Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Monastics Old and New

I recently came across an interesting post by Bishop Marc Andrus on the Benedictine concept of "Stability." Bishop Marc considers stability in the context of the "New Monastacism" and the emerging global consciousness of the Church and society. He invites us to consider stability - commitment to particular people and places - in its intrapersonal, interpersonal, and planetary dimensions. We are formed (and de-formed) in important ways by our location in particular relationships and communities, and by the level of our connection (and dis-connection) to them.

Marc's invitation is a timely one, putting me in mind of an essay by Wendell Berry that comes at this topic from a slightly different angle: through the lense of our economic life and its environmental effects. Berry notes that the number one principle of the current global economy is "That stable and preserving relationships among people, places, and things do not matter and are of no worth." Corporations readily destroy one place - its people, land, and culture - to enrich another place (which is why the New Monasticism's commitment to the abandoned places of Empire is such an important witness). To the extent that we are enmeshed in this economy, we are literally a people without an address, living "no where," because "any where" is equally exploitable and equally habitable in the monoculture of Empire: "New place, same Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken," or, even more tragically, "New place, same sweatshop and shooting gallery."

Berry argues that we have given proxies to Corporations to take responsibility for our lives - providing food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, entertainment - without any real accountability, and to the detriment of our capacity truly to know and connect to other people and the places in which we live. We've given the global economy proxy to live our lives for us or through us, and, often, in spite of us. We need to take back the proxy and begin to live our own lives in real community again.

"A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life," writes Berry. Self-knowledge alone will not save us. What we need are practices that cultivate awareness, compassion, commitment, and competence in the rebuilding of connection to people and places. This is where churches, I believe, can actually make a difference.

At their best, our congregations are centers of real community, strongly rooted in the local ecology, economy, and culture. Often, as in our inner cities and rural communities, they already are located in the places abandoned by Empire, and therefore well-situated to witness to an alternative way of living - real life rather than virtual life. By offering people initiation and nurture in the Way of Jesus, congregations provide them with concrete practices of contemplation, worship, healing, hospitality, art, conversation, study, discernment, organizing, and advocating so that they can build the kind of intrapersonal, communal, and global stability to which Bishop Marc refers.

As the Body of Christ gathered in a particular place, congregations should be deeply concerned with the stability and preservation of relationships among people, places, and things. I know that there is a deep, spiritual hunger for such stability. I see it in the number of religious vocations present in my small congregation, and in the desire of some parishioners to make formal vows of stability in this particular congregation. In a time of increasing social mobility, isolation, and vulnerability to ersatz forms of community, it is important for us to find ways to help people choose stability. Perhaps the "New Monasticism" provides a clue, reminding us to make use of the old as well as the new in our tradition.


janinsanfran said...

I would hope that the Church could help us all to discern the difference between "ersatz forms of community" and community that is supportive of healthy stability. In my life, this has not always been as obvious as it sometimes seems in retrospect. Whatever it means, it is not about finding the right set of rules, but about developing a greater skill at recognizing fruits, even strange ones, I think.

Fr. John said...

Jan - the monastic traditions have developed "rules of life" to help one sort out the difference between ersatz and stable community. Not "rules" in the moral sense (though they have moral implications), but practices that cultivate awareness, wisdom, and discernment. They are "techne," spiritual technologies, if you will, that help us to make moral and prudential judgments.

Here, I am thinking about things like contemplative prayer, participation in the Eucharist, fasting, offering hospitality to strangers, etc. Sr. Meg Funk describes this well in her book, Humility Matters.

R said...


This is such a critical topic.

What we have done at Church of Our Saviour, while very old fashioned, speaks to the "new monasticism," and that's simply making the prayer office a daily occurrence here.

I'd also like to reference the sermon we heard here on Sunday from Belle Mickelson, a newly ordained transitional deacon in the Diocese of Alaska. She spoke very powerfully to us about the plight of indigenous peoples above the Arctic Circle in light of the pressures of globalization and resource consumption.

Just more food for thought.

Great post!