Monasticism Old and New
“In order for us to understand about ‘a new monasticism’ we needed to understand a little about ‘old’ monasticism because it was from that tradition that we drew so much…
We discovered that monasticism is ‘a way of life with a spiritual goal which transcends the objectives of this earthly life. The attainment of this goal is considered the ‘one thing necessary.’ Christian monasticism i.e. that which is centred in and consecrated to Christ being informed, inspired and illumined by His Love) has three essential elements namely, Separation from the world, Ascetical practices, Mystical Aspiration.
A] Separation from the world – the physical separation of the enclosure; a tonsure, a distinctive habit etc. all of which marked the separateness.
B] Ascetical Practices – Poverty, chastity, obedience, regularity of life in a Community under a Rule, stability, self-denial, silence, solitude, cultivation of “lectio divina”, public prayer of the Church e.g. the story in Exodus 17 where the continuous prayer of the liturgical offices is likened to the holding up the hands of Moses, and engaging in spiritual warfare.
C] Mystical Aspiration – Searching for God in his Absolute Mystery and Beyondness. God is both concealed and revealed. Contemplation of Christ the Living Word and of Christ in the written Word, allowing self to be caught up in the movement of repentance, of returning to God. Giving oneself to His action in us through Availability and Vulnerability, surrender, abandonment, and prayer.
A new monasticism which is ‘An interior monasticism of the heart’ seeks to draw from these truths and attempts to live a contemporary expression of ‘contemplation in a world of action.’ So the differences are in emphases:
A] Separation – not separatism, isolationist but withdrawal as strategic retreat. An awareness of the importance of the inner journey, “poustinia”, cloister of the heart, solitude, hiddenness, alone yet together.
B] Ascetical practises – a way for living that incorporates the spiritual disciplines to encourage this interior vigilence. “Ascesis” = training, living. It is training for life needing a Rule of life, a rhythm of prayer, a reason to be. Seeking God, knowing self so as to better live with others. So we have both solitude and Community, both alone and together as spiritual disciplines. This is seeking “truth in the inward parts” Ps 51, a life of repentance, humility and teachableness with a willingness to embrace the spiritual disciplines that bring life.
C] Mystical aspiration – awareness of God as Mystery, seeking God, longing, monasticism of the heart, compunction, a contemplative approach to life and prayer where an awareness of the cell, Desert, dark night, inner life, “logismoi”, monsters is needed. This is where God is concealed from us yet revealed to us in the paradoxical ‘ever-present absence of God’…
All the spiritual disciplines and monastic values are there not as ends in themselves but as aids, tools, signposts to the heart of it all which is Christ. Thus we have many of our daily meditations (e.g. Day 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 17, 21 etc ) pointing to the inner journey as paramount and foundational.
This is our ethos, our heart, that which gives us identity. It is something we can only do alone but we are Together in our Aloneness. We have many Companions sharing our journey. It is the ‘single minded search for God’ given coherence by desert and Celtic spirituality which was essentially monastic and any expression of Monasticism stands in the wisdom tradition which is not an accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but a constant application to life actually lived ‘A wise person does not gather and dispense insights, but rather has the heart to live those insights’
1] MONASTIC DISCERNMENT – Relationship with God, self and others
2] MONASTIC DISCIPLINE – Rule of life – Availability and Vulnerability
3] MONASTIC DAY – Rhythm of prayer and life, giving a pattern to my days
This was the purpose of going to the Cell. Your cell may have a physical representation; a hut or “poustinia”, a chair in a corner of a room etc. But whatever it is, it is symbolic of the heart alone with God. This is the heart of the inner journey. It is encounter and discernment of that which is constructive and destructive, enabling us to choose life and not death.
That process of looking inward in order to discover the true self as opposed to the false self, the deeper meaning of all your actions and reactions, and this ‘going to the cell’ would eventually teach you everything and so bring you closer to the true humanity of Christlikeness.
One of the first effects of ‘going to the cell’ is the release of the energies of the unconscious, which gives rise to two different psychological states:-
a] Exposure to the love of God: expressed and experienced in our personal development in the form of spiritual consolation; experiencing his mercy, grace and forgiveness in Christ through his Cross.
b] Exposure to the sinfulness of humanity: experiencing our own human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge and encounter with the false self, the dark side of our personality. ‘It takes a moment to get you out of Egypt but a lifetime to get Egypt out of you.’
