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Peter Fitch

Toward a New Monasticism

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Written by Peter Fitch in 2003

Last fall I had an opportunity to spend some time at the Cambridge Vineyard’s new home, a Slovakian Jesuit monastery that lies hidden behind a park in the heart of the city. The grounds are beautiful and when I was there the buildings were in the process of being hastened back to life by an army of volunteers. I spent a quiet hour or two on the property one day and found myself reflecting about the irony of a new-styled church in an older-styled home. It fit so well with the cry for an “ancient-future” church that Robert Webber, Thomas Oden, and others have been raising in their books and articles.

It also fit with something very dear to my own heart. Over the past number of years I’ve been teaching a course called Ministry Skills and Issues in the Master of Ministry Program that I direct at St. Stephen’s University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. In the course, students read many ancient Christian works, and together we sit at a round table and discuss the relevance of the ideas to the churches that are forming today. I’ve become convinced that older writings contain substance, wisdom, beauty, and attitudes that we must not lose as we ramble through postmodernism and head for whatever comes next. As we stretch for the future we need to be grounded in the past.

Sitting in an office (Art Rae’s—it’s a nice one), I looked out over the grounds and I rejoiced at the Lord’s gift to this church. Suddenly I sensed that He was leading my reflections. Most people who have lived their lives in monasteries have taken a three-fold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Although I’ve appreciated the motivation behind the vows, I’ve always felt that monks missed an important part of “being in the world, but not of it” with this approach. I love a great deal of St. Augustine’s writing, for instance, but I’ve grown used to simply discarding anything that he has to say about family matters. From the time in the Confessions when he recorded his second most famous prayer,[1] “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet!” he consistently sought or wrestled with the need for a “full” conversion, not just to Jesus but to celibacy. That this was, in his mind, a necessary part of any conversion worth having is, to my mind, a tragedy.

On the other hand, I have to agree with Richard Foster and others who have chastised the contemporary church for looking suspiciously like the rest of the world in regard to issues of money, sex and power. It’s easy to believe that something is missing in this approach, too.

Where is the proper path? What is it like? Gradually I felt the Lord pointing me to something that went beyond the mistakes of the past or the present. “I’m not looking for poverty,” He seemed to say, “but for a prosperity of contentment, whether someone has a lot or a little, that issues forth in generosity. I’m not looking for chastity, but for a purity of spirit and body, whether a person is single or married, that allows him or her to be devoted to My purposes and yielded to My ways.” (I immediately sensed that for most of us this would include a level of sexual healing, and that the Lord knew this very well and was at peace with the idea. I also sensed that He was willing to offer it.) Finally, I heard this idea: “I’m not looking for unswerving obedience to a spiritual director or to a person or to an institution, or even to a way of doing things; rather, I desire a mutuality of submission in leaders and followers that allows them to bend towards the needs and cares that they find in each other and produces the kind of unity that pushes back darkness and shows the world something of My character.”

At the end of the reflection I was seeing a form of “spiritual monastery” rising up in cities and towns all over our land. It was connected to the passion and faithfulness that led ancient Christians to make so many sacrifices, but it was also full of serious engagement with the world as it now is. The “city of God” was being planted, not in a desert, or on a hill, but right in the midst of the “city of man.” The spiritual buildings seemed defined by balloons of joy that were leaving the hands of people on the ground and reaching for heaven. Every living church got to play its part, and all of the people, men and women and children, lived on holy ground as they kept thankful and obedient hearts in the midst of the various communities in which they lived. Their prayers, at times ordered and at times spontaneous, were like the Benedictine hours of the Divine Office. Their songs, whether gentle or wild, whether acoustic, electric, or digital, echoed the meaning of Gregorian chants. Their healing compassion for the broken ones around them was like the Franciscan care of lepers. Their devotion to the Word or to the teaching ministry of the Church was reminiscent of the Dominicans or the Jesuits as they traveled to spread the Gospel far and wide. And their growing intimacy with God was a picture of the Cistercians, particularly of Bernard of Clairvaux who preached 86 rapturous sermons on the Song of Songs, only to make it to Chapter 2, verse 1!

