Emergent Monasticism?

There’s an item today at the Daily Episcopalian from one of the Community of Solitude folks.

I’ve heard bits and pieces about the whole “New Monasticism” movement and this group seems to be a version of it that appears particularly in Episcopal circles.

I, of course, have drunk from the streams of the “Old Monasticism” movement and am still not sure what to make of these groups. As I’ve mentioned in some private correspondence, my minds not made up partly because of one line that I’ve seen in the Community of Solitude’s material:

If an aspirant is married, we require a letter from the spouse
demonstrating their enthusiastic endorsement of the call and their understanding of the demands this will place on the family, especially in terms of time management and responsibilities. Only one spouse can be a Solitary.

I’ve added the emphasis.

What I like in this community’s documents (and I’ve fussed around the degree to which a dispersed group with a common bond can be considered a community here…) is that they share with classic monasticism the sense that the monastic way is not something above and beyond basic Christianity, rather, it is basic Christianity. However, according to their rule, only one member of a household can be an “authentic” Christian. I find that very problematic.

With the Mass-and-Office harmony of the BCP, I believe that our Anglican forebearers gave us a way to embrace the heart of the monastic vision in a way that made it possible for every memeber of the Church of England and her daughter institutions to be “authentic Christians” even according to the old monastic liturgical model.

I also think that it is interesting and instructive to see this in the same week that the All Saints Sisters of the Poor announced that they will leave the Episcopal Church to go to Rome. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I feel the loss of “Old Monasticism” communities more keenly than I feel joy at the springing up of “New Monasticism.”

I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to say there’s something about these new movements that both attracts me, and makes me wonder if they’re missing something important. As I type this, I hear the voice of my mentor in my head commenting on stability:

Stability is one thing in the abstract. But when you become a Benedictine, stability is the sudden realization that the guy in the stall next to you who sings everything just a half step flat will be there and doing that for the next fifty years…

I wonder if my hesitation has to do with a lack of that kind of in-the-bones stability with these movements.

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62 Responses to Emergent Monasticism?

  1. Paul Goings says:

    I’d be inclined to ask whether we could decide on what monasticism is, and then see if the “New Monasticism” fits into that definition. From what I know of the movement, I’d say that the answer is no. I agree that stability is an issue, but also what S. Benedict called “conversion of manners;” no one who joins one of these groups needs to learn to live in charity with someone whose personal habits appall them! Too, I’d argue that it’s not really new. These organizations are all but indistinguishable from what were called guilds, sodalities, confraternities, and orders of tertiaries, and have existed from before the Middle Ages right up until the present moment. But I think it’s a real mistake to refer to it as monasticism, and that it’s really only being done because that’s what “hot” right now in terms of spiritual writers.

    Additionally, it’s my opinion that the Mass-and-Office vision of the B.C.P. isn’t really monastic; Thornton would say “proficient,” and I think would have been surprised to see the two conflated.

    It’s probably also worth thinking about the eremitical vocation as well, and how that’s defined. Monasticism implies community and interdependency, similar to marriage; this is not so with hermits, but I think they’re also different from the new monastics.

  2. Additionally, it’s my opinion that the Mass-and-Office vision of the B.C.P. isn’t really monastic; Thornton would say “proficient,” and I think would have been surprised to see the two conflated.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear here, Paul. What I’m suggesting, as I have in the past, is that the Preface to the 1549 BCP makes clear is that Cranmer was reach back to the monastic standards of the early medieval period in terms of the reading of Scripture and the repetition of psalms but envisioned it for everyone, not just the cloistered. That is, the heart of the monastic path (Scripture, liturgy, and continuous psalmody) as mere Christianity.

    I don’t think Thornton would disagree with this at all.

  3. Paul Goings says:

    I think that “the heart of the monastic path” is actually intentional (as opposed to familial) community. Their corporate liturgical life is merely the ordinary liturgical life of every Christian, only lived out in the fullness that only such a community can generally undertake. Thus, a husband and wife living out the full liturgical life would not be a monastic community, no matter to what degree their liturgical and spiritual disciplines resembled one.

    Perhaps this is entirely a question of semantics, but I think the distinction is fairly important.

  4. brian m says:

    Paul writes: “I agree that stability is an issue, but also what S. Benedict called ‘conversion of manners;’ no one who joins one of these groups needs to learn to live in charity with someone whose personal habits appall them!”

    Paul, I wonder what you would make of some of the intentional communities that consider themselves to be part of the loose “new monastic” movement, like the Simple Way in Philadelphia, Rutba House in Durham, etc.? Members of these houses live in common and surely have to contend with a consequent conversion of manners. Right?

  5. brian m says:

    Sorry for multiple posts–when last I checked, Rutba was using the BCP for common house EP. This reminds me of the old Catholic Worker custom of reading some part of the Collegeville SHORT BREVIARY in common in its houses; blessed Dorothy always recommended this. I often think the CW ought to get more credit for being the original “new monastic” community.

