Monasticism is a religious system or way of life in which adherents voluntarily withdraw from the world and live in austerity under pious obligations. The monks, nuns, and hermits of the Middle Ages were the epitome of such dedication. The New Monasticism is a relatively recent movement (hence, “new”) in which devotees leave their wonted lifestyles to live communally, in poorer, simpler conditions. Rather than seeking to “get ahead,” those involved in the New Monasticism seek to identify more with the underprivileged.
Today, in the West, most traditional monks (and nuns) are Catholic. The New Monasticism is aimed more at Protestants and evangelicals, calling them to spurn worldliness and live out the “gospel mandates,” which they define as caring for the poor and sharing the love of Christ. New Monastic communities emphasize communal life (expressed in a variety of ways, depending on the community), prayer and contemplation, hospitality, and practical engagement of the poor.
The origin of the New Monastic movement is difficult to pinpoint. Some communities have been in existence since the 1970s and ’80s. Other communities, such as the Simple Way in Philadelphia, formed in the mid-1990s. The desire of these communities is not to establish a church but to simply “be” the church in a community.
The terminology of “New Monasticism” was developed by Jonathan Wilson in his 1998 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World. Wilson was, in turn, building on ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said in 1935, “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.” Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue voiced a longing for “another . . . St. Benedict.” By this he meant someone in the present age who would lead a renewal of morality and civility through community. Wilson identified with that longing in his own book and outlined a vision to carry it forward.
The middle months of 2004 became a defining moment for the movement, when a number of existing communities and academics gathered in Durham, North Carolina. The conclave drew up the “twelve marks” of New Monasticism:
1. Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire” [at the margins of society, usually in depressed, urban areas]
2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us
3. Hospitality to the stranger
4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation
5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church
6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate
7. Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community
8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children
9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life
10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
12. Commitment to a disciplined, contemplative life
Much of what the New Monasticism upholds is good and profitable—caring for the poor, showing hospitality, and peacemaking are all biblical virtues. However, the ecumenical nature of the movement and its downplaying of doctrine are causes for concern. New Monasticist groups feel as comfortable attending a Catholic Mass as they do a Pentecostal singspiration.
The New Monasticism is still monasticism at its root. Like the old monasticism, it calls for a general retreat from the world and an adherence to a set of man-made rules. And, like the old monasticism, the emphasis on rule-keeping can lead to a legalistic, works-based view of salvation. The Great Commission calls us to “go and make disciples” of all nations, baptizing and teaching as we go. The messengers of the gospel should be careful of what they teach; they should not replace God’s rule with Benedict’s, Francis’s, or anyone else’s. And we cannot ignore sound doctrine for the sake of a perceived unity.