The Flaw of Neo-Monasticism

Yesterday I was talking with one of the Cistercian monks with whom I work at the Abbey Store. I mentioned the concept of neo-monasticism to him and he said he had never heard of it. So I told him it was a movement toward new forms of intentional Christian communities, popular especially with young evangelicals. He interrupted me. “Are they celibate?” He asked abruptly. I said that I believed most neo-monastic groups neither required nor forbade celibacy. “Then they’re not really monastics,” he replied.

He went on to explain that a core characteristic of monasticism has always been the quality of “monos,” or being alone, i.e. single, before God. He thought it was lovely that new forms of Christian community are emerging, and pointed out that there has been a long-standing confusion between the monastic and contemplative vocations. Perhaps in their zeal to create new communities of prayer, the so-called neo-monastics were simply being a bit over-enthusiastic by identifying themselves as such.

I asked him, “If these communities are not properly called monastic, then what are they?” He replied, “just call them communities, that’s good enough.”

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Life is a Pilgrimage — So Embrace the Journey
How to Keep a Holy Lent


  1. Peasant: says:

    “Just call them communities” — well said. I’ve recently begun (started as a Lenten practice) praying ‘the Hours’ and studying the Rule of Benedict to figure out how it can inform my own non-monastic life. I have spent hours playing with a kind of interior ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of a puzzle to try to understand if there is a way for me to incorporate Benedictine Oblation at a nearby abbey into my life. How might associating myself with a monastic community animate the Gospel in my day to day life? My connection with the monastery would be fairly minimal. I would not be a monastic. I am a married man working and moving in the world. I just didn’t feel any real energy to associate myself with the good monks. But I do feel real energy calling me to a rule of life. The more I thought about it, I realized that I really do have critical communities in which I move and with whose other members I have been called by God to ‘work out my salvation with fear and trembling’ (as I think Paul styles it). Those communities are my family, the colleagues with whom I work 40+ hours each and every week, and my parish community with whom I share sacramental life, etc. And it has been becoming clearer and clearer to me how Benedictine ideas and disciplines (and promises of stability, obedience, and conversion) can animate and inform my very real calling — which is finally non-monastic. This is maybe the ‘neo-monastic’ energy that we’re seeing around us. We are learning to take what the monastic communities have to teach us and use it to align our lives more closely with the Good News. But we are understanding that we are most definitely NOT monastics. I guess that’s the ‘neo-’ part! So here I am setting off in a ‘neo-’ direction: living as a Benedictine in a non-Benedictine, non-monastic complex of interlocking communities in the world. I have struggled for a very long time to feel ‘in my own skin’ as I try to live in my genuine communities under the discipline of a special kind of wisdom and experience built up over 1500 years or so by men and women who have lived a very different sort of life than mine. I neither can nor want to be a ‘pretend monk’. Yuck. It doesn’t fit my reality and it feels like wearing a mask. But I’ve always felt the urge and attraction toward what monastics have to contribute. And now that I’ve finished trying to figure out how to associate myself with a monastic community, I feel so much better. “Just call them communities, that’s good enough.” Amen.

  2. I wonder if what the monk in the shop said applies to oblates and lay associates and such like too – can they in any meaningful way said to be inspired by the monastic way of life ?
    Surely every spirituality grows out of the life-style and life- circumstances of a person.
    So, then, you would have to live in a monastery for monasticism to work for you.
    There’s nothing sadder than folk thinking that there monks in the middle of the big city.
    Your job, your partner, friends, leisure activities etc. is going to determine your spirituality, if you see what I mean,

  3. Whether Benedictine Oblates, Lay-Cistercians, or even Third Order Franciscans, it is important to remember that such lay communities are not monks (or in the Franciscan case, friars) and I don’t know that any of them think of themselves as such. Certainly the Lay-Cistercian group of which I am a novice never uses terms like “monks” or “monastic” to define itself. Rather, we are “associated with” the monastery, which is really to say that the monastery is associated with us, since they were the ones who were there first! I do think the neo-monastic and “new friars” movements are drawing on the rich heritage of the Rule of St. Benedict, or the teachings of St. Francis, or whatever; and it is a good and holy thing for Christians with secular vocations to incorporate such wisdom into our daily life. But my conversation with the monk yesterday was so helpful. He wasn’t judgmental or critical at all, just very matter of fact in pointing out an obvious etymological issue. Don’t call something a duck if it lacks an essential quality of duckness. And “neo-duck” doesn’t really cut it either.