  6. Paul Goings says:

    If there is community of life and goods, then conversion of manners is necessary, and thus monasticism–as generally understood–is possible. So these communities are authentically monastic in that sense. This true to lesser extent in the case of those who might share living arrangements, but not commonality of goods. Would this latter have described how C.W. houses operate, broadly?

  7. Yes, Brian—I was thinking that too but the thought fled my mind when I was at the keyboard. Everything I’ve seen about “New Monasticism” does seem to be an evangelical protestant re-tread of the Catholic Worker movement.

  8. brian m says:

    CW houses often shared foodstuffs in common, less so other essentials like one’s clothes–I think this is also the case in houses like Rutba and Simple Way. (Incidentally, as the linked article indicates, Simple Way is no longer a community living in common.)

  9. Paul, in reference to your comment 3, I’ll have to think about that.

    When I consider the Saying of the Desert Fathers and Cassian I don’t necessarily find there monasticism as community. Instead, I see monastic practice as place where the Christian virtues are intentionally cultivated amidst the liturgical life. Given their understanding of the virtue of chastity marriage was precluded.

    Too, I’d suggest that the struggles of monastic community with stability have some real parallels with family life in our age of disposable marriage. Indeed, I think that commitments to stability and conversion of life are essential to a lasting Christian marriage!

  10. Paul Goings says:


    I agree that this topic, broadly construed, is very important. The idea of vocation has been lost for most people, and, in my opinion, too narrowly restricted for some others.

    Two of your comments stand out to me as openings into a larger discussion:

    Instead, I see monastic practice as place where the Christian virtues are intentionally cultivated amidst the liturgical life.


    Indeed, I think that commitments to stability and conversion of life are essential to a lasting Christian marriage!

    I think that I understand what you are getting at with the former, although I tend to think that the Desert Fathers and Cassian are better discussed in the context of an eremitical vocation. As to the latter, I am entirely in agreement with you.

    However, from such a perspective, what about the “old monasticism” is distinctive, if anything? What are we to make of the traditional relationship between monasticism and the evangelical counsels, taken to include community of life and goods? I would be reticent to say that it was merely a cultural artifact, but I’m not sure what else could be done.

    Perhaps we could think about this along the lines of “ordained monasticism” as opposed to the “monasticism of all believers,” to use a thoroughly mixed metaphor? The vocations would be different, although complementary.

  11. Robb (LP) says:

    I think even the term “emergent monasticism” is problematic. Within the emergent conversation there seems to be little room for the sort of stability offered to us by Benedict et al. When one looks at the downfalls of the emergent conversation – especially the incessant monkeying around with liturgy, language and images – one has to ask if stability is even an interest or a concern to those involved. Until this movement shows some durability, I am going to remain skeptical that it will amount to much other than a few admirable communities out there who aren’t really monastic, but are just struggling with the implications of Christianity being communal as it was in Acts.

    While I find some of the aims of this new monasticism admirable, it is wholly improper to refer to them as monastic, just as it would be improper to refer to me (or to you, Derek) as monastic just because we have a thing for the Office.

  12. Annie says:

    Wouldn’t it be equally useful to develop a renewed sense of marriage as a vocation? Rather than calling out one member of the pair to be a “Solitary”? I also mean this in general. I think basically I’m in agreement with Robb. This conversation is about living a Christian life. I’m not entirely sure it’s about monasticism proper.

  13. Several years ago, my older son was doing some computer work for the Episcopal Franciscan house in San Francisco. When my son commented that I was an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, which at the time had a house in Berkeley, the brother commented, “So, your dad is also a friar.”

    I don’t think of myself that way, exactly. I am an Associate, or as most Benedictine communities identify it an Oblate, of the Order of the Holy Cross, following a Rule, seeking association with the brothers; and I do think often how my life and my discipline reflect obedience, stability, and conversion of life. I am acknowledged by the brothers as a member of the Community. I renew my commitment annually. So, am I a friar/brother?

    My wife is life professed as a Worker Sister of the Holy Spirit. She has her discipline. That Christian Community has its means of frequent contact and communication, including regular worship of groups of Sisters, Brothers, and Workers where enough live in proximity – not unlike the Desert Communities. Is my wife a monastic? The community that she lives in, that I live in, is our home.

    Robert Hughes at Sewanee has done a good deal of work considering married life as an ascetical vocation, parallel to and comparable to monastic life. Indeed, Derek, I would agree that obedience, stability, and conversion of life offer a wonderful prism through which to reflect on one’s commitments in marriage.

    I think categories focused either on institutional structures (living in common) or liturgical structures (worshipping in common) are necessary, but not sufficient in describing a Christian life that has a vocation that includes responsibility to and in community. Even among our own Orders and Christian Communities there are enough variations that we haev to hold those categories loosely (does anyone else here remember the Order of the Holy Family?).

    As to the “new monastic movement:” my candidate for best representative within the Episcopal Church is the Rivendell Community. Some live in community and some do not, without distinction. At the same time, their model seems more reflective of “old” monasticism than of a contemporary evangelical recovery of monasticism.

