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.