July/August 2011 - Vol. 51
The River is Flowing - A New Monasticism
by Andy Freeman
Let justice roll on like a river; righteousness like the never-failing stream! - Amos 5:24Rivers fascinate me. Starting with some secret spring, the river begins its journey from the highlands to the sea. Slowly the force of gravity gives the water a momentum and a movement that builds and builds. Snow melts, rain falls and soon the stream will merge with others -its environment burgeons growth. Subtly the meandering flow will grow and gather pace. Obstacles only add to its creative power. Contours carve curves in the river. Detours zigzag around vast rocks that one day will themselves succumb to the power of erosion or the silent explosion of ice in tiny cracks. Sheer drops simply become beautiful waterfalls. Slowly but surely, the water wends its way always and forever downward. If the spring continues to spit water from the rock, if snow melts and rains fall, then this little river will surely wend its way to the valley, seeking reunion with the sea. The silent spring becomes a pool, the pool becomes a stream, the stream becomes a river, the river becomes a torrent, the torrent becomes a tributary and flows inevitably towards the sea. From humble beginnings, nothing can stand in its way.
Considering what community and discipleship looked liked in 1930s Germany and then envisioning what the church might become, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to a startling conclusion, expressed in a letter to his brother written in 1935:
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 together to do this.Bonhoeffer wrote these words in London, where he lived and ministered from 1933 to 1935, but he had come to the conclusion that God was calling him back to Germany to organize resistance against Hitler. His strategy was to establish a small monastic community of brothers at Finkenwalde where pastors could be trained and the Sermon on the Mount lived out. Bonhoeffer's world was blighted by growing evil and, for those opposed to the rise of the Nazi regime, by oppression. In 1933 the Nazis had insisted that all Protestant churches should come under the control of the Reich and those brave pastors who refused to submit were forced to go underground. In this stark context, Bonhoffer recognized in Christ's Sermon on the Mount a subversive and revolutionary manifesto for countercultural resistance which could he cultivated in “a new form of monasticism.”
What do we believe about what we believe? Are the words of the Gospels, the words of Jesus, simply good teachings -an older version of a life-coaching manual? Something that sounds inspiring or uplifting? Or do we believe that the world will change if we dare to live them out radically?
In its essence, our faith is an unavoidable, powerful, creative and revolutionary force. Starting from the mustard seed of faith planted in the hearts of pilgrims like you and me, the gospel takes root. As we join with others it begins to forge into a stream, moving its way through the world that God still passionately loves. Obstacles don't cause a problem, they only add to its life-growing power - the flow of the Spirit of Jesus gathering power and pace. And so it grows, from stream to river to torrent. It changes everything in its path.
The gospel of Jesus is quite simply a revolution. Can you imagine what it was like hearing those words of Jesus for the first time? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Or hearing the Beatitudes, Jesus' amazing take on the words of the Torah, the law, which he expounded and “fulfilled” from God's perspective?
Most days I have to admit my faith doesn't feel this strong. Most days my faith is a struggle. But, when the Gospels are taken seriously, I'm convinced nothing can be the same. When the words of Jesus are put into practice, lives, communities, nations, the world, will be changed.
Just as gravity pulls the river down, the water inexorably needs to flow, so too the gospel cannot be held back or boxed in. We have not signed up to a safe faith. Instead Jesus came to champion the real meaning of the Word of God, to fulfill it, to start a process of subversion, of revolution, of mutiny against the doctrine of the worldly and to raise the flag of the kingdom of God. A kingdom that is here, a kingdom that knows no end, a kingdom that is coming, a kingdom that means life can never be the same again.
A New Monasticism
In our ever-changing, ever-secularizing postmodern world, where does this gospel take root? What does it have to say to the hundreds of thousands who go under the surgeon's knife because of their unhappiness at their looks? What does it say to the millions of children who starve, while the minority have their fill? What does it say to the nuclear powers, to the media icons, to the millionaire sports stars, or to suicidal teenagers?
Seventy years ago, Bonhoeffer considered our gospel and the revolutionary Life of the Sermon on the Mount and declared that “it is high time men and women banded together to do this” . It is, as he said, “high time.” Our world needs radical disciples of Jesus. Our world needs to be turned on its head. And the good news is that the river of change, although it is small, is flowing.