  14. Paul, you’re right—there’s something very distinctive and important about renunciation and community to be learned from “Old Monasticism” and we Anglicans will be losing something important if we lose it again altogether.

    Robb—absolutely. I’m no monk and I know it. Though I am enriched by its teachings and spirituality.

    Marshall and Annie, yes, we are in need of a better sense of marriage as a disciplined vocation.

  15. adhunt says:

    There seems to be a general dearth of knowledge here as to what “new monasticism” is and/or isn’t, and what the “emergent conversation” is and/or isn’t.

    It is more appropriate to speak of “new monasticismS” and “emergent conversationS” or at least disparate voices within single movements which encompass a large variety.

    To the extent that each individual “new monastic” community lives a unique life and rule, some including singles and married, others not, some using the Brevary, others another Office; the “movement” is not within a single vein of tradition.

    I think Derek and Brian are close to the mark when they say it is a sort of evangelical appropriation of life in community (of various depths of inderdependence) in the rhythm of the daily office.

    Therefore, Paul and Rob, we should expect that it be a sort of sloppy appropriation of the monastic tradition. Whether it is “true” monasticism or not seems to be a crude sort of traditionalism.

    So some Christian groups are learning to live in community and their appropriation of the Daily Office and life are not wholly consistent and logical; who gives a damn? Let us instead thank God that we are receiving a slow renewal of these things in a community that has long neglected and marginalized them.

  16. It strikes me that one aspect of traditional monasticism that may not be exercised in the new emergent communities is the practice of understanding the other members of the house to be one’s family, truly a Brother or Sister, so that Brother or Sister is not just a title desribing one’s religious practice, but denotes a relationship among the members of the community. My sense is that this understands both adds to the traditional Benedictine stability and is also a by-product of it.


  17. adhunt says:


    To what extent have to personally learned of or experienced the life of an emergent new monastic community? The testimony of people I know are in one of these communities is precisely the opposite of what you are saying. They vividly describe the powerful love that is a result of life in community.

    Again, even if there was a or several communities that are as some say, homogeneity is not a mark of these disparate communities.

  18. Robb (LP) says:

    adhunt is right in that it is proper to speak of emergent conversations and new monasticisms rather than speaking as if either were a singular occurrence.

    I can only speak to emergent forms of spirituality insofar as my own involvement goes. I stand by statement about the use of the term monasticism, however. Something is certainly afoot, and the hope that we should all have is that it is a move of the Spirit that will lead people into more faithful, Gospel centered lives. But need we call it monasticism? I think not, and feel that it will only add confusion as we are forced to add infinite qualifiers what exactly we mean by monasticism…kind of like we are doing here.

    Annie – my experience has been that marriage and family as a vocation has a much more clearly developed practice and theology in Orthodoxy than it does in mainline, western bodies. I remember speaking to a monk (a former Anglican, incidentally), who told me that to raise the next generation of God’s saints is the holiest vocation anyone can have, even more holy than a priest or religious. Would that we lay claim to that line of thought.

  19. bls says:

    But need we call it monasticism? I think not, and feel that it will only add confusion as we are forced to add infinite qualifiers what exactly we mean by monasticism…kind of like we are doing here.

    I think this is key. “Monasticism” (the Greek root means “alone”) is one thing, and “Communities” like this are, I think, really something else. (“Alone,” after all, cannot at the same time mean “Community.”)

    Monastics give up the world and give themselves alone to God. “Living in Community” is not the point; it’s only the means to an end. The point is the search for God. (Don’t forget the Franciscans and Dominicans! Mendicant orders both, and there have been lots of both. Women, I guess, have always lived “in Community” – but I think that was for practical, self-protective reasons more than anything else.)

    People who are married do not and cannot give themselves up in this way; they must give themselves also to their families. That’s not to say that either is better or worse than the other; they are just different callings. Both are important. Communities are fine, but are not monastic.

  20. adhunt says:

    I think trying to “define” monasticism is a rather anachronistic idea; as if monasticism was a one-time-over idea with a single defining narrative.

    It should be worth mentioning that Benedictine monasticism is very different than the lives of the desert fathers. Is there some recognizable, eternal and unchanging core to “monasticism” that transcends the hundreds or thousands of Orders in the catholic church? What has a Benedictine to do with a Trappist, or a Jesuit with a Carthusian?

    If anything “new monasticisms” have most in common with the Desert fathers and mothers, though their lives are very different. There was, of course, no “monasticism” in the earliest church. It was the combination of empire and church, with the subsequent denial of martyrdom as defining faithful holy churches which drove some faithful out into the desert.

    Some lived in community, others didn’t. Some were very ascetic, others less so. I just don’t get trying to put a fence up around a core and call everything else something less than “monasticism;” especially when it is being self-styled as NEW monasticism, thus in it’s essence asking that it be seen as a modern arrangement of classical monasticism.

    So, new monastics aren’t asking to be seen as a traditional religious order, so why fuss that they don’t look like one (which one?!)

