New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today’s Church
By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008
Review by Carl McColman
“We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” says Alasdair Macintyre at the conclusion of After Virtue, his withering critique of the ethical vacuum in postmodern society. And while the triumphalist voices on the hard Catholic right might loudly proclaim that this mantle belongs to Benedict XVI, for many others the current pope is too awash in the church’s scandals and intransigent polity to be relevant too far beyond the adulation of the super-faithful. Meanwhile, perhaps the “new Benedict” is not a person so much as a movement—which is what makes the “new monasticism” or neo-monasticism such an interesting phenomenon.
At first blush, the new monasticism seems quite different indeed from the old variety. New monastics often (but not always) are married, wear no distinctive clothes, take no vows, and are just as likely to worship in non-Catholic as Catholic churches. The poster child for the new monastic movement is Shane Claiborne, a skinny tall white guy with dreadlocks and a goofy laugh who hailed from the hills of Tennessee but then moved to Philadelphia where he became an activist for homeless persons and a founding member of the Simple Way, a collective of folks who describe themselves as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.” In other words, the new monasticism is all about relationships; it’s not about leaving the world so much as immersing more fully into it, heading not out into the desert or the wilderness (although presumably that’s possible) but rather finding monastic stability in “the abandoned places of Empire” like the inner cities or neighborhoods that have been blighted by crackhouses or toxic waste dumps.
If the old monasticism focused on liturgy, the new monasticism focuses on service — as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says in this book, “Less services, more service.” The old monasticism strove for holiness through moral purity, while the new variety is more likely to stress hospitality as the means to a holy life. Both old and new emphasize contemplation, but the old too often saw the contemplative life as “higher” than the active life (see The Cloud of Unknowing) while the new monasticism insists that contemplation only works as a partner to action.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove may not have quite the star power of Shane Claiborne, but he is an important voice and a key player in the new monastic movement, and this book serves as an introduction both to him and to the communities he represents. He begins by tapping in to the near universal sense, not only that something is wrong with our culture, but that conventional Christian religion seems to have lost its way as well. As a young evangelical from the south, Wilson-Hartgrove had a clear path into life as an ordinary conservative Christian — and with an appointment as a congressional page for Strom Thurmond, a career in politics seemed likely. But a chance encounter with a homeless person in Washington, DC opened up for him a new way of looking at what it means to follow Jesus. Then, when some friends introduced Wilson-Hartgrove to Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall in place for him. Intentional community, service to the poor, peacemaking, and finding stability in a particular place (for Wilson-Hartgrove, a challenged neighborhood in Durham, NC) became some of the key markers of the life he was called to live. Because community is at the center of this model for discipleship, and because monastics have always been at the heart of the Christian quest for lived community, naturally this “thing” would become known as the new monasticism.
Along with telling his own story, the author considers a few of the “12 Marks of a New Monasticism,” a list of defining characteristics of this movement that was drawn up at a gathering of new monastics and interested friends in the summer of 2004 (for a more in-depth examination of the “12 Marks” see Schools for Conversion, edited by Wilson-Hartgrove’s community): finding stability in the abandoned places of empire, embracing new models of economic prosperity through sharing and trust, embracing peace on both macro and micro levels, and remain connected to, and engaged with, conventional church communities. Indeed, part of the charm and the power of the argument of this book is the author’s insistence that new monasticism need not be for everybody — it is one of many possible ways of living one’s call as a follower of Jesus, but as such it is a particularly creative and hopeful witness for our time. Since new monasticism is committed to reconciliation, it does not seek to replace or compete with conventional forms of religion, but rather envisions a creative partnership between the parish and the monastery.
As someone with a particular interest in contemplative practice, I wish that the literature of the new monastic movement paid more attention to contemplative practice. Contemplation is included in the “Twelve Marks” — #12 calls for “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.” Considering that so many Christians have never even heard of contemplative prayer, even this is, to my way of seeing, a huge step forward. Since I am not currently part of the new monastic movement, I cannot really speak to what contemplative practice looks like within such an environment. I hope others, on the inside, will address this particular mark in future writings.