New Monasticism

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.

Following the Ancient Path Today
Three Wonderful New Julian of Norwich Books
The Silences of the Lamb (of God)
Do Contemplatives Need Bible Software?


  1. Phil Soucheray says:

    I agree that the “new monasticism” is more a movement than represented in any one person. I believe that what Christ invites us to is the exploration of our spiritual longing and love such that it inspires us to appropriate temporal action. This is achieved well in the context of new monasticism. One prime example of it that I know of has been around for more than 20 years.

    The Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis is a presence in the distressed north side and its mission, conducted within a monastic experience, is to be a loving presence in the neighborhood. And in keeping with the founding charism of Sts. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, they strive to “Live Jesus.”

    To me, this exemplifies what it means to evangelize. This group of women, supported by their spiritual community and loving lay people, make Jesus Christ known and loved in our time by choosing to live out the Gospel in every moment. And they invite others to share in this combined spiritual/temporal journey.

    As you note, Carl, both the old and the new monasticism emphasize contemplation. But, to its credit, the new monasticism focuses the discoveries of the inward contemplation into outward action, which Christ himself modeled and calls for.

    God’s blessings on you and your other readers. And thanks for this forum.

  2. csbradsen says:

    How wonderful to stumble into your blog and writings today! I look forward to the publishing of your new Big Book and to reading more here in the future.

    I’m part of an ecumenical, intentional community in Tucson called The Restoration Project. We’ve been influenced by the New Monastic spirit as well as the Catholic Worker movement, and our various religious backgrounds. We host a mid-week Quaker silent worship and regularly write, sing, garden, dance, paint together as creative responses to stay open to Spirit. Perhaps not all are considered traditional contemplative practices, but we are finding them life-giving.

    Peace to you. And blessings on your work.

  3. Carl, I want to preface my remarks by saying that I don’t know a whole lot about new monasticism, but that I’m curious about it and would probably benefit by reading more about it, beginning with Wilson-Hartgrove’s book. But in the meantime…

    I’ve been hearing about new monasticism for a while now and that moniker has always gotten under my skin. Since reading your post this morning I’ve been reflecting on my irritation, and I think I know what causes it.

    “New,” of course, assumes the existence of the “old,” and can (I say “can” and not “does”) lead to the conclusion that the new supersedes the old, that it is somehow better than or a corrective to the old. The description of new monasticism you give above, Carl, sounds like a beautiful, much-needed, vibrant form of Christian witness, and I applaud those who try to live it out. But is it just me or do I detect an implied reproach against the “old” monasticism for not being involved enough in the world?

    (I ask not so much if reproach is coming from you, Carl, but more if you detect it in what you know and have read about the movement.)

    Traditional monastic life has had its wrong turns; it sometimes gets bogged down by over-emphasis on liturgy and can be susceptible to insularity. But traditional forms of monasticism necessarily (it seems to me) involve going and being apart from the world in order to dwell more closely at the roots — of the world and of the human condition. I think there is a value in that — in “old” monasticism — that is different than (I almost wrote “beyond”; I admit I’m biased) the value that can be quantified more easily in social engagement. Both are necessary in the church and in the world. But they are different. And I guess I’m concerned that the name “new monasticism” is really an appropriation of a title that is inaccurate to describe the content of the movement, however wonderful it is.


  4. The New does not mean a rejection of the Old. One is a new expression, but that does not negate the Old. They both can learn from the other and there may be many points of crossover.

  5. Dervish405, I agree that the old is not negated by the new, and I only hope that within the new monasticism movement there is no negation of what their name would suggest they are building on.


  6. John Marquez identifies reservations that I feel, as well, when it comes to calling something “new.” I wish to raise additional reservations, too.

    Numeric principles, such as “Twelve Marks,” provide an emerging monastic consciousness sharpened focus as its members manifest the Gospel. However, there is nothing new about any one of these so-called “Marks.” Rather, they represent the spirit of having been called out or set apart ["ekklesia"], which has characterized monastics in every setting since the late-2nd and 3rd Christian centuries.

    Sacrificing self is key to being ekklesia “in the world and for the world,” as David Tracy has repeated often [cf. 'The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism,' Crossroad, 1981]. Being in the world and for the world discerns no conflict between liturgical service to God and serving as God’s hands in and for the world. In brief, there is no conflict between Martha and Mary. Therefore, each of the twelve “Marks” appears in the Rules of Sts. Anthony the Great, Basil the Great, Pachomius/os, and Benedict.

    Local communities may emphasize one or the other: contemplation and hands-on service. However, every monastic community must walk a fine line of service to God and fellow human beings, lest it fail to discern the direction that the Holy Spirit provides.

    What appears to be somewhat “new” in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s 2008 monograph might be the emergence of a monastic Rule in an ecumenical and largely post-modern evangelical setting. I recognize such a Rule as having appeared in the Philadelphia area, thanks to the labors of Shane and Jonathan, along with many others.

    But a Rule, as it were, is not a collection of “Marks” on a page. Instead, a Rule is a path. A monastic rule is a path from a delusion that we monks do anything ingenue, leading toward an ancient legacy of Christian monastics whose service with ours help us to transform suffering however we meet it. Anything less than an ancient Christian path amounts to a heresy of modernism called many things, but I call it progressive-ism. A progressive mantra is “new.” I suggest that others carefully discern every progressive mantra.

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  8. Either which way, there is something in this……it has got my mind buzzing.

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