New Monasticism is becoming the new word on the lips of many Christians during the beginnings of the 21st century.

The term in itself can have a variety of expressions within the monastic tradition; the great monastic reforms of the eleventh and twelve centuries, in particularly the formation of the Carthusians and Cistercians, have often been referred to as the age of a new monasticism, Dom John Main, the founder of an experimental monastic community of lay people and monks in Montreal, Quebec, referred to his foundation as a kind of new monasticism.

In a sense the term opens its self up to usage in relation to any new development within the monastic tradition. For the Christian of the 21stcentury the term New Monasticism primarily finds is source within a letter written in 1935 by the late great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his brother Karl-Friedrich. The letter was calling for a counter-cultural movement against the Third Reich which was becoming increasingly more influential within the German Church, and is included here in part: The restoration of the Church will surely come from a kind of new monasticism, which has in common with the old kind only the uncompromising nature of life according to the Sermon on the Mount, following Christ.

I think that it is about time go gather the people for this…. Bonhoeffer wrote this letter during the compilation of his book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ On reflection of this book, Eberhard Bethge stated, Bonhoeffer was calling for a church that needed to take a stand, no longer being fought with words, but with ‘Renewal and a transformed lifestyle were necessary.’

What emerges from Bonheoffer’s statement is something of a contradiction, Augustine summed up the monastic life in the early medieval period as, regarding the monk as the embodiment of the ‘sermon on the mount’ and that their service and prayer was the greatest service to the church. I am not assuming here that Bonhoeffer read Augustine’s, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholica, but that in equating Bonheoffer’s new monasticism with the ‘sermon on the mount’ what is left to leave behind of the old? The discussion here though is not so much concerned with Bonhoeffer, but with our modern day use of his term. Bonhoeffer’s writings have had a profound effect on many peoples life’s and in particular the development of community living. The late Very Rev. George Macleod, (founder of the Iona community) was influenced by Bonhoeffer’s ethos and writings during the foundational period of the Iona community. In 1980 the then to be Rev. John Skinner, who was training to become an Anglican priest at Lincoln, came across Bonhoeffer’s passage, and, described his response to it as, ‘receiving an epiphany for living’. Rev. John Skinner, was one of the first to associate Bonhoeffer’s term ‘new monasticism’ firstly, in the application of monastic themes within the life of the non- monastic, and

Secondly in the development of community life, amongst the laity or secular, after many years reading monastic history and spirituality, cultural studies and through participation within traditional monastic institutes, What Rev. Skinner began to express through his journals and writings was that if the Church was to survive its journey into the new emerging cultural shift, from modernity to post-modernity, people needed to find a new way of living as a Christian within their Church life, in order to cope amidst the new cultural and social-political world-views that were taking shape. For Rev. Skinner this new way was through a new monasticism, but his new monasticism was entwined within old monasticism, in the sense that it needed to respect for and consultation with traditional monasticism, in order for it to have any longstanding effect. Rev. Skinner writes, ‘ the effect of new paradigms on human psychology and community, and the importance of monastic themes of prayer, meditation, work, study and the common life in negotiating periods of change and upheaval within the human psyche and society, is paramount for the survival of the church as she moves forward. Twenty five years on, the Christian community at large are waking up to the fact that we are now living in a cultural new age, sociologists call post modernity.

This is illustrated in a large amount of books now being published concerning post modernity with the word Christian nestled in the title. An affect of a slow awakening is the fact that the effects of post modernity have already began to take shape in the environment around and in the lives of the individual. The consequence is not so much of this occurrence, but in the fact that people may be unaware of these changes within society and their life’s, a result being, that as individuals and church seek to change amidst the new developments, the change is in danger of becoming a symptom of, rather that a reaction to, post-modernity.

What seems evident through recent publications from new monastic communities and groups is that we are being presented with series of alternatives, self awareness courses, spiritual pursuits, community based belonging and the most alarming, an alternative to Church. Whist you could argue that some of these new alternatives can only be a good, especially in our ever stressful and busy environment, there is a danger that new monasticism is being developed into a leisure activity and a facility for people to use in their despondency with Church, quest for spirituality and need for belonging and security, amidst the chaotic and insecure lifestyles that are being lived. These feelings are in a sense expected within a society that is driven by secularism and materialism, amongst other ‘ism’s’, but the coping mechanism are being produced in order to keep the society working. An effect that a pick and mix society is having on new monasticism is a manipulation of traditional monastic values and spirituality in order to clean, refresh and re-package monasticism to make it easier to live with and more socially acceptable. This is not a call for monastic preservation or an obstacle for change, but is a sad case that the symptoms of post-modernity are impacting the development of new monasticism, shaping monastic spirituality to suit our life’s rather than allowing monastic values to change our own life.

The early monks who fled the cities and towns in the Near-East to inhabit the nearby deserts, did so not to set up new churches, but to explore a new way of living a Christian life amidst the social and economic changes that were apparent in Roman society during the third and fourth centuries AD. Contrary to some popular belief, the monasticism that emerged from the deserts of the near-East was fully committed to the Church from which it came, and what emerged was a mutual relationship between the two, both respecting and supporting each other.

In the same way, we as Christians are faced with similar changes in the 21stCentury, with the growth of secularisation and other social trends that are emerging out of a post-modern world view. It is to this backdrop that inspiration given from monasticism can help reorganise and reconstruct how to live a Christian life and in consequence help equip the church as a whole as She moves into a new phase of life. But this cannot be fully achieved unless we stand in the middle of this cultural storm together as an individual and church supporting each other. It is within this context that the genius of Rev. Skinner’s new monasticism can be realised.

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