Coming back from the desert

Spirituality and Pastoral Care

Spirituality and Pastoral Care

No longer are such centres of solitude and critical reflection located only in the remote regions. The last decade has seen the growth of urban contemplatives, communities of Christian women and men who seek to live lives of prayer and silence within the urban scene. It was a movement predicted over twenty-five years ago by the Jesuit Jean Daniélou:

‘The Constantinian phase in Christian history is coming to an end … The flight into the desert was a revolutionary innovation, lasting from the 4th century when St Antony inaugurated the age of monks; the withdrawal of the contemplatives from a world in which Christianity was compromised into the solitudes where they might keep alive the faith of the martyrs. That age is passing — St Antony is coming back from his desert.’

Today’s quest is rather for the nourishment of the contemplative life in the midst of the modern urban deserts and wastes.

— Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care

Ken Leech wrote this passage in the late 1980s, meaning that the Daniélou quote goes back to the early 1960s or before — in other words, long before the crisis in religious vocations and the rapidly shrinking numbers of monks and nuns in Europe and America. So this isn’t about the decline of traditional monasticism so much as a celebration of what we now call, following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “new monasticism” — the spirituality of Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis, of Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It’s not about consecration, or celibacy, or habits and cloisters; nor does it have much to do with an elaborate Daily Office that takes hours each day to pray. In many ways, Antony’s return from the desert to the wastelands of the city marks a profound return to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those fourth century hermits and holy ones who lived in a time before there were such a thing as Christian monasteries. 

Make no mistake: Neither Leech nor Daniélou (nor I) are predicting or calling for the demise of traditional monasticism. But having said that, I think we can safely say that the age of the cloister, with an abbey in every community filled to the brim with men of all ages, is irreversibly behind us, for social and economic as well as spiritual reasons. The cloister of the future will exist more like a regional resource center, where a small number of creative individuals with an authentic call to a celibate contemplative life will continue to pray for the world, live as a silent witness, and provide hospitality and spiritual direction to those who come calling.

But for the rest of us? We are “members of the human race,” to use Merton’s memorable phrase, and our cloister is not only the world at large, but especially the cities, the suburbs, the concrete deserts and gated wastelands where we already live. We are the spiritual equivalent of the French resistance: called to be contemplative subversives (or subversive contemplatives?) in a world that neither knows us, recognizes us, or particularly wants what we have to offer. I say this not to judge that world, but rather to be realistic. We are not in it for getting our own reality show. Our job is to love people, one person at a time, and to cultivate enough interior silence right where we are so that our presence becomes a respite from the ever-increasing din, and for those few who manage to “hear” our silence, we can function as living icons of the mystery, inviting them — and everyone — into a restful place where anything might be possible.

So what does this have to do with a rule of life, or a daily prayer practice, a commitment to reciting the Psalms or lectio divina or centering prayer or any other kind of formal practice? I think the only real answer here is “it depends.” Each individual, or family, or small community, will have to work out its own way of daily nurturing intimacy with God and the cultivation of contemplative silence. Back to Merton: “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” There is no program, no method, no required liturgy. We are simply called into the presence of God, in silence and solitude, in the midst of the city. How do we respond to this call? One breath at a time.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
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.

  • MaryAnn Fry

    Thank you. I feel like I have found a lost friend in you and in this peace. It explains why I live as I do. Thank you.

  • Lillian Lewis and Steve Shimek

    Thanks Carl. Yes. You and Leech are on. One additional gift such “unmonastic-monastics” have is discernment. So many people seeking the way, but need a person of discernment to point. Lillian

  • Mike MacDonald

    Thank you (as always), Carl. One sentence really stood out for me, because it is almost exactly what Henri Nouwen said to me in a personal conversation one morning in the early 1980s in Cuernavaca, Mexico, just before we met with the “radical” bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo. (I was blessed to be the translator in their conversation.) This is your (almost his) line: “Our job is to love people, one person at a time, and to cultivate enough interior silence right where we are so that our presence becomes a respite from the ever-increasing din, and for those few who manage to “hear” our silence, we can function as living icons of the mystery, inviting them — and everyone — into a restful place where anything might be possible.” I am grateful.

  • Mark Nielsen

    Your closing put me in mind of that Van Morrison album title: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Not that “flying solo” is recommended in a too-individualistic culture,… But yes, your realistic appraisal is sobering, if not a bit depressing (at least for an undisciplined extrovert like me, who finds it hard to fly in the face of the culture that rushes onward and suffers compulsions and shallowness at every turn…. Yes, i can judge, tho glad you are not.)

    • Carl McColman

      You’re right, Mark, it’s not about “flying solo” at all! Community (which includes responsibility) is so essential. And I would go so far as to say that all the disciplines I mentioned — lectio, the Office, disciplined silent prayer — are worthy pursuits in the quest to offer a free response to God’s lavish love. My point is simply that there is no magic formula, no silver bullet, to one-size-fits-all procedure that we must undergo in order to “be” urban contemplatives. What is required of us is community and solitude, silence and service, abandonment to the sacrament of the present moment, and a willingness to keep listening for the still small voice/sound of sheer silence, breath by breath. Thich Nhat Hanh said “peace is every step.” Likewise: contemplation is every step.

  • John Barton

    I guess I am confused by a “new monasticism” that is part of the world. Monasticism, traditional or new, seems to me to need an element of renunciation of worldly pursuits, which I agree could take place in the city as well as the desert. But just having a rule of life, a daily prayer practice and loving people does not make one a monastic. ALL Christians should be doing those things and ALL churches should be communities that nurture those pursuits. Monasticism, however, goes beyond this standard to create communities that, as Bonhoeffer said, have a “complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.” I also agree with him that “it is time to gather people together to do this …’ Maybe it’s just semantics and my own inability to grasp the concept.

    • Carl McColman

      I certainly understand your confusion. And yes, much of it is semantics. At least one monk at the very traditional monastery where I work and pray feels that you can’t be a monastic unless you are monos — i.e., alone, celibate. Perhaps the new monastics are more properly called new mendicants? But I still agree with Leech and Danielou: St Antony is coming back from the desert. I’m not persuaded that the old paradigm of “renouncing the world” even works in our age.

      My sense is that most new monastics follow this idea, to paraphrase the Desert Fathers: if we renounce the world, then whose feet shall we wash? If you look at the closest thing to a “new monastic rule” — the Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism — it’s pretty clear that the new monastics are committed to a Bonhoefferian lack of compromise, only they express it in a different way than do traditional monastics. Do we need to renounce the world in order to renounce sin and the devil? I think most new monastics would say not necessarily.

      • John Barton

        Maybe we all need to be monastics?

  • Mark

    Carl: You mention one of my favorite saints, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1935 when the Confessing Church was forced underground, Bonhoeffer created an underground seminary in Finkenwalde, built on monastic principles of prayer, common worship, everyday work, and Christian service. His book, “Life Together,” is an eloquent meditation on the nature of Christian community and perhaps points the way to a new kind of monasticism.

    • Carl McColman

      Mark, it was in one of Bonhoeffer’s letters (to his brother, I think) that he first spelled out his idea of a “new monasticism” based on the Sermon on the Mount. But just about everyone I know who takes intentional Christian community seriously (whether in its traditional or neo-monastic guises) considers Life Together to be a classic book on the subject.

  • Leanne Hunt

    Thank you so much for this enlightening post, Carl. You addressed many of the questions I had about new monasticism and I like what you said about not renouncing the world. Please write more on this subject.