When I think of it now, I like to reflect on one additional aspect of a new monasticism: the cultivation of silence that in the end produces a powerful Word. Long before the Trappists, ancient Christians suspected that this was the truth. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred around 107 A.D., wrote this to the Ephesian church:

A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech.[2]

Apprehending the silence of Jesus speaks of a maturity of character and a security in relationship with Him that allows consistent behaviour in all circumstances. It is found in the ebb and flow of all of life, but it represents a kind of quietness and peace in the soul that grows out of a long experience of trust. I think one part of it also grows as a fruit or result of simply spending time with God, not always talking, but being conscious of His presence and available to His leadings.

Along with this, and related to it, people who represent a living monasticism in today’s churches will be good at listening, not only to God but to others as well.[3] Instead of the cloister they will be found in the highways and byways of life and commerce, but they will have an internal strength to absorb the pain of the struggling ones around them, and they will have an authority and power to set them free.

The Cambridge Vineyard, with its strong but humble leaders, its wonderful worship music, its determined focus upon children and mercy ministries, as well as its emphasis upon camaraderie and fellowship, became for me a prophetic picture of God’s longing for a new monasticism in the 21st century. Not all of our churches will acquire monasteries or traditional church buildings. However, all can become strong and beautiful communities of faith and action that rise up and fill the land with the best intentions of the past and their appropriate fulfillments in the present and the future. May it be so!

[1] I think most would agree that “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee” comes first.

[2] Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), 80.

[3] This is similar to an important New Testament admonition: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).

The Gift of a Building

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Written by Peter Fitch in 2000

When we started our church outside of St. Stephen, New Brunswick in 1992 we didn’t think that we would ever want to have a building of our own. But we did hope that we’d be able to find a good place to rent somewhere in the town itself. We fasted and prayed about it, and four short (it seemed anything but short!) years later a new principal allowed us to use the elementary school gym. It was perfect except for the acoustics, and the fact that we could only have it once a week. Later, in response to a worship leader’s dream, we took a risk on an older building that was being modernized downtown, and we were able to set-up offices and a meeting place in a somewhat classier environment. But it wasn’t perfect either. In every temperature it was “too” something, the ceiling was so low that leprechauns would have been restricted in worship and, worst of all, we met above a pub and no one could concentrate on ministry time when they started grilling steaks downstairs. When we got a chance to move again, we did (fortunately, it was the week before, not after, the owners went bankrupt and everything was locked inside by order of the Sheriff’s Department).

Our new landlord was the local Roman Catholic church. They had an old school that they were using as a parish center and a new priest was willing to let us use it if we could work around their catechism classes. It wasn’t always easy to do that, but the place was larger than our last home and as time went on we felt quite comfortable there. We didn’t think of it as a permanent stop, but we were glad to not have to think about looking for awhile.

In the spring of 1999 my Dad died. That took all of my attention for a month or so. It was a hard one for me because although he did noticeably soften his position over the years, my Dad didn’t have the kind of conversion that I longed for him to have. I had to do the memorial service (he had asked me years before) and my greatest fear was that God wouldn’t show up, leaving me to deal with all of the strong personalities in my family with my own limited resources and strength. I walked a lot around my parents’ home on Salt Spring Island, BC during the days before the service. I sat in mountain meadows or by the water and thought and prayed. Finally something broke in me and I realized that it was God who told us to honour our father and mother. So I knew He would come. And when it was time He did. His presence was so strong that people said things like, “I don’t believe in God and I felt Him during this service.” Somehow this happened without me stopping to explain anything about Him. There were no psalms or songs. There was just the gift of my heavenly Abba showing up to help me honour my earthly Dad.

About two weeks after I returned to New Brunswick from Salt Spring Island, three things happened all at once. We got a letter from the Catholic church saying that they had decided to sell or close our building–we could have six months more in it at the most. And Donny Olmstead, a man from our congregation, came to me and told me that he had found a family in our area who lived in a tar paper shack that was starting to fall-in. He had spent the last month trying to figure out how to raise funds to build them a proper home. Now he wanted to know if the church was able to help.