This dual awareness is what the Fathers called ‘compunction’ and it’s captured in the hymn ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus two wonders I confess: the wonder of his glorious love and my own worthlessness.
This is why a Rule of life is absolutely essential to any monastic expression. It says this is who we are, this is our story and all who are part of us must keep to and live in the story that God has written as foundational. Monastic stability is to be accountable to a Rule of life NOT to a set of rules that restrict or deny life. It is, to use the words of Benedict ‘simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life’.
A Rule is like a pair of eye glasses (spectacles) – we don’t look AT them but THROUGH them to life. How foolish to constantly look at them, the gold frames the bi-focul lenses and never look through them so as to actually see.
The word comes from the Old English REULE. In Latin it is “REGULA” which means ‘rhythm, regularity of pattern, a recognisable standard’ for the conduct of life. Esther De Waal writes that the Latin “REGULA” ‘is a feminine noun which carried gentle connotations’. Not harsh negatives that we often associate with the phrase ‘rules and regulations’ today.
Esther De Waal tells us that the word has a root meaning of ‘a signpost’ which has a purpose of pointing away from itself so as to inform the traveller that they are going in the right direction on their journey. It would be foolish to claim we have arrived at our destination if in fact we are only at a signpost, however near or far from the destination it is.
Another root meaning of “REGULA” is ‘a banister railing’ which is something that gives support as you move forward, climbing or descending on your journey.
A Rule of life gives creative boundaries and spiritual disciplines while still leaving plenty of room for growth, development and flexibility. It gives us something to hold on to as we journey in our search for God, and when we be blown off course, it gives a safe haven to come back to. It gives us a means of perception, a way of seeing so that we can attempt to handle our lives and relationships wisely. This is why we can all be helped by embracing a
A workable rhythm to your day that draws from Monastic values that actually works for you according to your own unique situation and circumstances. It has to bring life and freedom not straightjacket you.
Our Rule of life is deliberately flexible and adaptable. It is also timeless because it does not PRESCRIBE, it PROVOKES. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive! It’s the very opposite – its seek God for yourself, who you are, where you are – with your unique experience, knowledge and understanding of life. With all your idiosyncrasies, prejudices and crap – bring it all to the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability. We must hold it loosely so as to make our own discoveries. To realise there won’t always be an answer so we keep asking/living the questions.
How then shall we live? Who is God? Who am I? What is Real?
It is to realise that God gives different answers to different people in different situations and circumstances, which is why we can’t prescribe, can’t meet individual agenda’s and expectations.
In many ways it would be so much easier to say this is the prescription – do this, don’t do that – take 3 Hail Mary’s, 2 Our Father’s 4 times a day. It has to be broad strokes, general principles to which you apply your specifics – your own unique set of circumstances and relationships.
Henri Nouwen expresses it well when he speaks of the spiritual life being a constant reaching out in the midst of paradox and chaos to these three areas of connectedness. This Reaching Out constitute the three Movements of the Spiritual Life.
1] Connecting in relation to self – From loneliness to solitude. With courageous honesty to our inmost selves, facing inner restlessness, our passions, weaknesses.
2] Connecting in relation to others – From hostility to hospitality. With relentless care to others, despite our mixed feelings and hostility.
3] Connecting in relation to God – From illusion to prayer. With increasing prayer to God, facing our doubts, disappointments and darkness. Living in incarnational reality.
It is the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength – to love our neighbour as ourselves – to love one another as Christ has loved us.”
An extract from “Understanding Desert Monasticism”, a retreat talk by Trevor Miller of The Northumbria Community: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/understanding-desert-monasticism/
“The Northumbria Community describes a diverse and dispersed network of people, alone and together, gathered around a Rule of Life as a Way to follow the Way. We’re quite messy and not always easy to define or pin down – as William Stringfellow once wrote, “Dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent’, ecumenically open and often experimental, visible here and there, now and then, but unsettled institutionally. Almost Monastic in nature, but most of all… enacting a fearful hope for human life in society.””