On 14 January 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the following words to his brother Karl-Friedrick: ‘… the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this …’
Whether we are thinking about explicitly religious, or of broader, expressions of new ways of being human community, the birthing of new types of monasticism has long been a feature of ecclesial existence. While having at times drifted in and out of neomonastic communities, and while wrestling frequently with the kingdom-foreignness of the way of being-in-communion that my own introverted default setting reboots to, I’ve mainly been an intrigued onlooker who has read very little in the last decade or so that has come from within the movements themselves that articulates in any depth the intentionalism of such life together. (Whether or not all such communities characterise the ‘new type of monasticism’ for which Bonhoeffer longed is not the point here.)
But I’ve been eager to read and think more. I was delighted, therefore, to discover Wipf and Stocks’ New Monastic Library Series, of which School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, a book edited by The Rutba House, is a part. (I’m also currently reading Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community by Paul R. Dekar, and “Follow Me”: A History of Christian Intentionality by Ivan J. Kauffman, both of which I’m enjoying immensely.)
The ‘new’ monasticism differs from the ‘old’ in a number of ways. Here are three, for example: (i) vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience are relatively rare; (ii) while geographic proximity of members is preferable, it is not necessary; and (iii) distinctive religious habits have been largely replaced by non-distinctive Levis.
The movement of the Spirit from which this book is birthed sees itself as characterised by the following twelve marks:
1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire;
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us;
3) Hospitality to the stranger;
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation;
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church;
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate;
7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community;
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children;
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life;
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies;
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18; and
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
This book attends to these marks, one chapter on each, exploring each theme drawing upon Scripture, contemporary examples, and personal experience.
Taking up Alasdair MacIntyre’s challenge to construct ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us’, the contributors to this volume believe that when such longing as this instructs the church, ‘the local forms of community for which MacIntyre calls are no longer primarily for the sustenance of intellectual and moral life. Nor are they communities that withdraw from the world to insure their own survival and the flourishing of their members. Rather, within the life of the church a new monasticism exists to sustain knowledge of the gospel of the kingdom that was proclaimed, embodied, and accomplished in Jesus Christ. And the communities of the new monasticism exist for the sake of witness to Jesus Christ who is the life and hope of the world’.
This book is written not by theoreticians or monasticism-virgins cutting their idealistic and yuppie teeth in a utopian wilderness for a while before retreating back to ‘the real world’. Rather, these challenging essays betray a maturity and realism that one might expect from those who have the runs on the board, so to speak, whose commitment to embodying the kingdom which is truly the life of the ‘real world’ is humbling and utopia-destroying, and who love the church as God’s community in travail and often so slow to be on the way.