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 Divina, liturgy 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 Gospel, The 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.
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 Monasticism; S. Margaret McKenna of the Medical Missionary Sisters; New 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.