On Monasticism and New Monasticism

I am posting this from the Gladstone’s library. This is a relatively new library for Wales (the 19th century), and is the Prime Minister’s own library, though he isn’t here at the moment. I am sitting in the theology reading room looking out wrought-iron framed glass to the red sandstone residence across the lawn. A cobweb traces from Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament to my banker’s light. Except for the shuffle of feet and an occasional whisper it is absolutely silent. My fingers on the keyboard feel harsh.

It is supposed to be quiet. It is a place of study.

As I was finding my seat, this month’s copy of The Tablet caught my eye. The Tablet is a British Catholic journal, and the 13 Sep 2014 issue is all about the “New Monasticism.” It is subtitled, “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s bold experiment for a restless generation.” This special report on monastic renewal speaks about a new religious community at Lambeth Palace, encouraged by Archbishop Justin Welby himself. It includes a cartoon with a picture saying, “I’m Deactivating Facebook.”

Other articles speak of “internships” at abbeys, ecumenical communities of prayer taking over former Carmelite monasteries, and Anglican monastics offering mediation classes and Christian yoga. There’s an ad for “sabbatical” sessions–semesters of study connected with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. And there is a feature on Enzo Bianchi, an ecumenical monastic recently promoted by Pope Francis to a role in the Holy See. Themes throughout the issue include: prayer, sabbath, education, authenticity, and social justice.

Those are roughly the themes I cover in this video I made while in Leuven, Belgium. In this 16 minute webcam talk I ask the question of what monasteries are and what monks do, as well as how they arose in history. Students watching this video are also reading about Shane Claiborne, a young, evangelical American activist who lives in community with the poor. Christianity Today has covered this emerging new monasticism here, and here is a great interview with him on the Patheos blog. Other resources might be Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s Life Together and Jean Vanier’s Being Human.

What I’m suggesting–and I’d love to hear if you think I’m wrong–is that monasticism is not simply a retreat from culture. I am retreating now so I can set aside uninterrupted time for research. But ultimately, this retreat is about engaging. I argue here that monasticism is historically a movement for cultural engagement and transformation. Students will discuss this in class on Friday, but anyone can let me know their thoughts by commenting below.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to On Monasticism and New Monasticism

  1. Pingback: On Monasticism and New Monasticism | Reforming Imagination

  2. Warner says:

    Hi Brenton,

    I really appreciated this post. I went to a Classical Christian school in the United States and wrote my senior thesis on New Monasticism, specifically Shane Claiborne.
    I don’t know what initially attracted me to the movement, except what you might call a “restlessness” or “suburban malaise,” but since then I have thought a great deal about monasticism. What would a new monasticism mean or look like to the church?

    In Illinois, I went to a conference on urban redevelopment at Elmhurst College. One of the speakers was Shane Claiborne. We met in a small chapel and there was about one hundred people or less. I was there to talk to him and ask him some questions. I tried to get to the heart of my discomfort with new monasticism by asking a single question: “Shane, what makes your taking care of the poor different than the Muslim who takes care of the poor?” I wanted him to say that he preaches the Gospel to the poor in spirit, but not only did he not say that, he didn’t answer the question. Just as my parents thought, who were very present in my education, feeding the poor was a mere “social justice” to the movement, a direct application of Christ’s command to do so, bordering on legalism, not freedom (this was their take, but I found it extreme; I knew where Shane was coming from. Heck, he went to Wheaton College, an outpost of Christendom right where I grew up).

    That was two years ago. I have not come to the conclusion that new monasticism is “bad,” but rather that it is not what it claims to be. I even called him “he and the new monastics,” but he immediately said that “we don’t call ourselves that.” I like the guy a lot, but he is not a monk. He is a Christian hippie. Yes, the new monastic movement has the word “monasticism” in it, but that word is borrowed from a Bonhoeffer quote, not the tradition of monasticism. In spirit, new monasticism is a revitalization of 60’s counterculture. Hear me out; I am fine with that. It is community living for laypeople with families, for married people. But it is not monasticism. It is intentional living for Christians, but it is loose, floppy, like the home-made robes he wears, like his hair. Where are the Rules? Where is the vocation? Christian community does not equal monasticism. Silence, dedication to specific skills, prayer, celibacy, isolation and engagement with culture (I hand-picked this juxtaposition).