    I promise I’m not trying to be argumentative :)


  21. bls says:

    I think trying to “define” monasticism is a rather anachronistic idea; as if monasticism was a one-time-over idea with a single defining narrative.

    Well, words do have meanings. We’re just dancing around trying to figure out which words mean what. ;-)

    I’m just saying, basically, that there are two kinds of call, and that they are different; one kind of call involves giving up family and marriage, and one kind doesn’t. That’s not really anachronistic, I don’t think; it’s just recognizing that there’s a difference – which I think there is. And I’m also saying that “living in Community” is not really the point or the goal in one of those kinds of call, although it may definitely be in the other.

    I don’t care what you call them, really, as long as what I’m trying to say is clear. But you have to call things something….


  22. Annie says:

    Another point for the Orthodox.

  23. Robb (LP) says:

    bls beat me to the “words have meanings” line…

    As I have thought about this topic a bit this afternoon, it seems that what we are calling new monasticism certainly has a “Religious” quality. There are lots of religious orders in the church that are not monastic, though they may share a common heritage or practice with monastics. I am thinking here of groups like Clerks Regular (b/c I’ve been reading Thomas A Kempis again). Here’s an order, a group of Religious (in the proper sense), but that are not monks.

    Maybe it would be more accurate to refer to the New Religious…

    Wat do we make of the history of a group like New Skete, where there are monks in one house, nuns in another, and “companions” (married folk) in yet another? This is certainly a new twist on something very old.

  24. adhunt says:

    Thanks ya’ll. Call me a Wittgenstein’ian, but I think words have the meaning that communities give them. Since monasticism is of a varied flavour, having adapted at several points to serve the Church better, I thought this a possible extension of the function of monasticism in the church.

    But, if celibacy is a necessary part, then we likely completely agree as to the definition of “monasticism.”

  25. Well, let’s not confuse religious orders with monastics. Jesuits, friars, canons—Augustinian or otherwise—are different from monks. Orders is the larger and more inclusive word; most (Western) monks are grouped within the orders.

    As far as monastic types go, the classic distinction is between the Eremites (hermits) and the Anchorites who live in community. For Anchorites, community is an essential part of what the calling is about; Paul noted this up-thread. For the Eremites its the discipline and the solitude to which bls alluded.

    (Then there are the Carthusians who try to be alone together. I’ve never really “got” them… Clearly after my time…)

    As one interested in both what words mean and how we make them mean what they mean the most interesting question to me coming out of this thread is this: what’s the rhetorical value of the word “monasticism”? Why are we trying to claim it and/or protect it? Thoughts?

    It’ll especially get interesting if Fr. John-Julian or Fr. Adam decide to chime in… ;-)

  26. Joe Rawls says:

    The Carthusians have preserved the spirit of the Desert Fathers in the western church and thus deserve more attention than they usually get. The film Into Great Silence is a good introduction.

    Btw, “anchorite” is a synonym for “hermit”. I think the word you’re looking for is “cenobite”.

  27. D’oh! You’re right, Joe… Brain fart…

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about Into Great Silence but haven’t seen it yet.

  28. Joe Rawls says:

    Derek: as long as you don’t have to define “anchorite” during your dissertation defense, you’re home free!

  29. Christopher says:

    It seems to me we’re drawing distinctions in ways that obscure that monastic communities are themselves familial in their own way and that non-monastics are perhaps “romanticizing” by drawing such sharpened distinctions. Family life has its own ascesis that is not unrelated to monastic life. As Sarah Coakley points out we don’t do well to overdraw the distinctions because we end up debasing both vocations. After all, for the next 50 years, I may not have to deal with the irritating out of tone chant of the brother in the next seat in the choir, but I have to deal with the irriating bossiness of my partner.

    Let us not forget that the Catholic Worker has its roots in the Rule of Benedict as put forth in an apostolic way of living in the world. Knocking a particular expression, in this case emergent or new monasticism, rather than deepening our own won’t do us or them any good. Variety of this sort is a sign of health in the Church.

    We are all called to single-heartedness whether our vocation is to religious life in a community or in marriage or as a single person. That is the heart of monachos, and it is also the heart of chastity.

    It may be, and is to my mind, that those called to a religious community are those with a particular vocation to the Prayer of the Church, to do so, when the rest of us are keeping the fabric of the world together through our trades. But that shouldn’t let us dismiss that we are all called to the Prayer of the Church, and hance, this commonality is at the heart of Cranmer’s reform. Monastics are a particular vocation set aside within this Common life of prayer.

    Being alone is not in opposition to community. Indeed in a universe created on being-as-communion, even at our most alone (which is not the same as loneliness), we are intimately bound up with one another in the God who is a Community of Persons. That is why the elders of the desert though of themselves as intimately connected with the wider community. Alone as antithesis to community is individualistic rather than personal (which always implies communal).

