These images are neither incorrect nor “old”; there are still thousands of traditional monasteries and friaries in the world today – and many of them are thriving. Their roots run over 1500 years deep.
The earliest monastics were known as “The Desert Mothers & Fathers” (late 3rd – early 4th centuries). At a time when the Christian movement was becoming more-and-more mixed up with the culture of the Roman Empire, women and men withdrew to the desert in order to follow Jesus more faithfully through lives of prayer and simplicity.
In the following centuries, the Empire disintegrated and Christendom proceeded into the dark ages. At their best, monastic communities became sanctuaries of the Christian faith, sustaining the way of Jesus in their rules of life, worship, learning and prayer (word has it that they made great beer too!).
During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, founder of the ‘confessing church’ and anti-Nazi resister stated that “…the renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this.”
The term “new monasticism” itself was coined in 1988 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World . In 2004 a number of communities drawing on the monastic tradition gathered and developed the defining characteristics of new monasticism (the “12 Marks”).
We in the early 21st century also live in a time of monumental social change, when old structures are collapsing and it is unclear what will emerge in their place. This is especially true in the Western Church, as we move into a ‘post-Christendom’ reality. Perhaps it is time to re-imagine what Church might be; drawing on the living waters of the past as we move into a new cultural reality.
We believe that a new movement of the Spirit is emerging as all over the Western world small clusters of faithful followers of Jesus are coming together to find the strength and hope to live simply and faithfully in prayer and contemplation, while reaching out to serve the poor and vulnerable.
These communities recognize that to live lives faithful to the kingdom of God they need loving, sustaining community. It is for this reason that such communities are reaching back to the wisdom of the ancients and looking to contemporary monastics for guidance. That, in a nutshell, is the impetus for new monasticism.
Ultimately, the new monastic life is about inhabiting a shared reality, what Jesus often called “the kingdom of God.”
The new monastic life is dependent upon community and shared practices – all grounded in living in a common geographic area. The movement includes singles, couples and married people. Many have ‘day’ jobs and live the Rule of their communities as part of a ‘normal’ life.
Sometimes new monastic communities look more like what we might think of as ‘a church’. Other times it is a ragamuffin group of folks living together on the margins of empire in community houses, or setting roots in various spaces in a neighbourhood.
In Emmaus Community, we will seek to draw on ancient Monastic practices, the Marks of a New Monasticism, and the various streams of the living water in the Church – and develop our own Rhythm or Rule of Life as we seek stability in a neighbourhood together.
Parts of this write-up were borrowed and adapted from our friends at the Jeremiah Community in Toronto.