  4. I think what the monk said was perfect. It doesn’t sound like he believed that “communities” were in any way less noble or spiritually strenuous. It was just the more accurate description.

    I think it is amazing that you get to work at the monastery in their store! What a great blessing and opportunity for you.

  5. Yes, it’s my dream job. :-)

  6. zoecarnate says:

    What a fascinating point, Carl–but I wonder if the similarities outweigh the etymological differences. How would you respond to this, What Is New Monasticism?

  7. Mike, thanks for the link. That’s an excellent overview of the neo-monastic movement.

    As you surmise, the issue of my post is strictly etymological, and it is not my intent to try to drive a wedge between neo-monastic communities and those who have inspired them. But if a central part of the definition of a monk is his solitude, to the point of vowed celibacy, then those who by the grace and liberty of God live out a non-single vocation are, simply, not monks. They could be contemplatives, mystics, communitarians, radical Christians, or any of a dozen other cool and holy possibilities: but they just aren’t monks, and therefore their community is not properly called a monastery (whether “neo” or not). I know that the monk with whom I spoke meant no judgment or “put down,” he was just sharing his perspective on the heart of what constitutes monasticism. And for that, I think those who call themselves neo-monastics might be interested in considering alternative or at least additional ways of self-description.

    The main reason I felt led to write this post is because I love the idea that we need to understand the difference between contemplative and monastic vocation, and that it really is okay for a Christian community to be known simply as a Christian community. No other fancy name required! I think both of those statements are powerful, and well worth considering.

  8. The phrase “new monasticism” may be technically incorrect. But it is very useful for those within protestantism (especially evangelicalism). “Communities” isn’t a helpful description because it applies to everyone. The primary difference with neo-monasticism (which I prefer to the phrase “new monasticism”) is that it centers on praxis in proximity, and is often bound by a rule. It would be more accurate to refer to such communities as “religious orders” but such a phrase lacks the capacity to inspire or motivate.

  9. No dispute with anything you’re saying, Mark. One of the challenges I face as a writer on mysticism is trying to tease out how the meaning of the very words “mystic” and “mystical” have shifted and evolved over time. Words like “secular” and “meditation” and “evangelical” have similar unfolding definitions. I think “neo-monasticism” represents a similar word with a dynamic meaning, one that is shifting from the focus on communal solitude to a focus on the common rule. It’s not my intention to pick a fight here: neo-monasticism, by any other name, remains a lovely witness to radical discipleship in our time.

  10. If you are going to call these new communities monastic then that term just becomes as general and vague as the term community.
    There is a whole range of elements that go to make up ‘monastic’, one of which is celibacy; another of which is a life long commitment to a specific community.
    If any of these elements are missing then you don’t have monastic.
    Interesting topic,

  11. I think we need to realise that the monk was only speaking from one perspective of monasticism – a Roman version. In the Celtic areas of the UK we had historically a different flavour, and a very different version of the monastic life.

    It had contemplation, community etc, but the monastery was the base or centre of the community from whiuch the monks went outwards and engaged with the surrounding people. It was not about total solitude. I appreciate both models, but let us not lose the valuable elements of both and get caught up in labels. The Celtic monastics were missional and not in favour of seperation. The monastery was a centre fro learning, spritual growth, comtemplation, rather like how Paul operated .

  12. zoecarnate says:

    Good point, Andrew. Plus, if we take the ‘monad’ aspect to its logical etymological conclusion, its harkening back to a time before monks even formed communities, right? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the original desert fathers and mothers fled to the deserts as individuals, hermits. In some ways–strictly linguistically speaking–’monastic’ is just as awkward a fit for people who live, work, and pray *together* as it is for groups of mostly post-evangelicals forming ad hoc communities around Rules of Life. In other words, language is messy and flowing!

