In the Dark Ages of western Europe, after the fall of the holy Roman Empire, history tells us that the vital facets of human community were preserved within the monastic walls of Christian communities that networked across the lawless lands. Monasteries and convents across Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and even into the Eastern Orthodox world provided havens of protection, learning, technology and, most importantly, Christian liturgy and learning.
With the perfectly tuned vision of hindsight, we can see that monasticism, the excesses of Roman Catholicism and the prescribed austerity of monastic life proved to be yet another breeding ground for greed, selfishness and ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Despite the failures of medieval monasticism, at its best, it can provide a model for our spiritual practice in the modern and post-modern age.
As in the waning years of the authority and influence of the pax romana, western culture today seems to be ‘post-everything’: post-modern, post-Christendom, post-natal (separated from that which gave us birth) and in some ways, teetering on being post-mortem (past the vitality of life itself). We seem to be cast adrift from the way things used to be, cut off from the moorings that once gave us hope and meaning and purpose. Those moorings of money, culture, family bonds and all the other systems in which we placed our trust have proved fleeting, capricious and untrustworthy.
The church in our time has become a fountainhead of meaningless platitudes that have proven to be cheap band-aids laid on the bleeding sores of life as we know it. Culture is more and more fragmented as the world digs into a battlefield no less real that the trench warfare of World War One, only in our time the trenches have been dug into the channels of our hearts. Governments, small and large, urban and rural, have been sacrificed on the altar of democracy. We are faced with a democratic system that is characterized by the smoky back room realization that, within a skewed democratic system, there is money to be made.
In the face of these realities, the safest reaction seems to be to build a fortress, to throw up thick walls behind which we can retreat and sing the songs of Zion until somehow, somewhere hope appears.
There is hope today just as there was hope in medieval Europe, just as there has been hope from the beginning of time. It is a hope that calls us to worshipful work, to the building of a community that is defined by the One who does the calling, the One who does the building, the One who began the creation in the first place. We are part of a story, not a fable, not a moralistic tale, but a story that began when time itself began and a story that has no end. Each of us have vital part to play, a part that only we can offer and the gift of days and life and breath to be part of this ongoing narrative that truly is the hope of the world.
Monasticism, at its best, has important structure and strategic purpose that we can appropriate:
- The monastery or religious house was the center of the community. It provided religious instruction, disciplines, learning, worship and protection.
- The monastery practiced hospitality as a spiritual discipline – hospitals, hostels, hotels and restaurants all began as practical theology lived out in the world to follow the simple commands of Jesus – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, put the lonely in families, be the Good Samaritan.
- In historic times of chaos, the monastery was the place where learning was preserved and passed on. The Bible itself, before the printing press, was preserved through monks that copied the sacred text by hand and with great artistic skill. The preservation and education of musical greatness took place within the church. Art, music, literature, medicine, architecture, scientific discovery and technological advancement was centered in the system of religious houses that spread across eastern and western Europe and then across the globe.
- These religious houses, at their best, were the epitome of the ‘both/and’. They were internally focused on a life of contemplation, prayer and worship. They were literally dedicated – as carved into the novices’ gate at Kentucky’s Abbey of Gethsemani – to “God Alone”. At the same time, they were externally focused in lives of action to exist for the good of the community that surrounded them – to feed, educate, heal, shelter, advise and protect, not with the weapons of violence, fear and domination but with the whole armor of God. (Ephesians 6:13ff)
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
What can this ‘new monasticism’ look like as a spur to congregational revitalization? It is incumbent on some of us to not focus solely on new church plants, on new places but on the revitalization, the recapturing of the existing church as the center of faith and life.
What are the issues facing our surrounding communities that God is calling us to impact?
- Economic depression, lack of job opportunities
- Poverty level and concurrent drug/alcohol abuse
- Aging population, needs of caregivers and care receivers.
- Quality of educational delivery K-college. Economic and governmental stresses on educators and educational administration.
- Preservation of fabric of church building and commitments – what would it take to set up a rotating three-year endowment that would protect building, parsonage and missional commitments?
The Rhythm of Life: Action – contemplation model that characterizes the church, its members and its constituencies. Life lived in a rhythm of seasons structured by day, week, month, year, 3 year rotation, 10 year rotation. What could that look like if we really practiced a rhythm of work and play, effort and Sabbath??