The third thing was quite special. One of our senior intercessors, Wanda Brown, had seen a video about Israel. Conscious of the fact that my Dad was Jewish, she was struck by the men wearing their prayer shawls, and she decided that she had to get me one for Christmas. So, on a plane heading to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship for a conference last spring she had said to God, “Father, where am I going to find a prayer shawl for Peter?” On the second day of the conference, surrounded by about 4,000 strangers, the man beside her leaned over and asked, “Do you have a prayer shawl?” She responded with some enthusiasm that she would like to know where to find one, so the man told her about a couple of stores that sold them in Toronto. This meant nothing to her because she didn’t have a car or any extra money.

About an hour later he leaned over to her and said, “Just give me your address–I’ll send you one.” It arrived about the time we were hearing about our congregational homelessness and the family that needed a home outside of town. She couldn’t wait until Christmas so she brought it right over, and we all marveled at the story. The man she had been sitting beside was the CEO of a company in Pennsylvania that imports prayer shawls from Israel. The cheapest ones were more than $50 US, and he had simply given it to her. And it was so beautiful. Along with it came an explanation that the prayer shawls were like “little tents” so that each man could have his own place of prayer, even when he wasn’t in the large tent of meeting where God met with Israel as they traveled through the wilderness.

God’s direction seemed clear through all of this. We decided that the three events in the same week meant that we were to focus first on the needs of the homeless family (we didn’t really know anything about them–as time went on we found that there was an older husband and wife with a disabled son, and that the husband was very sick). After that, when it was time and we needed a new place, we felt that God would give us a place to meet in to pray in the same simple way that He had given Wanda the prayer shawl.

That’s what happened. We had meant to take a building offering for ourselves in the spring, but instead we took a building offering for the house. Also, some of us painted it and one day about 40 of us of all ages did the landscaping. And lots of other groups and people helped with various parts of the project, too. The house is beautiful. The father lived in it for only one week before he died but he was overwhelmed with joy that his family was going to be cared for in this safe place. I drove by the house soon after his death, only three weeks after we had planted grass in ground that seemed as dry as desert. To my astonishment there was a rich, green lawn perfectly placed around the house. For me this has become an image of the promise of God’s life in the midst of hard things.

Then it was time to focus on our need. Over the years we had only saved $11,000 in our building fund. It didn’t seem like much. We wondered about trying to buy the building we were in, but the Catholic church was asking $225,000. Besides, we were already filling the downstairs hall that we met in for services, and none of us particularly liked the building anyway–it was an old, nondescript school with about thirteen horrible paint jobs all blended together.

The price dropped to $200,000. By part way through the summer it fell to $175,000. It was on a camping trip with our two families that our associate Carol Thiessen showed us how to see the building with new eyes. The upstairs, full of classrooms, could be remade into a sanctuary that could seat more than 400. That would give us room to grow, and we could make it as nice as we wanted. We already knew that the structure was sound. The property included adequate parking, lawns for picnics after services, and two small playground areas. We decided to go for it. Mustering together all of our faith, we offered $115,000. I know this sounds like a ridiculously small amount, but ever since the beginning we’ve loved having the freedom to give money away, and we’ve always been sure that we didn’t want to place so much emphasis on buildings that our giving would be constricted. And, of course, the bank insisted on at least 25% down on a commercial purchase. We didn’t think we had enough in hand to be able to offer more.

The Catholic church countered with $165,000. We offered $125,000 with creative financing, but they just weren’t interested. Then someone else offered $130,000 and they agreed. Our dream was gone. We were well into the fall by this point and everyday we wondered where we would find a home. The elementary school said we could return, but that felt like going backwards. We bid on another building that showed promise but someone else offered a lot more. We were stumped.

