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.