Toward a New Monasticism

By November 5, 2014 May 28th, 2020 No Comments

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).