Still, there had been some encouragement. Our church was growing and we were bringing in more money than our budget required. That seemed good. And suddenly one of our folks came to us and explained that a family property had been sold and that a tithe of one portion was coming to the church–$15,000. The timing was great. When the news came that the new buyers for our building had been unsuccessful in raising their financing we were ready to match their offer of $130,000, and the building was ours.

In the early summer when we had taken the offering for the house instead of the church, a strong down payment had seemed unattainable. We had hoped that we would be able to add a little to the $11,000 we had, but we didn’t expect too much more. In October, when we got a second chance on the building, we realized that with the budget surplus and the promised gift of $15,000 we had more than $35,000 to offer as a down payment. And this was before we had even taken a building offering. When we did take a special offering we ended-up with enough money for all the legal fees and purchase costs, as well as for the first several fix-up projects.

Best of all, better even than finally having a building to call our own, was the sense that the whole thing was a gift of love from our God. The sale of the property that provided the only large gift (the $15,000) that our church has ever received seemed to point to that. First of all, the sale had nothing to do with our need–it was totally unrelated. Secondly, we heard that the money was coming just in time to make our final offer when the building was put back on the market. And third, after the money had gone through all of its own legal hoops it landed in a bank in St. Stephen, just one week before our closing date of December 30, 1999. The whole process seems governed by God’s providence from start to finish. Now we’re praying that He’ll help us to use the building well.

Reflections on Christian Community

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Written by Peter Fitch in 1999.

The rain may never fall till after sundown,
by eight the morning fog must disappear;
in short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly ever-aftering than here in Camelot . . . .

Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe from the 1960 Broadway Musical

For the past twenty years I’ve been living in an intentional but loosely-formed Christian community that has grown-up in and around a Christian university in a small town in southern New Brunswick.  I am grateful for the privilege of Christian fellowship, and yet I’ve experienced some of the pain of it as well.  As I look back over my experience I see a mixture of rich moments and broken dreams.  

I’ve decided, therefore, to emphasize in this article the dangers of community, and only secondarily to focus upon aspects of community formation and the benefits of a healthy experience.  My hope is that these comments will relate to various kinds of shared living, including the expressions of community that are found in normal church life, and that they will serve as a warning of possible problems that might drain life and joy from those who are making the attempt.  

First of all, the experience of building community seems often to be linked with the desire to build a Camelot or a utopia (which quite literally means “no place”).  This is fraught with dangers on every side.  It is a form of romantic idealism, and it can keep people from appreciating the quality of fellowship that actually exists.  Probably no one has said this more clearly than Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, a book based upon the common life of students at an illegal seminary that he led in Finkenwalde, Germany from 1935 to 1938:    

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams . . .

He also said,    

One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.

In other words, one of the greatest potential threats to a strong community experience is the lofty notion that some participants will have of what it is supposed to be like.  Community does not mean that you will always be surrounded by people that are congenial and helpful, and everything will not always be fun.  Real life is not composed of a continuous diet of warm experiences.  The one who hopes for something like this is in need of a change of perspective.  The dream will become an idol, and the dreamer may become a destroyer of community even as he or she so earnestly seeks it.  Instead of appreciating and building what God has established, people who follow a wish dream complain and look for something that God never intended.  A far healthier approach would include gratitude for what is, and faithful work for continual improvement.  

Bonhoeffer also gives excellent insight into a second danger.  He says that Christian community is based upon Jesus Christ and is, therefore, a spiritual reality.  Many communities purport to be Christian, but are in fact psychic, or human, in nature.  They are filled with subtle processes of manipulation.  Bonhoeffer warns,      

Thus there is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person.

Communities like these often seem more devout than others, and members are capable of surprising sacrifices.  The problem is that people are not being drawn into healthy relationship with Jesus Christ; rather, they are drawn into dependent relationships with each other.  In a very real sense their devotion to their community separates them from Jesus as it successfully separates them from the rest of His body in the world.  A sense of elitism is fostered as people are continually presented with the community’s idealized view of itself.  And people are valued or devalued in connection with their acceptance or rejection of this perspective.  