  30. Christopher says:

    I would add that we seem to forget that just as those called to religious life choose a community (and the community chooses them), the same is so of marriage. Marriage is also an intentional community. Reading otherwise sounds a lot like when I’ve heard clergy say their job is to be intentional about their relationship with God in a more focused way than laity. (And I’ve heard that more than once.)

  31. Christopher says:

    Again, we’re all called to a conversion of manners. Marriage is always set within the larger context of Church life just as the monastic community is set within the larger context of Church life. Most early monasteries were mostly laypersons. I think we confuse when we try to suggest that these communities are synonymous with Church life rather than contexted within Church life, which includes monastic communities, married households, single persons…

    By suggesting that married couples and their children (if so blessed) are not called to conversion of life within the context of the Church again sets up a bifurcation of who and who is not called to be a full Christian in a way that I simply cannot accept. I take my vows to my partner before God as seriously as any monk takes his vows to the community before God. Overdrawn distinctions will not help us understand monastic life and married life as both ways to become holy.

  32. Christopher says:

    I guess what I’m getting at here is we seem to be putting the expression before the practical theology, the form before the discipleship/ascesis, confusing chastity (a calling to us all) with celibacy (the calling of a few). I’m reminded of one of the desert elders who in a dream God showed him a physician in the city who worked tirelessly to treat the poor. The elder recognized that single-heartedness is not the preserve of those who go out to the desert but can be lived out in more than one way.

  33. bls says:

    No one, in my opinion, is “called to a religious community.”

    Those who are, are “called to vowed life.” Again: the Community is really not the point; it’s merely a means to an end.

  34. bls says:

    (I should say that I’m referring to what I think of as “monastic life” above – and not to the “religious communities” being discussed here.

    As somebody who’s been listening to this kind of call for a number of years, I think I’m entitled to talk about it, really.)

  35. bls says:

    (I really don’t get the opposition to this idea. We’re simply talking about a definition here; why the huge to-do about it?

    Why the need to call oneself “monastic,” if one is not living as a monastic? To me, it’s weird that people do this; there’s a guy online who calls himself “The Internet Monk” – and he’s married and has kids, I think. What’s that about? I suppose it could be just a little joke or something, but it seems to be a “thing” lately. Of course, I don’t understand why men think it’s amusing to dress up as nuns, either, so there you are.

    Anyway, I know what it is to consider this life, and I know it’s not the same thing as thinking about life in another way. Why must I pretend otherwise?)

  36. brian m says:

    This has sort of gone far afield, but I wonder if Paul’s questions above might bring together the disparate threads:

    “What about the ‘old monasticism’ is distinctive, if anything? What are we to make of the traditional relationship between monasticism and the evangelical counsels, taken to include community of life and goods? I would be reticent to say that it was merely a cultural artifact, but I’m not sure what else could be done.”

    “Perhaps we could think about this along the lines of ‘ordained monasticism’ as opposed to the ‘monasticism of all believers,’ to use a thoroughly mixed metaphor? The vocations would be different, although complementary.”

  37. bls says:

    (I should also add that I suspect that Derek’s problem with this use of the word may be that it is (to me) a clear attempt to shunt aside the “old monasticism” as “no longer relevant.”

    I mean, this is the hip, new version!

    But of course, there’s not much that’s less interesting than “the latest thing,” as we’ve all noticed from our experience with “trend-setting” in the Episcopal Church….)

  38. I’m a married guy with kids whose not called to life-long celibacy. I don’t have the time nor the freedom to do liturgy and contemplation the way I’d like to. I want to appreciate where and who I am, reveling in my role of bring up the saints of tomorrow while attempting to grow into the mind of Christ today. I’m not a monk. There is much that I can learn from monastic spirituality and wisdom. That’s what I’m trying to negotiate.

    “Old Monasticism” requires a level of dedication that we in the world simply cannot manage. The lay vocation is different from the monastic vocation. What I’ve seen (and adhunt’s point is taken—I’m still not very informed on it) “New Monasticism” tries to have it both ways in a way that ends up mistaking and denigrating the lay vocation. Perhaps a way to look at it is through the lens of oblates—those who are in the world whether clergy or lay—yet connected to a community. ISTM that’s a both/and that doesn’t confuse the categories.

  39. bls says:

    “New Monasticism” tries to have it both ways in a way that ends up mistaking and denigrating the lay vocation.

    Exactly. It’s the same thing as trying to make all laypeople into “ministers” or “the priesthood of all believers.”

    What’s wrong with just being laypeople? Are we defective or something? I’m perfectly happy to take my part as a layperson; it’s a good thing to be, and I don’t need or want to be priest.

    Likewise, why pretend we’re all “monastics,” when it isn’t true? Some people are, and some people aren’t; both roles are important.

    Human beings draw distinctions between things; it’s not a crime. It’s the way we make sense of the world.

  40. John Robison says:

    there is a point where we are using “monasticism” incorrectly. Benedict defined the norm for it in the West and Pacomious and basil did so in the East.