    Unfortunately, new monasticism is not a new monasticism at all. So the question stayed lingering in my mind: if I, as a child of the Reformation, believe in reformation over revolution, why has monasticism – in its spirit – not been reformed? What is intentionally or unintentionally rejected by the Reformers? Why does it not exist – at all! – in orthodox, conservative Protestant places as celibate men living together, fully dedicated to their particular vocations?

    Why is there no reformed monasticism?

    I think the root cause is the reformation’s almost systematic rejection of celibacy. In his “Institutes,” Calvin gives some room – only some – for celibacy, but hardly enough for monasticism, a vocation for celibates. In order to reform it, I think there would need to be a complete shift in perspective. For example, monasticism is flourishing – and almost always has – in Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It does not exist in Protestant branches (although you get counterfeits of it, like new monasticism or communal living places, which usually have family at their center, not celibacy). In order to reform it, I think, unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, celibacy ought to be the starting point, not the monasticism.

    As it is now, monasticism is seen as the desired vocation, and celibacy follows after as a vow (a permanent one, no less! As Paul said, you might as well cut it off.) It ought to be this; a man or woman inspects herself and discovers she is a celibate (either for a time, or for her life; only God knows), and therefore picks up the monastic vocation. The celibate ought to be wondering, “What will I do with my time,” over the monk wondering, “Dang, how am I going to do this celibacy thing?” It is better to get married than to burn with passion.

    I have a million more thoughts on this and, frankly, I am just getting started in my understanding of it all. I discovered Thomas Merton only last year (who is unfortunately pretty down on non-Catholics). I have been hungrily searching for any sort of reformed orthodox monastery of any kind and the closest thing to it I found was Saint Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan. It is a Lutheran monastery.

    If this were to happen – if I were, as the vision in my head stipulates (I read it like a contract that I am grateful to sign), to establish a reformed monastery, write a simple rule for it, and plant it right in the heart of a postmodern and sad culture – I would want to avoid, as much as it is possible, the sins of my generation. The list could go on, but I would not want to see in monasticism a salvation beyond Christ. I would want to see in it a vocation, like an engineer or a pastor, taken back for Christ, reformed, reshaped for this dying culture now, hungry for something experiential or substantial. I would not want to see in it strains of emergency, liberalism, fluffy doctrine, mystery over clarity (although, I must confess that I am tempted by mysticism). I would want to see in it, not a declaration of individual uniqueness, but rather the joy of setting aside your individual identity, your possessions, your street-cred, for a body far more dynamic and ecumenical than we have been led to believe.
    My generation is ecumenical and lusting for community – much like the youth of the 60’s – but I do not want to jump back fifty years to repeat a cultural cycle. The church needs a branch more firmly rooted in a tradition long since weakened. It needs life again. There are people in the church – Protestant youths, evangelical kids – who grow up in their church, thinking marriage is the only option, that singleness is hell, impossible, not for them, not for anyone – only for people in the waiting room of marriage. Singleness is seen, not as a gift, but a temporary state. That is why evangelicalism has exchanged the honored word of “celibacy” for “singleness” as if once again to copy a diseased culture.
    Some of the collateral damage of this diseased culture is the presence of celibates by birth growing up with a deep and aching anxiety that they must, one day, get married. You get these visionaries, then, weighed down by the blessing of family and children, thinking they can do it all through Christ who strengthens them, pursuing their youthful and fast fading ambitions. But what happens to the mission field they stepped up onto when they got married? When they had kids? What happens to the families of the ambitious?
    Some are called to set aside their ambitions, but others, like Flannery O’connor, perceived that art does sometimes require celibacy. We need more single people in our churches. We need more single people in the Church, because marriage is such a good thing. When someone chooses celibacy over marriage, it is a declaration that marriage is a good thing. That is why celibacy is such a worthy sacrifice.
    But celibates are in the vast minority – a point, I think, Catholics and I would disagree on. The reason you get lusty priests, is because those poor priests are passionate. A permanent vow of celibacy is almost demonic (insert Calvinism here).

    If this comes down to sexuality – unfortunately (I ain’t no Freud) – I wonder if the parallel movement of same-sex celibacy in America would have any ramifications on a reformed monasticism?

    What do you think? Have I spoken too much? Sorry if I did. I am just excited to see that someone else is thinking about these issues. I hope it bears much fruit.


