Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.
Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,
I have been joined, as I have journeyed through the Rule of St Benedict, by increasing numbers of companions whose path happens to meet with mine and/or mine with theirs. Some of them have made commitments to particular monastic houses in different traditions, others are parish ministers who seek deeper community and discipleship within that service and others are those exploring what has come to be known as ‘New Monastic’ communities.
The New Monastic movement in Britain is a loose collection of groups who have identified a desire for more intentional community than that which is offered through traditional forms of church gathering. There is no stringent entry policy to this ‘network’/movement; it is better seen as an association. Even when a group identifies themselves in the category of ‘new monasticism’ it doesn’t bind you to another group who have also chosen to name themselves as such. In this way the movement remains self governing and flexible.
It works… sort of.
Accountability is covered for most of these groups through independent means but is not enforceable. Communities should seek to have an outsider to oversee or converse with the community to ensure safeguarding of its members and that relationships remain healthy as the group grows and evolves together. These relationships are based on trust and so the selection of a spiritual companion for a community can be a risky one.
The connection between individual groups and communities is a free choice. A group can, if they choose, be independent and get on with doing what they’re doing and being what they’re being without interaction with another group (many do). This choice, however, can lead to a sense of isolation and/or blind egotism, not to mention the spending of energy re-inventing of the metaphorical wheel! Many want to learn from others and become acutely aware of the challenges that face intentional community. At these times they reach out and discover the joy of journeying with others who share something of what they are living through.
Again, these relationships between groups/communities are self-selecting and so carry with them potential dangers. The concern I have is that of the blind leading the blind when there are communities that, although still learning and emerging, have journeyed terrain before and so can steer with wisdom and experience.
At the heart of my concern around the New Monastic movement is that we want to remain connected with the world in some areas of our life but not in others and we want to remain in control and choose the sacrifices and changes we experience. The sacrifice of the community is self selecting to suit our individual needs and what we think is right for us. Are we falling short of the ultimate hurdle which distinguishes a normal life and the monastic life? Does New Monasticism encourage people to remain individualistic consumers whilst giving the impression that we’re living radically different lifestyles? Do we just want to be different?
I’m more than aware that we all have unique vocations due to what God wants of us in our different contexts, with our personalities and experiences. Some of us are ready and blessed to be called to traditional monastic life in the different traditions. Some of us are called to that way of life but find ourselves in families and relationships which also seem to be permanent. Some of us are called to ordained ministry and some form of more intentional life. There seems to be several different shapes and models emerging all naming themselves something slightly different in order to distinguish themselves. ‘Missional Communities’, ‘Hubs’, ‘Home Groups’, ‘Organic Communities’, ‘Parish Monasticism’, ‘New Monasticism’, or any other unique name for a group who have a particular shape and call on its members. Some would say,
It works… sort of.
Discipleship and mission must be contextual. Where you find yourself must impact how you live out your faith and mission. The Holy Spirit calls us to particular tasks at particular times in particular places but the source of strength and call must remain fixed in the same God. Although the expression of faith has adapted to different cultures and language the faith remains steadfast. It is the tension between the rootedness of tradition and the fresh expressions of faith and mission which keeps a sense of life. A balanced life is one lived in tension.
I am an advocate of uniting all these different expressions of discipleship and community and I know that many others disagree. I can see that there may be some who feel uncomfortable ‘pinning down’ or ‘fencing in’ these exciting, new discoveries. ‘Organic’ and ‘adaptable’ keeps the thing streamlined and efficient, able to move to new places but I am extremely cautious about this view. It strikes me that there’s an addiction to novelty and being different. Maybe I’m being too cynical but is there not still an ‘attractional’ mindset underneath this approach to move with the times and the people we want to connect and bring into the group/community?
I agree that the Spirit blows where it will and the Church has suffered by its slowness to catch up with God. I agree that definition can exclude some who might have otherwise moved further in if they were encouraged to, or rather if they were not discouraged by boundaries. I agree that most communities who identify with this ‘monastic’ call, whatever that means for them, remain fragile and embryonic. And I totally agree that the reason traditional church doesn’t work for increasing numbers of people is because of our culture’s anxiety, fear and disapproval of institution.
It still comes down, for me, however, to a desperate need for the gospel to challenge individualistic consumer culture and not collude with it. Structure and framework is needed for a sense of security and refuge. It is not sustainable to constantly live in uncertainty, risk and vulnerability; we need shelter, even if it is just a tent which is moveable.
This is why I have found reflecting on the use of tents in the Bible encouraging. Tents give people a resting place in a landscape of wilderness. Tents are used as ‘home’ when you are being called to be nomadic. Tents give you the space to feel safe when the rest of your life is danger and risk. Paul uses this image to describe our earthly bodies on earth and to encourage us to see ourselves as belonging to another place.
I have shared before this prophetic picture someone once saw for me of a mountain goat living in rocky terrain, barren and wild. The words that accompanied that picture were, “You were built for this terrain.” I often find myself in spiritual wilderness, barrenness. I find myself in conflict and rough seas. When I do find a settled place, a place of comfort, I get uncomfortable. I thrive in the wild but even I need times of peace and rest. I survive but in a different way to how the sheep of the green pasture survive down in the valley.
I was reading Psalm 104 last week and then a verse sprang out as an encouragement for me,
The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. (Psalm 104:18)
What struck me was I was built for one context which is not shared for others but I still need refuge and places to recuperate. Graham Cray, ex-bishop of Fresh Expressions UK, when I shared this picture with him told me to hold onto the monastic practices to sustain that call to those contexts.
The Church is in exile; divorced from mainstream culture. The passionate discussions over calling the last Fresh Expressions’ Conference ‘From Margins to Mainstream’ focussed many people’s concern on where do we want to see ourselves. Some like being margin, periphery dwellers, others like to be anywhere but ‘boring mainstreamers’, some like the comfort of the known and others are anxious but uncertainty. Whatever is mainstream for one is margin for another; it depends on where you’re standing and how you see yourself.
I am one who finds himself, more often than not, in isolated viewpoints. I don’t fit. This always runs dangerously close to my obsession with being different and contrary and I am on constant watch to not fall into that trap. I know that is part of where God must hold me close and is part of my spiritual practices.
Rules of life are meant to be way markers not straight-jackets. I have explored different rules of life and studied the charisms of different communities what fascinates me and excites me is that despite being different they share similar central calls; they name them different things but they’re essentially the same. I’m talking about principles or virtues they live by not the practices they perform. Ian Mobsby and the Moot Community named these principles, ‘postures’.
I wonder what might happen if we acknowledged together, a sense that the monastic call is commitment to ‘stability, conversion and obedience’ (words used by St Benedict in chapter 58 of his Rule)? Some may want to interpret them as the traditional vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’ but I see them as interchangeable.
A desire to remain rooted somewhere or with someone; no matter what the spiritual weather is like, no matter what temptations afflict you, you stay and remain faithful.
A desire to change, to turn away, step by step, from the things of this world to the Kingdom of God. To seek, in different circumstances and in different ways, to become more and more Christ-like, poor and dependant on God.
A desire to place yourself under the decisions of something or someone else. To seek to curb that deeply human temptation to be in control of ourselves and our decisions; to hold onto the power in or own lives.
Over the next few weeks I want to develop this motif and offer some potential suggestions how, in different contexts, disciples can adopt these three shared vows whilst remaining contextual and flexible in practice.