by Tim Baker.
There is something in the air at the moment – something connected to the New Monastic movement, something to do with a way of life, a community gathering, an opportunity to grow closer and deeper. It’s something very Methodist (though clearly borrowed from elsewhere too), entirely ancient, and yet as fresh as the sunrise. A brief glance at our monastic heritage might show us something of why it is experiencing a resurgence.
As with any church at its best, the monastic movement was born out of a combination of abstract thinking about spirituality and the practical issues of the time. The desert fathers and mothers in Egypt around 330-460 AD were responding directly to their own encounter with God in seeking solace and poverty, but they were also escaping and rejecting the excesses of the established church, the ‘career clergy’ and the dangerous alliance of religion and state.
Monasticism raises a variety of theological issues: the interplay between individual and communal faith, the dangers of excess, an earthly ‘poverty’, silence in worship (see, for example, the Benedictine rule chapter 52), a focus on prayer and the use of liturgy. All these reflect a theological position which involves a withdrawal from the world in order to encounter the divine. Not all monastics, however, remain in that mode of isolation. Rather, they took the experience of God back with them into the world with a clear sense of mission.
To touch on one of these ideas – intentional worldly poverty – shows us why monasticism is helping us to stretch, regroup and ‘emerge’ as a church today. A monk’s commitment to poverty was born out of a scriptural understanding of God as ‘for’ the poor, coupled with the recognition that material things can be an obstruction to our relationship with God. Jesus in the wilderness becomes the model to emulate here: turning away from worldly things, resisting the physical temptation of food and the more abstract vices of the world – the opportunity to show off and to claim power. It’s important to note, however, that this asceticism does not represent a rejection of the body, but a desire to rediscover the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit. In Jesus, God becomes fully human and the monastic tradition understood something of the respect for the human body that this incarnation calls us all to live up to.
In the writings of Abbot Jamison (Finding Sanctuary),[i] Joan Chittister (Monastery of the Heart)[ii] and many others, we see an application of this idea of ‘lack’ for our times. The twenty-first century version of capitalism is more rampant and more materialistic than ever. The age of personalised and targeted advertising (particularly prevalent on social media) pushes its materialistic message into our eyeballs all the time, trying to sell us the next solution, the next product.
We are just beginning to understand the negative mental and physical consequences of the society we have built. There is much temptation to eat luxurious high-calorie food, or satisfy hunger with fast food and ready meals, many of which are high in salt, fat, cholesterol and sugar. As the expendable income of the average person grows, we seem to develop new and more dangerous ways of spending it.
In this context the church needs to apply the ideas developed by the monks over a millennium – that it is important to resist the temptation of the worldly things in order to experience the divine. As we desire material wealth for ourselves, for our chapel, for our circuit, our Connexional funds, our multi-million pound mission schemes, to need to retain a theology of poverty too. As with early monasticism, and the monastic movement at its purest throughout history, perhaps this will remain a niche idea kept alive by a minority, but my instinct is that we need it now more than ever. How can we discover again the power in choosing to go without? What would a movement towards sacrifice, towards lack, look like in your community?
To conclude, Diarmaid Maculloch in his History of Christianity points out that Monasticism always contains an element of ‘silent rebellion’, against the church but also against the excesses of society in general.[iii] There is a great deal of monastic theology and practice to which we need to return today in order to keep that rebellion alive. The challenge will be to keep finding ways to learn from the often-rebellious monks and begin again the revolution of going without so that we might experience in full.
[i] Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic steps for Everyday Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2006)
[ii] Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart: An invitation to the meaningful life (London: SPCK, 2011)
[iii] Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)
 Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)