    • No, you haven’t said too much!
      I saw that you reblogged this. Honestly, I think you should shape this lengthy comment into a blog which allows you to critique my video here in a more systematic way. Really, it breaks down to:
      1. There are some problems with the New Monasticism (here we mean the American one–I also mention a European stream and a Canadian/International stream in my video).
      2. The American New Monastics don’t call themselves that! (which is in the interview I link)
      3. Why is there not a reformation of monasticism from a capital-R Reformed perspective? Well, there are Anglican monastics, but more Anglo-Catholic aren’t they? And isn’t Reformed University Education a transforming of that Model too? But it’s a good question. I should note that I’m not very Reformed (though I like reading Calvin).
      4. (My question): Can we have Monasticism without Celibacy? I think we can. Marriage is sacramental, as is Chastity. Perhaps we have tied Priesthood and Monasticism too closely together.
      But… but, if my thesis is that Monasticism is about withdrawal for community/cultural engagement, then I think both Singles and Married folk have a role there.


    • robstroud says:

      Many great thoughts here, Warner. Thanks for sharing them at length. Your insight into the fact that some contemporary pseudo-monastic movements are mere comprised of “Christian hippie(s)” is right on.


  3. Brenton: I’ve always heard that monastic orders were about separation from the world.

    Then I studied mission, and realized that many monastic communities were populated by some of the the most innovative and culturally in tune people that Christian history may have ever seen. In fact, they tended to live more in tune with local people, in almost every type of culture and nation they were found. They were often very sensitive, and helpful, and engaged with the people around them. I found more of a pioneering spirit seemed to be well rooted in such communities, which is why they emerged in Asia, all over the far east.
    I personally believe this “New Monasticism” will be the major rejuvenating force of the 21’st century Christian faith…. I did not say “Church” as in local church purposefully. It remains to be seen of the new monasticism will even enter it’s doors.


    • Hi AJ. You should read Warner’s response below–he has some criticism.
      It’s a pretty gutsy thesis for a short video: That monasticism is about cultural engagement. It is, over course, over generalized. But I think it has some merit, and I’m glad your missiology reading gets you to think of it a little differently too.
      “Pioneering spirit”–I think that’s one way to capture the New Monasticism. But I wonder if the real issue is “Authenticity.” What do you think?


      • I am not 100% certain how the term “New Monasticism” is being used….. because it is clear that many of had a different…. if not distorted view of the old Monasticism…. So the term really confuses me.
        The same goes for the term “Authentic”. I have heard the term thrown around for 20 years now…. and it seems to have many shades of meaning. Many who use the word authentic seem to mean ….. “Live up to what you claim to be”… in other older terms, it is a new way of stating the christian moralism “Be good, and live Good”… and most of us do not live up to Jesus anyway….
        I find people are not claiming to be anything…. I sense people are looking for honesty, and transparency in relationships and Jesus community ……. No games, manipulation from others agendas, visions, and scripts. People to walk with in life. People willing to live the over 40 “One Anothers” in the NT… ….Love, teach correct, encourage…… one another. No more “Hi,….. (and insert some comment on the weather)”

        The for Gutenberg generation it was all about the “quality” of the content.. (the teaching, the programs etc) .. For the Google generation is seems to be the depth of the participation and interaction. Have you observed anything similar?


  4. Pingback: On Monasticism and New Monasticism. i | Reforming Imagination

  5. robstroud says:

    Just returned from a trip myself… though not to so delightful a setting as you’re enjoying. Thank you for this post and your video presentation. This subject fascinates me. Not because I have ever sensed any such calling on my own life, but because of the powerful, generally positive, influence historically exerted on church and society by monasticism.

    Just one reminder, which I know you’re already aware of. We must remain careful in our use of chastity as a synonym for celibacy. It isn’t. While celibates (which rightfully includes all unmarried Christians) should remain chaste, so too should those who are married. Although recent usage has increasingly distorted the definition, we need to be careful about reminding people that those of us who have been united in the covenant (or even, sacrament) of marriage are indeed living chaste lives when we remain faithful to the vows made to our spouse, in the presence of God.

    I look forward to hearing more about your insights related to monasticism.


    • I think you fine-lined what I blurred.
      Indeed, “chastity” is in traditional sense a virtue, and celibacy a lifestyle or commitment, if I’m understanding the distinction.
      So there are some in New Monasticism in the American scene living chastely, but not committed to celibacy.


