School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism
Edited by The Rutba House
Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005
Review by Carl McColman
The Rutba House is an intentional Christian community located in Durham, NC; on the back of this book of essays, it is described as a “community of hospitality, peacemaking and discipleship.” It’s also a leading voice in an exciting development within the Christian community: “neo-monasticism.” According to the online essay A Brief History of New Monasticism, neo-monasticism can trace its roots back to a variety of sources, from the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the Taizé Community to the latter-day revivals of Celtic monasticism such as the Northumbria Community. Neo-monasticism is ecumenical, prophetic, rooted in tradition but radically open to the new ways in which the Holy Spirit is calling Christians to create countercultural expressions of communal life in Christ. Like so many other postmodern expressions of the faith, there’s no single “correct” form of neo-monasticism, but there are some recurrent themes. School(s) for Conversion is a collection of essays that seek to answer this question — What is neo-monasticism? — by considering a dozen of these qualities that seem again and again to show up among the many varied communities that are seeking to foster radical discipleship in today’s world.
After a brief preface and introduction, the bulk of this book is given over to the dozen essays, each of which unpacks one of the “marks” that identifies the distinctive identity of new monastic communities. A few “celebrities” of the radical Christian community show up in its pages, most notably Jim Douglass and Shane Claiborne (who is one of the contributors), but for the most part this is not a book about bigshot Christians. The descriptions of the marks are themselves deeply illuminating: neo-monasticism involves “relocation to abandoned places of empire,” “sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us,” “hospitality to the stranger,” “peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution along the lines of Matthew 18,” to recount just four. Like any collection of essays, the various chapters are somewhat uneven and differ considerably in how compelling they are in telling their respective stories; but the overall sense of the book is one of vision and excitement in celebrating a truly hopeful and optimistic vision of how to “do” church in our time. Students, like myself, of the “old monasticism,” particularly the Rule of St. Benedict, will nod knowingly as again and again this largely-Protestant assortment of believers advocate principles that demonstrate a deep continuity between monasticism then and now. This, I believe, is something to be celebrated. In fact, I would hope that members of the venerable monastic communities that have existed for centuries now will read this book, for I think it suggests numerous ways to revision the possibilities of Christian communal formation.
The visionary excitement builds in School(s) for Conversion with each succeeding chapter, and thankfully, the last two chapters are the finest in the book. The eleventh mark, peacemaking, assumes a timely urgency given the madness of our disastrous policy in the Middle East over the past few years; the story of Leah and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s experience in Iraq in the spring of 2003 is particularly gripping (this story also explains how the Rutba House got its name). The peacemaking chapter is a tough act to follow, but the final essay in the book, on the importance of a disciplined contemplative life, is so beautifully written, theologically sound, and poetically brilliant in its call for an integration of the activist and contemplative dimensions of spirituality, that it alone is worth the price of the book (and ought to be read by all Christians, not just those interested in intentional community). Ironically, the author of this essay is none other than Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who is a member of the Rutba House. He draws particularly on the witness of veteran activist/contemplative Jim Douglass and on the unsung devotion of Mother Teresa to eloquently drive home just how essential contemplative spirituality is to those who seek to do justice (and, by extension, how important it is for contemplatives to ground their spirituality in concrete expressions of discipleship).
School(s) for Conversion will probably only appeal to people with an ongoing interest in monasticism, community-building, or radical discipleship. But it would be nice if it had a further reach than that, for given that all Christians are called to be members of one body, the message of this book is relevant to all of us — not just those who live in an explicitly understood community or monastery.