    That said, I respect the integrity of the “old monastic brand” and wouldn’t want to rush into describing a community that way too hasty. “Company of mystics” is also an apt descriptor, but not without its own difficulties too…

  13. I would say that the Celtic and Roman versions of monasticism had much more in common than different.
    To describe them as very different is, I think, a popular misconception.
    Check your facts,

  14. Bar, I agree with you. Before the Cistercian reform in 1098, it was common for married people to be part of a monastic community — but they were basically serfs, really not unlike the role that I play at the monastery where I work today! Basically they were the ‘hired hands.’ The “real” monks were the celibates who devoted their lives to the choir. Part of the Cistercian reform was to require even the “hired guns” to be celibate, which led to the concept of “lay brothers” which was basically a second-class monk — a distinction which remained in effect, incidentally, until Vatican II.

    The take-away: the much ballyhooed notion that Celtic monasteries were somehow different/better than “Roman” ones because they included married folks really is just another instance of Celtic romanticism.

  15. On this topic, I’ve been thinking about the Community of Aidan and Hilda, from Lindisfarne:

    They take 3 vows, as they describe below:

    In common with many communities within Christianity we have three vows. These are SIMPLICITY, CHASTITY, and OBEDIENCE which we understand as principles, not rules. SIMPLICITY means the willingness to be poor or rich for God according to his direction. We resist the temptations to be greedy or possessive, and we will not manipulate people or creation for our own ends. We are bold to use all we have for God without fear of possible poverty. CHASTITY means accepting and giving to God our whole being including our sexuality. We love all people as Christ commands, but the specific emotions and intimacy of sexual relations are expressed only in married life. Some will be given a gift of marriage, others a gift of celibacy. Both are to be equally respected and rejoiced in. We respect every other person as belonging to God, and we are available to them with generosity and openness. OBEDIENCE is the joyful abandonment of ourselves to God. The root of obedience is in attentive listening to God, because the longing of our hearts is to obey him. We honor those whom God has placed in authority over us, and we seek to recognize and respect the gifts, roles and authority of those who work alongside us in the community of the church.

    So, while they don’t call themselves monks (but rather informed by monastic and desert spirituality), they do think of vows in a similar (and contextualized) way.

  16. I understand the need for etymological distinction, but the problem hardly began with “new monasticism,” as you’ve pointed out. I’m sure your monk friend knows his history, so I won’t bore you, but cenobitic monastics considered themselves “monks” right? So really, after the desert fathers (Antony and co), the word seemed suitable to be used for other expressions of monasticism. That’s the trick part of words. In Kierkegaard’s understanding of language (which I really enjoy), words have a partly given meaning, and a meaning which evolves over time when appropriated correctly. Could this not be one of the latter instances?Otherwise, everyone after, say Pachomius, was not properly a monk.

  17. Sorry, just wanted to add a link where I unpack a couple paragraphs on the above idea. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  18. I suppose monos, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To my Cistercian friend, what makes a monk is celibacy, whether he is an eremitical or cenobitical monk. But, despite his misgivings, I think we can all agree that the neo-monastic genie is out of the bottle. Onward with evolutionary meaning.

  19. It’s intersting to me that those (of us, like me) who are incorporating neo-monastic stuff don’t use the ‘friar’ langage as much as we use ‘monk’.

    Maybe because ‘neo-monastic’ sounds cooler than ‘neo-friartastic’? :-)

  20. I assume the word monos is related in some way to the Greek word monakhos, which has usually been translated in terms of celibacy. Some scholars, though, translate it in terms of “standing alone” in one’s faith (even in the face of parental opposition, as in Jesus’ saying about “hating your mother and father”). And of course a person can stand firm in his or her faith and embody this kind of monakhos while in community.

    It’s interesting that the first thought the monk had was about what the Neo-Monastics do with their genitals. Even in the contemplative world of the monastery, Roman Catholicism is such a sex-obsessed religion!

