Most of us can picture the “old” monasticism: monks, friars or nuns praying together by candlelight in their habits (robes).
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 that time, when the Christian movement was becoming more-and-more mixed up with the culture of the Roman Empire, some folks withdrew to the desert in order to follow Jesus more faithfully through lives of prayer and simplicity. Initially they were hermits (monk come from 'mono' meaning 'alone') - but folks were drawn to their witness - and communities began to form. Eventually, these communities needed a way to organize themselves, and "Rules" were created.
In the following centuries, and at their best, monastic communities became sanctuaries of the Christian spirituality; following the way of Jesus in their rules of life, worship, learning, service, witness and prayer (word has it that they made great beer and cheese too!).
During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, founder of the ‘confessing church’ and anti-Nazi resister and martyr 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 [people] banded together to do this.”
The term “new monasticism” itself was coined in 1997 by the Canadian scholar Jonathan Wilson in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World.
In 2004 a number of communities drawing on the monastic tradition gathered and developed some initial characteristics of new monasticism in the USA and diverse expressions of new monasticism began to pop up alongside older communities that had started before that time.
Since that time, a diversity of new monastic communities have arisen, drawing on a variety of traditional monastic influences including Franciscan, Benedictine, Ignatian and Celtic influences. Some look more like an intentional Christian community, and others more like a parish church. What binds this movement is small groups of people who want to live together under a shared rule of life.
Some of the main characteristics of new monasticism are:
1. A commitment to a Rhythm of Life - including daily, weekly, monthly and yearly practices which include prayer, work, rest, retreat, meals and study…and agreeing to share that rhythm together.
3. A commitment to expressions of radical (radical = rooted) community of sharing.
[Adapted from the Community of the Tree of Life, UK)
In Emmaus, we tend to use the term 'neo-monastic' because folks get confused that we might be a monastic community that is new, rather than a neo-monastic community.
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 Holy 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 their contexts.
These communities recognize that to live lives faithful to the kingdom/reign 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 neo-monastic life is about inhabiting a shared reality, what Jesus often called “the kingdom of God.” This involves focusing on the inner life so that our witness can flow into the wider world; starting right where we are - in our own neighbourhoods or rurual contexts.
The new monastic life is dependent upon intentional 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 and the various streams of the living water in the Church – and have developed our own Rule of Life as we seek stability in a neighbourhood together.