A third danger has been noted by Jean Vanier, Canadian founder of L’Arche, an international organization that cares for handicapped people through the building of  caring communities.  In Community and Growth he writes,  

Too many communities form–or deform–their members to make them all alike, as if this were a good quality, based on self-denial. These communities are founded on laws or rules. But it is the opposite which is important; each person must grow in their gift to build the community and make it more beautiful and more radiant, a clearer sign of the Kingdom.

I think that this relates to both conscious and unconscious forms of structure.  In unhealthy places the structures or expectations actually keep people from becoming what God meant them to be by trying to force people to become what the community wants them to be.  This can be caused by too much structure, but too little can also be a problem.  Without some organization humans often tend toward the lowest common denominator. A healthy situation provides the necessary context for growth and yet sets people free to develop according to their own individual giftings and callings.  

A fourth danger is similar: just as individuals must be allowed to differ, so must communities be allowed to be distinct.  Vanier says,    

One of the signs of life in a community is the creation of links with others. An inward-looking community will die of suffocation. Living communities are linked to others, making up a huge reservoir of love for the world. And as only the one Spirit inspires and gives life, communities being born or reborn will be alike without ever knowing each other; the seeds the Spirit sows across the world, like prophetic signs for tomorrow, have a common source. It is a sign of maturity for a community to bind itself in friendship with others; it knows its own identity, so doesn’t need to make comparisons. It loves even the differences which distinguish it, because each community has its own gift which must flourish. These communities are complementary; they need each other. They are all branches of that unique community which is the Church, the mystical body of Christ. He is the vine of which the communities are branches.  

On reflection, I think that all of these dangers can be traced to a common theme.  Unhealthy communities do not set others free to be what God has intended them to be; rather, they play a destructive role by foisting an oppressive idealism upon them.  

If this is the main problem, it relates well to what some have considered the greatest challenge to true community life and formation: the necessary breakthrough into loving people as they actually are.  M. Scott Peck, in The Different Drum, has this to say about the stages of formation:  

Communities, like individuals, are unique. Still we all share the human condition. So it is that groups assembled deliberately to form themselves into community routinely go through certain stages in the process. These stages, in order, are: Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness, Community.  

In the Student Handbook for St. Stephen’s University I tried to explain it this way:    

People typically go through a process in the formation of true community. At first there is joy at the excitement of meeting others, and people are polite, rarely expressing all that they have to say. Over time they begin to notice how different others actually are, as acceptance brings greater levels of honesty. This sometimes brings discomfort and a feeling of alienation. Soon, however, these negative feelings are replaced by a diligent attempt to heal the others, by making them think and act more like we do. It is only after the frustration and emptiness of this failed attempt that we actually learn to accept people for who they really are, with all of their differences. This is the beginning of the learning of real love, and it is the beginning of true community. It must be this way. People must be accepted for who they really are, not what we want them to be.  

When it works it’s amazing.  I have a friend who calls it “Life at the Oasis.” In healthy community, as people are set free to be who they are and to grow in the direction that God intends for them, life takes on a joy that is rarely experienced in other settings.  It is like adding harmony to a simple melody: suddenly there is beauty that is more than the sum of the parts.  A context that is deeper than normal life is created, and shared learning results in deeper formation and shared anointings.  God works powerfully in true community.  From the Scriptures we know that community provides a basis for evangelism (Jn. 13:34-35), nurture (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), and healthy body life (1 Cor. 12-14).  It also provides a prophetic picture to the world of what life in God can be  (Mt. 5:14-16).  

Best of all, though, is the teaching that Jesus gives of the community as the container of God’s presence.  He told His disciples on the evening of the Last Supper that if they would keep His commandments (particularly, in context, to love one another) that the Father would love them, and that both He and the Father would come and live with them (Jn. 14:23).  I think that God is irresistibly drawn to places where people who love Him encourage each other and help each other with practical acts of love.  This is real life and not Camelot.  I for one would rather live in the reality of God’s Kingdom than in the wish dream of a human ideal.