  6. robstroud says:

    Just came across the following in a great essay (albeit, not focused on monasticism):

    “God commands recourse to the abyss of silence so that we might hear him in it: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Much has been written about the need for better Church music, and rightly so. Yet greater is the need for better silence. The best times to press this need are the penitential seasons, especially Lent. Our shepherds should urge us to emulate our ancestors, who knew the importance of fasting not only from food and drink but also from noise and babble.”

    You can check it out at: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/10/evangelizing-christians


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    On this Feast of St. Francis, I’m around halfway through the 83-page chapter “The Religious Orders” in R.W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Penguin, 1970) and getting a fascinating, vivid impression of the growth and changes of western monasticism. His treatment of the Augustinian canons (the section I just finished) is interesting to compare with your idea of “a movement for cultural engagement and transformation”! The (emergent) variety of monasticism(s) is clearly snd strikingly presented.

    Another fascinating book (also originally a Penguin, I think) is Desmond Seward’s The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders – where, among other things, you can read about monastic orders with married couples!

    As you note in responding to Warner, “there are Anglican monastics” – I don’t have any up-to-date sense of them, or their variety: I do, for example, recall that Sister Penelope’s Community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage, had eleven sister leave last year to enter communion with the Pope and who (so Wikipedia (q.v.) informs me) are now among the first members of a new Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary following the Rule of St. Benedict. I see there is even a Wikipedia article, “Former religious orders in the Anglican Communion”! I, though not an Anglican, am in fact some sort of member (a ‘tertiary’ or equivalent) of one of these, The Society of the Most Holy Trinity, along with who knows how many other folk scattered around the world, so the Wikipedia article is not quite correct when it says of the Reverend Mother Cecilia, that she “died on 12 February 2004, aged 89, and thus ended the life of the Society.” The life in one real sense – to join, we had to undertake daily intercessions for the conversion of sinners, the unity of the Church, and the dying – is presumably going on, though its contours are hidden from this member – and I know not how many others (most?).


    • I find the responses to this blog so very intriguing. I know you have a handful or responses I am trying to find from when I was in Europe.
      I am not an expert on monasticism, and Warner has posted an intelligent response.
      But I feel like my thesis is worth discussing: that monasticism, for all its withdrawal from the world, is really about cultural engagement.
      And I didn’t know much about Sr. Penelope’s CSMV. I’ll have to dig in.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Sir Richard Southern’s book is really an eye-opener and a delight. His section about the Cistercians (which I’ve just finished), while contrasting them with the Augustinian “engagement”, shows in various ways how they ended up being “really about cultural engagement” themselves, too – when they had largely cosnciously set out to withdraw from the world! For example, the monastery of Les Dunes started as a small hermitage in a desolate coastal landscape 25 miles west of Bruges – and ended up with hundreds of members, a fleet of ships tending to carry general cargoes for profit, and an abbot who was chief agent for the Queen in negotiating the ransom and release of her husband, Richard the Lionhearted, when he was take hostage.

        By the way, the Wikipedia article, “R.W. Southern”, has an external link to a wonderful little “Portrait of the Medievalist as a Young Man” which shows an interesting parallel with Lewis in his leaving and returning to the Church, and makes me wish I knew what, if any, contacts he may have had with various Inklings!

        I knew nothing about him until I got the book at a church jjumble/rummage sale a month ago, and had never heard of “the new monasticism” as such till I read your post, so this is all delightfully (Providentially) serendipitous and thought-provoking and -feeding for me.


  8. Pingback: 2014: A Year of Reading | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  9. Pingback: On Pretending to be in a PhD (pt. 2) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  10. keebslac1234 says:

    I found the video to be intriguing. The image that sticks with me is monks brewing beer, and that’s an image that I think helps describe monasticism and New Monasticism. To my simple mind, it’s like the gathering of the stuff that makes the concoction, the blending and fermenting of the ingredients, the decanting and bottling, then the distribution.
    It’s kind of mystical, I guess, and I love the concept of the “holy” working with the “intoxicating” and the resulting “mystery” being shared beyond the brewery (monastery) walls. Perhaps its a kind of mysticism?
    Perhaps that’s why I alway ask about the beer choices when I dine out.


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