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Exploring the Rule of Benedict §4: Contemporary Protestant Approriations of the Benedictine Tradition

In the last number of years, there are a variety of different protestant communities and churches that have come together in ways that resemble and glean from the Benedictine way. This movement has come to be known as the “New Monasticism”. Throughout the United States and the United Kingdom a variety of different monastic-style communities and churches have come to embrace central elements of the monastic, and particularly the Benedictine vision. While these groups are clearly not monastic in the proper sense (i.e. they are free to be married, generally have private possessions, and often live in their own houses), there is a clear resonance between the spirituality of the Rule of Benedict in the life and practice of these communities.

Central to this movement (in varying ways) is the three-fold Benedictine vow of conversatio, obedientia, and stabilitas. There is a clear commitment to live under a more rigorous rule of life and practice than is the case in most protestant churches. In New Monastic communities, at the very least, all members commit to living within the same general area, often with different members living together in common households, depending on the cultural and social location of the community in question. This commitment to reorder one’s life around the common life of the community corresponds to the Benedictine vow of conversatio. Obedience is likewise a central element among New Monastic communities. While these communities are not ordered under an abbot as Benedictine monasteries were, the emphasis is on submission and deference to one another in the making of decisions resonates with the monastic practice of obedientia rather than autonomy. Finally, New Monastic communities practice a form of the Benedictine vow of stabilitas. There is always some measure of permanent commitment to the community of which one is a part. While this is not practiced in the same sort of way as is done in Benedictine monasteries, the concept of covenant is central to the New Monastic understanding of how God calls us to be faithful to one another, forsaking the transience and career-driven mobility of our culture.

While the New Monasticism is certainly not the only appropriation that could be made of Benedictine spirituality, it is perhaps the most pronounced one to take root in Protestantism in recent years. And it is a movement to be welcomed in the church. In an age of hypermobility, fragmentation, and widespread social alienation, stable cells of the body of Christ which embody his presence intentionally in local contexts are more necessary than ever to the mission of the church. Alasdair MacIntyre, in his landmark study, After Virtue chronicled what he termed “the failure of the enlightenment project”. The forces of modernity and enlightenment, he argued, have led to fragmentation, and potential social and economic chaos. In light of this, however, he calls not for some sort of Marxist revolution or a violent overthrow of the status quo, but rather for “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” It is precisely this vision which animates the contemporary appropriation of Saint Benedict on the part of the New Monasticism. In much the same way that the Benedictine tradition preserved the forms of Christian morality and culture that were necessary to Christian life through the barbarism of the dark ages, such communities as the New Monasticism may fulfill a similar function today as our increasingly globalized world grows more and more violent, dominative, and unstable. As MacIntyre says,

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.

It is to this task of constructing local forms of community that the communities of the New Monasticism have applied themselves. And their agenda is not simply to preserve intellectual and moral life – though they may be instrumental in that – but to embody the fullness of Christ’s vision for the church in the world. This is the lesson they have taken from Saint Benedict. MacIntyre was surely correct at the time of his writing that we were waiting for a new Saint Benedict, or better, for new Benedictines. Perhaps, just such new Benedictines have come among us, and for that we should be thankful, for them, for Saint Benedict who lead the way, and for the Spirit of God who brings out of his storehouse treasures new and old.

3 Comments

  1. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    I’m enjoying this series, as I’m thinking a lot about “new monasticism” on account of my church history studies this past term. In particular, I’m finding inspiration in Celtic monasticism, which has some interesting counterpoints to Benedictine monasticism in terms of having less of a “bunker mentality.”

    Still, I echo the pressing need for stabilitas in our world today.

    Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben wrote:

    I am involved right now in trying to establish a community that reflects some of the “new monasticism” you’ve talked about, so these posts (this one particularly) has been helpful. Thanks again, keep it up, and Merry Christmas.

    Monday, December 24, 2007 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  3. John Lawrey wrote:

    Thanks for your clear and thoughtful writing. I think we can all see the usefulness of appropriation from the Benedictine tradition. But is it truly possible to appropriate the three elements without the kind of commitment that Benedict envisioned? Can married people living in the suburbs with no elected leader do Benedictine life together?

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

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