  21. I don’t think obsession with sex is just a Catholic issue. You don’t have to search very hard to find Protestants who are just as patriarchal, legalistic, and/or obsessed. In my day I’ve met Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who also struck me as having sex/religious issues. For that matter, I know more than a few Pagans who are sex-obsessed, but they operate under the notion that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”!

  22. Agreed, Carl!

  23. Friends, this is far too bad these kinds of attitudes prevail in the modern century, and by far, regardless of the way you wish to define it, there appears to be a huge religious pomposity expressed by those who consider themselves “elite” among christians as “monks”. In fact, there is a growing, dynamic and deeply spiritual movement in this so-called “New Monasticism”, and in fact that is just why we call it that – New – because it is non-traditonal, and has very little to do with your old traditions. Fine if you wish to segregate yourselfes away from the world as a vocation, but God’s will and purpose entails far more things for most people! The new monastic movement is but another expression of the “contemplative movement” and if one wants to refer to themlselves as “new monastics” or even “monks” in their new definition of the world, the big old Catholic church lays no claim or ownership over the word. I suggest you open your perspectives a bit, if you intend to remain a spiritual entity in the church, and understand that monasticism has many, many dimensions, and even includes the protestant/ecumenical realm more now than ever.

  24. Dylan, thanks for sharing your opinion, but in all honesty I am surprised at how defensive and almost belligerent a tone you strike, in response to one man’s off-the-cuff remark. If your words are indicative of the fruits of the new monasticism, then I’ll stick with the old, thank you very much. While the monks at the monastery where I work are sinners and therefore imperfect just like the rest of us, I am continually amazed and impressed by how hard they work at truly living the gospel, day in and day out. It’s a far cry from the elitism you project upon them.

  25. Neo-Monasticism is even beginning to emerge in the Pagan community, believe it or not. The most fully formed so far being the Church of Asphodel’s Order of Horae. They have *rules* about sexuality, that it can only be used for spiritual purposes rather than celibacy per se.
    I find it interesting that sex ends up being the decisive issue- you’re right that Christians are not the only ones hung up on it. I think for a new monastics the issue should not be so black and white
    Also keep in mind, IIRC, the reasons for the celibacy of monks and priests wasn’t just
    spiritual, but economic, if the first (& second) son died, the second or third son who went into the religious life inherited, thus the church inherited.

  26. I see the point your friend makes about “Mono’s” being a key part of monasticism. And I looked it up in an etymological dictionary just to make sure it was the actual source of the word and not a coincidence. However, we should be cautious about assuming something to be universal to a concept just because of the etymology of the English word for it. After all, though the etymologies of words should be related to the concepts they denote, our language is full of examples to remind us that the two are still not indistinct.

    Yes, things in a term’s etymology do indeed provide strong suggestive evidence – just not conclusive.

    How else does this apply to Monasticism? The Hebrew term for monk is “nazir”. Some Old Testament translators translate the term to “nazirite” – but modern Hebrew-speakers know, “nazir” means monk – and “nazira” means nun for that matter. Also, many of the founders of Eastern monasticism saw their movement as a continuation of the Old Testament “nazirim”.

    Who was the first “nazir” in the Bible who’s name we know? Sampson. And yes, it was a scandal and disappointment when he wanted to marry (the first of many times he did what he wasn’t supposed to do) – but the problem wasn’t that he wanted to marry – rather that the woman he has his eyes on wasn’t an Israelite.

    Now, I am not saying that being celibate isn’t an inherent part of monasticism or that your Cistercian friend is wrong in saying that neomonastics should pick a better term for themselves – just that etymology alone does not prove that point conclusively.

    On the other side of the augment – one should ask what the reason is why Belmondo’s wish to identify with monasticism so desperately as to work that into the name they pick for themselves.

  27. Oh – I would like to apologize for the auto-correct spell-checker – it repeatedly replaced “neomonastics” with Belmondo – and at one point I failed to correct it.

Leave a Comment