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New Lay Monasticism: Schools for Conversion

Over 60 people responded to the call for a new monasticism at a recent conference in Durham, N. C. The Editors were invited to participate and to make a presentation having written about New Monasticism (and old monasticism) over the years in the Houston Catholic Worker. (Unfortunately, we were unable to participate.)

The community at Rutba House called together a group of Anabaptists, Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals to discuss ways in which their lives could be understood and deepened as a neo-monastic movement. The response was characterized as “miraculous” by those attending, with the unveiling of a “new school of conversion” in which all who were gathered agreed that the Holy Spirit was at work. Amidst differences and otherness, a unity of spirit permeated the conversation. That God is doing a “new thing” in the North American church was the most definite conclusion of those who gathered. Something about the idea of a “new monasticism” had struck a chord.

The idea of a new monasticism was inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which he speaks of the fragmentation of the tradition of the West and the need “for another Benedict”-obviously another monasticism. Jonathan Wilson of Acadia Divinity College presented to the group questions to guide the conversations of the conference: What does the new monasticism add to renewal movements that already exist in the church? What are the forms in which the new monasticism is taking shape? And, finally, what is the new monasticism’s relationship to the rest of the church?

Speakers from various backgrounds responded to these questions. Margaret McKenna suggested that the new monasticism might be charac-terized by simplicity, resistance of Empire, struggle, active nonviolence, discipline, obed-ience, stability and con-version of “manners” (introduction to a new way of life). Kent McDougal spoke of the “evangelical nonconformity of John Howard Yoder and still others quoted Dan Berrigan’s dictum, “All good things start small and get smaller.”

Especially interesting, though not clear, was the warning from Michael Cartwright from the University of Indianapolis. While much can be learned from patient engagement with the “old monasticism,” he warned against the “commodification of experience” that is a temptation for Protestants shaped by a consumer culture-that we might “shop for the best in Catholicism” and then move on in the other markets. Commitment to conversation with the other as “other,” Cartwright insisted, makes it possible for us to understand ourselves differently while remaining true to our convictions. Possibly he was attempting to define ecumenism.

There were a number of other speakers who addressed the many issues concerning those looking for a way to live out the Gospel. We were happy to see our good friend Ivan Kauffman participating and reminding us not to forget the mistake of the 60’s, naming the sins of racism and sexism without dealing with the evil of individualism. We had been very conscious of this as we witnessed the demise of the “flower children” who wilted long before their time and left few seeds and little legacy for the future.

Though apparently dominated by those of Protestant background, a number of those from the Catholic tradition noted the wisdom of the post-Vatican II church in recognizing “ecclesial lay movements” as potential works of the Spirit and have greatly encouraged them as they are left to control and limit themselves. Examples of these ecclesial movements include San Egidio, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Charismatic movement and the Neo-Catechumenate.

There was in all of the communities who gathered a sense that we must learn from the church’s saints who found ways of faithfulness in other eras, no matter how difficult the times. Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals and Anabaptists alike are reading St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Antony and Anthanasius. Ancient Christian practices such as the novitiate and the catechumenate are being discovered and revitalized. There is much interest in the Liturgy of the Hours.

The new monasticism is finding its best consultants and guides in the “communion of saints,” letting the dead have their say among the endless noise of our age.

Those who gathered drafted the following statement of “12 Marks of a New Monasticism” which they hope will help to facilitate conversation about this movement of the Spirit, the founding of new communities, and the edification of existing ones.

12 Marks of a New Monasticism

Moved by God’s Spirit in this time called America to assemble at St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, NC, we wish to acknowledge a movement of radical rebirth, grounded in God’s love and drawing on the rich tradition of Christian prac-tices that have long formed disciples in the simple Way of Christ. This contemporary school for conversion which we have called a “new monasticism,” is producing a grass-roots ecumenism and a prophetic witness within the North American church which is diverse in form, but charac-terized by the following marks:

1)Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.

2)Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.

3)Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.

4)Hospitality to the stranger.

5)Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.

6)Sharing economic resources with fellow community mem-bers and the needy among us.

7)Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.

8)Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.

9)Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.

10)Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.

11)Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.

12)Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life (e.g. prayer and silence, keeping hours, reading Scripture, con-fession and guidance, fasting, Eucharist/Lord’s Supper, spiritual friendship, work, Sabbath, celebration, etc.).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 5, September-October 2004.