Over three years ago I posted about the then still somewhat new movement known as “the new monasticism.” At the time I was pretty enthusiastic about the helpfulness of both this label and movement. Nowadays I’m less enthused, not, perhaps about the actual work that many of these communities are doing (after all I’m still very much a part of a church that has been included under this rubric), but about the terminology and literature that’s been put out over the last few years.
Today I am less convinced that “monasticism” is a helpful descriptor for intentional forms of ecclesial life today. Monasticism, by its very nature, at least historically, has always been a sort of special dispensation, a unique and decidedly non-ordinary and non-normative way of living within the church as a whole. I have never really understood the call to life together under the Gospel to be something like that. This is not to say that I think a faithful form of life together can only look one way (just the opposite, actually!), but only to say that I think it is important that movements that call the church to a mode of life together for the sake of the world should not allow themselves to be written off as some new sort of “monastics” who are off doing a special little thing of their own.
Interestingly, I think many of us who have been affiliated with “the new monasticism” have found much rhetorical juice from a quote from Bonhoeffer (which I quoted in my other post mentioned above):
The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this. (Letter to Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 14, 1935 in A Testament to Freedom, p. 424)
In the past I think we tended to zero in how awesome it surely was that Bonhoeffer is calling for “a sort of new monasticism.” But Bonhoeffer’s point is rather different, I think. For him the central point is that this new movement for the renewal of the church will have one thing, and one thing only, in common with monasticism, namely the “uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount.” In other words, what Bonhoeffer wanted people to be called to was not a specifically monasticish movement at all, but rather simply to an uncompromising style of messianic life in which all of our action as Christians is given over to the sort of radical love to which Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls us.
What is needed today is not so much a rediscovery of “monasticism,” as perhaps we had once thought. Rather what is needed is to return all the more strongly to the message of the Gospel of the crucified, which places its call upon all humankind. We perhaps need to die to the dream of cultivating and securing quasi-monastic communities for ourselves and learn, yet again, what it might mean for us to simply give our lives away in obedience to the call of the Crucified, who calls not simply a few to a special ascetic vocation, but rather calls all of us to be completely given over to the way of discipleship, which can only be a kenotic way of life in which the call to lay our lives down must be discerned afresh in whatever contingent circumstances we find ourselves.