This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.
I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.
With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.
The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,
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. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)
Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,
The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)
This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.
Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.
I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’
Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)
Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,
If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)
This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,
No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)
St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.
The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)
Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’
You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)
‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,
The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)
As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,
The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)
Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’
If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’
Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’
The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.
The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,
They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)
St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,
…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)
The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.
Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.
What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’