    New Monasticism is more like Mendicancy than monasticism. It should be noted that there are Anglican/Episcopal mendicants (Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites) and that their live are defined differently from an Agustinian or Benedictine Monastic one.

  41. Paul Goings says:

    Perhaps a way to look at it is through the lens of oblates–those who are in the world whether clergy or lay–yet connected to a community.


    And this is something which has already existed for a long time. And it’s served as an aid to sanctification for lots of people. But it’s not monasticism, and to call it that–even with some sort of qualifier–denigrates those who really have left all to follow him.

  42. John-Julian, OJN says:

    Oh, dear!

    Nearly thirty years ago, when I was in the process of founding the Order of Julian, there was a bit of a brouhaha among Episcopal religious communities, because there was only one Church-wide canonical definition of religious communities which included such divergent communities as OSB and OJN on the one hand, and BSG and WHSH on the other. It was a difficult time because the traditional “religious orders” had real problems with being classed with very loosely organized, non-celibate communities (fine, in their own sense, but not “religious orders” as such.)

    Eventually this got pretty well settled by introduction of new canons covering the issue in which distinction was made between “Religious Orders” (life vows, celibacy, residential, rule, etc.) and “Christian communities” (often unvowed, possibly spoused, non-residential. etc.).

    There was also a distinction made between those communities which had been officially recognized by the Standing Commission of Religious Communities of the House of Bishops — and the others.

    And that has worked: see pages 125-128 in the Episcopal Church Annual. Both groups now have Church-wide (in some cases hemisphere-wide) organizations and occasionally share a conference.

    So, the Episcopal Church now has distinguished between “Religious Orders” and “Christian Communities”, and has provided a certification process which basically means that such recognized communities are answerable to authorities beyond themselves.

    It has been absorbingly interesting to watch the last thirty years and the multiplication of what I can only call “experimental” intentional communities — and here have literally been dozens. Checking their websites is an amazing experience: there are plenty which seem pretty clearly to be a founder’s ego trip, making much of monastic titles (a number of self-proclaimed abbots!), habits, liturgies, rules.

    Some are “unrecognized” mainly because they are ecumenical and no organized church has made provisions for such. Some are unrecognized because as religious orders, they need six in life-vows to apply for recognition (and most have one or two).

    And I must confess that I get really irritated and judgmental when hear these groups called “monastics” when for them vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience have been so bent and crippled that they are hardly recognizable. It makes me want to strip them of their fancy monastic habits and say, “You have no bloody right to wear that habit! That is a symbol of a life you do not adhere to. It’s all just a dress-up game for you!”

    Now, all that aside, I think it is really healthy that modern-day Christians are looking for something by way of “community” which they (sadly) do not find in ordinary parish life. I think experimental Christian communities are a great idea. But why do they use the term “monastic”? In every case I have known, they do not represent a “new monasticism” because they don’t represent “monasticism” at all! And I feel violated by their use of “our” word. They are out there representing themselves “monastics” and dragging true monasticism down – even short circuiting some true monastic vocations!

    Call themselves “Christian communities” and I would wholeheartedly support them, but they have no right to claim “monasticism”. Or, better yet, let them become Oblates of established Religious Orders (because that is what most of their rules and life-styles amount to). And that would give them a link to a monastic stability which they could well use.

    You know, I DO try to be charitable and generous, but it’s hard when you see light-weight games being played with your own life-vowed commitments. I always want to ask: “Why did you want to start a NEW community when there are dozens already available right in front of you?” and that’s when I get sinfully suspicious about motives

    Forgive me.

  43. No forgiveness needed—I found it a measured and clear comment.

    See, a little history often supplies what is wanting; the distinction between Religious Orders and Christian Communities is a very helpful one.

  44. adhunt says:

    I also found the comments well put. I think I inadvertantly got myself in the position of defending Emergent “monasticism” when really all I was trying to do was explain why they felt the desire to identify with monasticism.

    I agree, traditional monasticism requires a depth of commitment that many/most “new monastic” communities do not have.

  45. brian m says:

    We can blame Dietrich Bonhoeffer for coining the term:

    “…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

    This is from a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich. Obviously, Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to a lot of “emergent” Christians, so their borrowing of his term is unsurprising.

    That said, Dorothy Day was a Benedictine oblate, and encouraged this state for many Catholic Workers; I wonder if the possibility of oblateship is complicated for some “new monastic” types because many of them are from evangelical Protestant backgrounds, and they might not think a connection to a Catholic order would work out for them.

  46. brian m says:

    Here is another decent article on the movement for anyone who might like some more background:


  47. Speaking of Bonhoeffer, his Life Together is an interesting further description of what he was really thinking about. IIRC, the system described there was used at least briefly in the underground seminary of the Confessing Church in which he taught. I haven’t read it in years but remember that when a Lutheran I found both it and his little book on the Psalms very inspiring.

    Too, the citation from the letter interfaces with his notion of “religionless” Christianity which is interesting but does not stand the test of time.

  48. Lyngine says:

    “I agree, traditional monasticism requires a depth of commitment that many/most “new monastic” communities do not have.”

