Plain as the Nose

Sometimes, things are so obvious that your humble servant here simply misses them altogether. This is one of the gifts of contemplative practice: when I slow down long enough to actually remind myself that I am a breathing organism who continues to live and love solely by the grace of God, among other things I’m giving my brain a chance to catch up with my normal speed-of-life distracted self.

This morning, just as my wife and I were chanting the words by which we begin our prayer every morning (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), I got this little insight that, once I thought about it, seemed so utterly obvious that I really felt like a dolt for not having noticed it before.

This is it: monasteries are house churches.

I’ve spent the last few months, at least since I’ve been reading neo-monastic writers like Shane Claiborne and the Rutba Folks, and probably on some level for as long as I’ve been friends with Jasmin and Mike Morrell, mulling over the tensions between three forms of Christian community: the institutional parish (what most people at least in the USA equate with “church”), the traditional monastery (which has been the guardian of mysticism for the past 1500 years), and the plethora of alternative or emergent church models, including house churches, neo-monastic communities like Rutba House or the 24-7 Boiler Rooms, base communities, Catholic Worker Houses, parachurch gatherings like the Shalem Institute or Contemplative Outreach, meetups, online communities, “theology on tap” get-togethers, and radically inclusive ministries like the Food Pantry founded by Sara Miles in San Francisco.

I think I’ve made the mistake, up until this morning, of seeing traditional monasticism as somehow more part of the “establishment” as epitomized by the church institutional, since most Catholic and Anglican monasteries are themselves so, well, institutionalized. The monastery house in Conyers certainly looks institutional enough: designed to be home for up to 100 monks, it’s huge, massive, solid, and looks like it would survive a direct nuclear assault. It’s built to last: “upon this rock” and all that. But while traditional monasteries have by necessity been enmeshed in all the good and bad bits of the institutional church, I was missing an important fact: monasteries are churches and houses. They represent radical schools for love and conversion, and at their best are petrie dishes for mystical prayer. Sure, a group of Catholic celibates under vows looks a lot different from a 21st-century house church inspired by folks like Frank Viola and Gene Edwards, but as a community they are still a house church. Which means that a typical Benedictine or Trappist monastery, despite centuries of tradition and unswerving loyalty to Rome, has more in common with a group of young idealistic evangelicals who read Brian McLaren and worship in somebody’s living room, than either group has with your local brick-and-mortar just-do-it-on-Sunday church.

I know. Some of you reading this will think this is as plain as the nose on your face, as the cliché goes. But for me it’s a light bulb going off. And it’s one of the cool coily fluorescent light bulbs that use less energy and last a long time.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Maritzia

    I wouldn’t beat yourself up about that. I think it is a distinction that most people miss, even some monastics. When I was discerning religious life, though, I realized just how separate many monasteries I visited were from the institutional church. I started out on my journey casting a jaundiced eye on the more alternative communities out there, but over time, I have come to realize that anyone can live a monastic existence. It is more about practices and community than it is about buildings and dogma.

    One of my fondest hopes is to someday found (or discover if it already exists) some type of pagan monasticism. A place where we can live, work, and worship together as a community. It’s harder, of course, to find enough like minded pagans to even begin such a journey, but I still dream.

  • Carl McColman

    If I had found it — or felt confident about creating it — I might still be a pagan today! As it is, I’m very interested in Celtic-themed house church communities like the Celtic Christian Church. I think Celtic Christianity represents the brightest hope for integrating the best elements of paganism and Christian mysticism.

    Good luck with your search. Let me know what you find.

  • zoecarnate

    Wow, Carl. I’ve never quite thought of it that way before. I mean, I think many of our friends both in house church and monastic settings would hasten to point out the plethora of distinctions, but I think, for tonight, I’ll let the similarities hang together. We really are one Body, no matter how different we are in understanding and vocation. I am praying that the winds of the Spirit bring a significant paradigm shift in all of us, so we’ll have eyes to see and appreciate our full unity amid diversity.

  • Carl McColman

    I know, Mike – we would have talked about it if either of us had thought of it! :-) But this goes a long way to explaining the affinity you and I have found in each other, as well as helping me to make sense of the relationship between traditional monasticism, “base communities” like the Catholic Worker or Sojourners, neo-monasticism, the house church movement, and independent Catholic or quasi-Catholic groups like the Celtic Christian Church or even the Order of Christ-Sophia. You’re right, there are plenty of differences and distinctions. But I’m beginning to think they are differences in degree rather than kind, particularly when placing all of these “alternative” Christian communities on a continuum where the shared commonality is choosing to move away from the imperial/institutional model of church.

    To be continued!

  • sean daly

    first timer in coming across your blog. I am an afrocelt [born in & living in Africa of Irish parents].. am post evangelic, post charismatic, post roman catholic, post christian … but embrace life as a Jesusian; making a life in the way of Jesus. Is’nt it wonderful to be part of this invitation by the Wild Goose to engage with the trinity in engaging in the diversity of Life in this postmodern world .. & to discover an incarnational communitas emerging out of all kinds of cracks & crevices…