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.