    I would be very cautious about judging depth of commitment from afar. Members of some of these new communities choose to live in the most impoverished and dangerous parts of the inner city and share their goods and lives with those who come to their door. I live in Philadelphia and have driven through these neighborhoods—and there are few who would willing choose to live there, much less open their door to a stranger. How do you judge depth of commitment to the vow of poverty when you compare this against a traditional monastic community set in a fairly idyllic rural setting where one lives a life of moderate physical comfort and relative safety?

    I don’t disagree with the misuse of the term “monastic” to describe these newer expressions of Christian life. However, I am disturbed by the quick willingness that I’ve seen in several postings to 1) idealize traditional expressions of religious life and 2) automatically presume to judge the level of commitment and authenticity of others.

  49. John Robison says:

    @Lyngine, I think you have hit some of this right on the head.

    “Emergent” is a mostly Evangelical phenomenon, as such it has a very particular shape. Maybe another lable needs to be slapped on the rest of us?

  50. John Robison says:

    Whoops I meant brian m, not Lygine.

  51. brian m says:

    Well, for my part, I think Lyngine is right on the money when it comes to matters of commitment. I know a few veterans of the Simple Way in New Kensington and Camden House in Camden, NJ, and the hospitality they offered was the furthest thing from a “lightweight game.”

  52. Christopher says:

    Again, what I am seeing is a tendency to pit “lifestyles” against one another rather than see them as all part of building up the Body. Without knowing any “new monastics,” I cannot say anything of their commitment and whether or not they are related to “old monasticism” or something entirely different. I do know that I wouldn’t want to see us lose our “old monastics”. Our monastic orders have often been prophetic with regard to hospitality; our loss of the Benedictines at the Reformation was a great loss. They may have been corrupt in some cases, but without them the Church-State did not have another voice that might say “no”. One of the reasons I am attached to Benedictine patterns is because I was treated as a human being by Benedictines monks in way I had not experienced in the larger Church.

    Maybe it is because I’m an oblate that I’m troubled by this? Or maybe it’s also because my own relationship falls somewhere in the cracks as well–our vows to one another were after all the Benedictine vows and we are not married in the eyes of the Church?

    Communities are not means. Human beings are never means. It is precisely in community and with brothers or sisters as it were that real spiritual growth happens and within which vows are taken. My elder is a Benedictine sister who lives alone, but her vows are taken within the context of the greater Church and Benedictine communities. Communities are precisely the place in which we will face our less than pretty parts. A cenobitic commitment is different than a eremitic commitment in this regard. The latter still has to face all the unpretty parts even out in the cave or forest. But he or she is still never not a part of the community. The eremitic life is dangerous in part precisely because it can lead to a go-it-alone mentality that sets itself over and against the community. Yet the real hermit is one who is often most hospitable to comers, is most protective of the community. I think of Abba Antony or Daniel Stylites.

    I’m not a monk, but a partnered layman, and take that seriously as a vocation. Monks (mostly women in my case) remind me that my life too is about single-heartedness precisely in living in my workaday world. That my commitment to daily work, family life, parish life are just as arduous and just as much potentially a path of spiritual growth and awareness as is that of the monk in a monastery. The lay path requires as much attention as the monastic path, and while the paths are distinct, the paths are not wholly unrelated as to set them over against one another. Each is meant to lead us into a life of holiness, to be saints ourselves precisely as fathers and mothers, employees, spouses, etc. Indeed, many monastic teachers tell us that the life in the world is more difficult because of distractions.

    I think it not entirely correct to set out monastic and layperson as the proper place of distinction. Most monastics are laypersons. The proper distinction is in vocation, particularly lifestyle. One makes vows of a particular sort, the other vows of another sort.

    Monastics, in my opinion, are of supreme importance in reminding us to take seriously our path as persons living life in the world to not live life as if we are “of” the world. Monasticism can become a problem when a sense of superiority sets in, as it sometimes has in our long history, and then the vocations, rather than building up one another, tend to tear one another down.


    I disagree. I too went through a long period of discernment, and part of that discernment was precisely whether or not a particular order (Dominican or Benedictine) and the life/vows required and then a particular abbey and its brothers was the community to which I was called. The vowed life happens within the context of a particular religious community and religious order and more vitally the Church Greater.

    Fr. John-Julian’s distinctions are helpful.

  53. Christopher says:

    I would add, again, maybe because of the liminal places within which my life falls in the discussion, that in our time married life seems to have gotten a sense of superiority that drowns out the much smaller voice of our relatively few religious and monastics, many of whom I have found to be more generous toward my own lifestyle.

  54. I think it not entirely correct to set out monastic and layperson as the proper place of distinction. Most monastics are laypersons. The proper distinction is in vocation, particularly lifestyle. One makes vows of a particular sort, the other vows of another sort.

