Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The restoration of the church will surely come form a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this.”
Though this was written more than 70 years ago, it still seems as if “it is now time to call people to this.” Bonhoeffer started with his Bruderhoff Community, a form of alternative seminary based in community out in the country apart from the Nazi attention. The 60s and early 70s saw a boost in intentional community along with the Jesus movement–baptized versions of hippie communes at times, but also sincere attempts to follow Jesus passionately. And then most recently over the last two decades the rise (or return) of a grassroots movement calling itself “New Monasticism.” (for more information see New Monasticism, or the more widely read Irresistible Revolution)
Our community is rooted in a lot of these ideas, and we’ve learned a lot from talking to and reading many of the folks doing this stuff. But like the Bonhoeffer quote, there is a lot of ambiguity around exactly what this New Monasticism looks like. It looks different in pretty much every community you might come across, though with many similarities pervading. You could say we’re all just trying to figure out how to follow Jesus, and what we have in common is the belief that it’s best done with others. That’s an oversimplification of course, and no church is going to say that it doesn’t believe in community (though it often is the case that in practice “fellowship” takes the place of genuine community).
I’ve been trying to understand more what it means to live in community, and what it means to be part of a “new monasticism.” Talking to people who’ve been living in community for over 50 years helps. Visiting monastic communities like Taize and reading about different monastic orders is helpful as well. Seeing other communities like Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago and a handful of small communities in Kansas City doesn’t hurt either. All that doesn’t necessarily help me explain it any better though. Sure there’s the 12 marks (we would identify with a lot of these), but that really only says so much. Perhaps that is why Jesus kept using parables to say “the Kingdom of God is like…”
Recently I had one of those moments where I had that flash–“yes! this. this is what it’s like!” Like finding a mustard seed on the ground as you were strolling.
There’s something about monastic life I’ve always been drawn to. And no, it’s not the celibacy. I strongly believe in the extreme importance of prayer, though that doesn’t mean I pray as much as I should. I loved the time I spent at Taize, following a rhythm of life that involved prayer, singing, work, and relationships. I would even be ok with living apart from society, offering up continual prayers as my participation in the work of God in the world. But one of the things I really appreciate about New Monasticism is that it is an intentional effort to still live in the midst of society–not mainstream culture, but with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed (1st of the 12 marks).
But let me tell you–that is really difficult. Monastics retreated from society to have space and time to pray. So how do we find the time and space to pray regularly and continually, so that we would know God intimately and intercede for our neighbors, but also participate in their lives and try to be a support and help to the problems they face? (oh yeah, and throw in a nice bit of gardening time to that as well, and marriage). The monastics had a single devotion, and they gave themselves to it. We have more than a few, and one of the things we just have to accept and learn to live in is the limitations that brings on. And hope that in trying to do more than one thing very well, we will not find ourselves failing doing the few.
Many of monastic communities of old were called to prayer through the ringing of a bell, or several bells. This would happen at the same times most every day, usually 3 or 5 times throughout. The part of me that loves that regularity and rhythm knows that it would be probably impossible or at least very difficult to try to follow in our community. But the other night I heard the bells ringing. I heard the call to prayer that sounds out over our community without any regularity but charged with just as much insistence and urgency. It is the rumbling of the police helicopter as it overhead in our neighborhood, responding to violence and pain presenting itself at any hour of the day or night. This is our call. The reality of the pain and trouble around us presents itself constantly through the sounds of sirens or shouting. And just maybe a part of what that New Monasticism looks like is learning to hear those sounds not as the noise-pollution of the urban core, but as the bells that bring us to our knees and help us remain faithful to one our callings in this life.