In the years since the Second Vatican Council, the various traditions of Christian faith have participated in an ecumenical gift exchange for their mutual enrichment. Catholics have embraced Protestant strong points like singing the faith and closer familiarity with the Word of God. Protestants have increased their celebrations of the Eucharist and rediscovered helpful practices like spiritual direction.

An article entitled “The Unexpected Monks” in the Feb. 3 issue of the Boston Globe is only the latest indication of the ecumenical gift exchange. The article reflects on the rise of the New Monastics — “some 100 groups that describe themselves as both evangelical and monastic have sprung up in North America” — who come from a variety of Protestant traditions. They share a common dissatisfaction with what they see as the over-commercialized and socially apathetic culture of mainstream evangelicalism, especially in its “prosperity gospel” expression.

Both Luther and Calvin removed monasticism from the range of legitimate forms of Christian living. True Christians, said the 16th century reformers, were to be engaged with the world, not spending their time chanting in Latin. But today increasing numbers of evangelical congregations have created relationships with Catholic monasteries and join the monks for spiritual retreats.

They are discovering prayer and study as ways of engaging with and for the world, but they are not stopping there. The new monasticism that is evolving does not aim to separate itself from society, is environmentally conscious and cares about social justice. Nearly all the New Monastics have regular jobs and social lives, and many of them are married.

They see their simple living, grounded in prayer and service, as a way to better integrate core Christian values into their lives as contemporary citizens. They seek, in the words of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ.”

Last November I had the opportunity to visit the Monastery of Bose in northwestern Italy, founded in 1965 by Enzo Bianchi. Bose presents itself as “a monastic community of men and women belonging to different churches.”

In his book Monastic Life and the Ecumenical Dialogue, Bianchi shares three reasons why monastic life provides a particularly ecumenical terrain.

First, monasticism precedes the divisions in the church. It is a human phenomenon with its own anthropology (celibacy, community life or solitude, asceticism, the search for the absolute) even before it became a Christian phenomenon. It is for this reason that interreligious dialogue (such as the North American Monastic Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue) takes place in monasteries more than elsewhere. 

Further, within Christianity, as long as the churches remained united, monasticism remained single and undivided, with its Western expression recognizing the Eastern monasticism of the desert fathers as its source. Citing Psalm 87:7, every monk, Bianchi says, ought to see that “Within you (the undivided church) is my true home.”

Secondly, monasticism came into being as a radical commitment to follow Christ, and therefore as a pathway to holiness. When holiness is pursued in religious life, even in different churches, it is a unifying force. Holiness allows us to realize that confessional walls do not rise as high as heaven.

It was the French priest Abbé Paul Couturier — the same one who shaped what we now call the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — who said that at a certain degree of holiness, confessional differences lose their force because holiness looks beyond the division of the churches.

If monastics truly respond to their vocation of inner unification, communion lived visibly and continually renewed reconciliation and mercy, says Bianchi, they will be servants of unity and ministers of ecclesial communion.

A third reason that makes monasticism a natural site for ecumenical dialogue is that it has always sought to be a life of conversion. As the dictum goes, “the church is always reforming itself,” but in the history of the church concrete expressions of reform have been few, and what reform there is tends to be put into effect slowly. In monastic life, on the other hand, every century has seen a reform in which there has been an effort to return to the sources and begin again, in a more profound obedience and faithfulness to the Gospel.

Because of the centrality of the word of God in monastic life — the office, lectio divina, Eucharist — and the resulting emphasis on reform, monasticism is capable of speaking the same language as the Reformed churches and of being their authentic dialogue partner. 

“We must confess, though,” says Bianchi, “that many monastic and religious communities simply do not investigate the ecumenical pathway toward reconciliation: they consider ecumenical activity optional, or they think of it as a specific charism granted ecumenical communities. As a result, they plan and organize their way of life, their diakonia and their mission in society among the churches without taking into consideration the other Christian traditions.”

(Fr. Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.)

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