    This is a very helpful point, Christopher. I realize the fact that I wasn’t noticing it is due to an unconscious scheme that considers monastics as on a step higher, somewhere between laypeople and clergy. I know that’s not right, but I sometimes find it lurking in my assumptions… It seems like we need a good discussion that encompasses 1) a proper and legitimate sense of hierarchy in the church and 2) the relation of vocations within that. That is, there is a hierarchy in Scripture and in the Western Church of laity, deacons, priests, and bishops. What we haven’t discussed recently is for what purposes these orders exist and how this discussion of vocation both does and does not subsist within them.

  55. bls says:


    I disagree. I too went through a long period of discernment, and part of that discernment was precisely whether or not a particular order (Dominican or Benedictine) and the life/vows required and then a particular abbey and its brothers was the community to which I was called. The vowed life happens within the context of a particular religious community and religious order and more vitally the Church Greater.

    Yes, Christopher – that’s a “part” of discernment. And that’s all – since if one Community is not a fit, a person continues to look elsewhere to answer the call they hear.

    IOW, a person is not “called to a Community” – as you stated above – but to the monastic life.

  56. bls says:

    I’d also like to add that I certainly wasn’t speaking of “human beings as means” – as Christopher implies above. I never said anything like that at all.

    I was speaking about the idealization of “Community” – an abstract concept, and one that seems more and more meaningless to me at this point. We hear the word “Community” bandied about endlessly in the Episcopal Church – all the while human beings are treated like mere objects to be manipulated and moralized at.

    There’s no such thing as “Community”; there are only people in relationships. And yes: I’m quite bitter about this, in fact, because the way our Church and its “leaders” often act towards its own members and congregations – all the while blathering on about “Community” – makes me sick.

    I’m in the middle of being healed, thanks to God – but I’m still full of rage.

  57. It became clear to M and I at the first seminary that we attending—the reason the kept incessantly talking about “community” was because they didn’t have it… You don’t keep talking about something that actually exists.

    Ditto for the abuse of the term in the Episcopal Church…

  58. Christopher says:


    It seems I misunderstood what you were saying about community–I apologize. I agree with you completely that the word “community” is bandied about and misused quite a lot these days. But I refuse to let schmalzy, simplistic, or shallow uses of the term by “missional” Churchy types be the final say on the word. Community is an important Christian word, which is at heart rooted in Holy Communion and that Divine Society, the Holy Trinity. And like Derek, I had similar experiences in seminary. Folks blather on and on about community, but there is no fellow-feeling, no sense of service toward one another or of prayer together. No sense that how we treat one another is vital.

    I also agree with you that one discerns a call to monastic/religious life, and that discernment requires testing if a particular community is fit to the call. The same testing, I might add, that should occur when one is considering marriage to a particular person.

    I’ve offered some further reflections at my blog re: orders, lifestyles, and vocations.

  59. bls says:

    I apologize, too, Christopher. As you can see, I’m finding it difficult to let go of my rage.

    Sorry again.

  60. rick allen says:

    “It seems like we need a good discussion that encompasses 1) a proper and legitimate sense of hierarchy in the church and 2) the relation of vocations within that.”

    I think what was said above was correct, that though we tend to think of a three-fold church membership–laity, religious, clergy–in fact the clergy/laity distinction is separate and in some sense independent of the distinction between the “religious” and the “secular” (terms whose ordinary meanings have nothing to do with the way they are used here, but I assume those in this discussion understand the distinction).

    Having said that, and admitted an entire ignorance of the “new forms of monasticism,” I think it is appropriate to keep in mind the distinctive characteristic that keeps the “religious” category so small, i.e., that chastity requirement that, applied to the single, means celibacy.

    The old monastic orders were (and are) of course segregated by sex. Life in the most intimate aspects of the community is lived in the absence of the opposite sex, for pretty obvious reasons. When applied to communities including both men and women, “commune” still has overtones, for most people, of some sort of free-wheeling sex.

    Given the general lack of enthusiasm in the modern world for celibacy, it is understandable that those unwilling to live in such a state (I don’t criticise; I don’t) to still look for a way of living which captures some of the apparent serentiy of monastic life. Whether, though, that is really possible in the sometimes rough straits of marriage, and with children in tow, to whom we have a relationship that cannot in any sense be “equalized,” seems a real question.

    In other words, there may be some wisdom in the tradition’s understanding of marriage as a very separate vocation from the monastic. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to brige them (in some sense I would see St. Thomas More’s “Utopia” as a proposal for a middle way). But they do carry a “utopian” sense, in the bad sense of the word.

  61. Christopher says:

    At least in Celtic tradition, double monasteries were quite common, Whitby, for example, so it isn’t completely true that separation of the sexes has been as complete as it became as Roman obedience came to more and more observed as the singular “Western” tradition. I might add that the Rule’s chapter on bed matters seems to cast an eye toward concern not just for the different, but for the same sex, a concern that is implied elsewhere as in St Cassian.

    At least in the East, when the Orthodox speak out of their own categories, rather than the Western 7 or 2, monasticism has often been seen as sacramental, even sacrament, in its own right.

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