Desert Revolutionaries and New Monks
Monasticism can mean many things to many people: movements like the Franciscans or the Benedictines, men with funny haircuts in brown tunics, chanted prayers. Some believe that monasticism is irrelevant. For me, it has been part of an awakening in my life and in the lives of some of my friends, a new doorway that God seems to have opened, one that connected with the past but gave guidance for the future.
Nearly all major monastic movements began with a violent reaction to compromised religion. Monasticism at its best has always been a cry for change -in our own hearts, in a compromised church and in society at large. This is the form of radical faith that first drew me to Jesus. Not the Constantinian, top-down religion associated with high status and political power, but the faith of the underdog. Angry faith. Twenty-four-hours-a-day, radical, subversive, all-or-nothing allegiance to Jesus Christ, friend of the poor. It often sounded a bit like punk. Writing an obituary for Joe Strummer, former lead singer of The Clash, Paul Bond spent time highlighting the political and change-making approach of the band.
The Clash was different. Strummer and his writing partner Mick Jones wrote music as a call to arms -an appeal to stand up and be counted in the struggle against oppression. In his first interview with the New Musical Express Strummer stated, “I think people ought to know that we're anti-fascist, anti-violence, anti-racist and we're pro-creative.”
The monastic revolution was sometimes aimed at the church, wondering why God's people were not living out the gospel. Sometimes it was aimed towards society, to re-establish what godly living looked like and to witness to those who were losing touch with God.
Soon after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and with him the whole of the Roman Empire, the church tended to blend with society. Belief and belonging began to be watered down into an all-encompassing religion of the state and at that time some sought to separate themselves, to walk a more “spiritual” life.
The Desert Fathers founded monasticism when they fled to the desert, freaked out by what they saw happening to their church. Instead these radicals looked to model a different, radical style of discipleship, full of sacrifice and continual prayer.
St Patrick, a Celtic missionary, first entered Ireland as a slave and then returned years later as a missionary bishop. Ireland was a land that was pagan where druidism and mythology were deeply woven into society. The monastic lifestyle of Patrick and others like him wasn't so much about rebellion, as there was nothing established to rebel against. But Patrick and his companions exhibited this same lifestyle of prayer, discipleship and sacrifice, taking strong influence from the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. Their missionary endeavors were about the transformation of Ireland and then much of northern Europe. Their faith looked to integrate the world in which they lived, bringing fresh Jesus life to dead or ungodly practices, festivals or places they found. They were committed to the life of Christ bringing light to a dark world. They lived dangerously and differently.
St Francis of Assisi, maybe one of the most famous monks, formed his Franciscan movement out of an increasing frustration with organized religion. His band of followers were regarded as so committed to Jesus that Francis' teaching was often considered unrealistic for most people and too extreme. Even so, both ordinary people and Popes loved them for what they brought. Their vision was simply to follow Christ and to save the church.
St Benedict, founder of the Benedictines, began his journey when he went to the leader of his monastery, threw down the Bible in front of him and asked, 'When are we going to start living this out?' His followers built a movement which still exists today and had a major effect on my hometown of Reading. But when the Benedictines became lax, new and stricter orders arose, such as the Cluniacs (who worked and studied less in order to pray more), the Cistercians (who tried to obey Benedict's original rule more rigorously) and the Carthusians (who aspired to the solitary life and fasted almost perpetually).
We may feel as uncomfortable with some of these extremes as we do with the laxity and compromise that undermined the gospel, but ultimately, to them and to many others, monasticism was a decision to follow Jesus in the most sacrificial and sold-out way that they could. But where do we see models of this life-changing and revolutionary living in contemporary culture? Who are the new monks, the new punks, the new revolutionaries? Perhaps it's even more pertinent to ask what's evolving in your life. What is the process of evolution taking place in your church or your nation?
The doorway that God opened in my life is still opening out. it has taken me into the world of vows, communities, contemplation and mission. In five years it has led me and others from opening some 24-7 prayer rooms to planting Boiler Rooms, communities based around prayer and a monastic way of life. It has been nothing short of a revolution in my life.
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