS. Margaret McKenna of the Medical Missionary SistersNew Jerusalem Laura; John Cassian on the Three Renunciations.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Having just come from Koinonia Farm and gleaned from conversations there that, among some in the New Monasticism movement, there is a growing interest in connecting more deeply with the classic monastic tradition, I was eager to bring “old-school” monastics into the conversation. Here I speak with Cistercian monk Michael Lautieri, OCSO, current vocation director of Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. In our conversation, I asked Michael how neo-monastic communities might better learn from monasteries and the monastic tradition. He offers two concrete possibilities—monastics living temporarily with neo-monastic communities as teachers, and core members of neo-monastic communities spending time in temporary monastic guest programs such as that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit. In regard to learning from monasticism, Michael stresses the need to actually experience monastic life firsthand in order to understand the monastic charism. And while he emphasizes monasticism’s adaptability and flexibility according to culture, circumstance, and religion, he’s also clear on what he considers the constitutive elements of any form of monasticism: prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community. Michael also shares his thoughts on what he anticipates for the future of monasticism (mirroring Ivan Kauffman’s conviction that the future of monastic communities lies in stronger bonds with lay people) and his enthusiasm over the broad interest among lay people today in incorporating a depth of spirituality into their lives through learning monastic values and practices.

Embedded in this interview are two questions that have come to the fore for me over the course of this tour of communities. The first question is, simply: what is monasticism? One concern I have is that the New Monasticism movement has been re-defining the very meaning of the word, often with little concrete input from or experience of the classic monastic tradition. While this re-definition process from a fresh perspective expands the monastic imagination, so to speak, sometimes I have difficulty understanding just what’s monastic about particular expressions of the New Monasticism. Hence, I want to carry this question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism into future interviews with monastics “new” and “old,” and especially into my Monastic Studies program at Saint John’s School of Theology upon my return this fall. Thus far, I’ve received three direct responses to this question: Mary Ewing Stamps, leader of the Methodist-Benedictine Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery, emphasized the structural elements of stability of place, a leader, and a rule of life (incidentally, even though much of her own formation took place in a Benedictine monastic guest program similar to that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit, she prefers the idea of monastics coming to live as teachers with new communities in order to preserve the importance of a sense of place). Camaldolese-Benedictine monk Cyprian Consiglio, speaking from the eremitical (hermit) tradition and from years of involvement in monastic inter-religious dialogue, named the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as comprising the core of monasticism. And here, again, speaking from within the Cistercian tradition, Michael identifies the essential elements of monasticism as prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community.

What these three monastics witness to is the fact that there is no definitive answer to the question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism. Rather, there are many perspectives from within a shared body of experience that constellates around certain key features, while allowing for much diversity. Hence, I think Michael makes a crucially important point here: that monastic life cannot be adequately understood from the outside; it has to be lived. And to reiterate an observation I’ve made in earlier posts, this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism contrasts with new expressions of Buddhist communities in the West, in so much as the latter have mostly developed directly from what has been passed down from Asian monastic teachers; the lineage of tradition remains unbroken. Which brings me to my second question, reflecting my conviction that the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism have much to offer one another:

How might this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism be bridged? And why? What does each have to offer the other?

Stay tuned…

Books mentioned or alluded to in the interview: Monastic Practice, by Charles Cummings, OCSOConsecrated Religious Life: The Changing Paradigms, by Diarmuid O’Murchu 

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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