New monks are revolutionaries?

merton Stephanie Simon of The Los Angeles Times scored a coup: She interviewed young evangelicals who left their previous lives to live as monastics. Her story was rich with detail and nuance. But I wonder if she missed a major story.

Simon introduced readers
to five young adults, plus their children, who left their comfortable suburban homes for a spartan, communal one. As you may imagine, Simon described in great detail the travails and triumphs of such a radical life change. Here is how she depicted the decision by one of the families, the Porrett’s, to leave the house:

“I’m never alone. I never have time to think,” [Phyllis Porrett] said. “There’s no time to grow.”

Communal life was supposed to have taught her to resolve conflicts. Instead, Phyllis said, she found herself obsessing about every grievance: how many nights in a row she made dinner, or who had scratched her coffee table.

Far from learning to live like Christ, she’d realized just how far she was from that ideal. “I’m not a very gracious person,” Phyllis said. “I don’t love people the way God does.”

In August, she and Kyle announced that they could not keep their yearlong commitment to the house. They had learned they could adopt their foster children, and they wanted to start fresh in their own home that fall.

Yet why did these five adults decide to form a religious community? To my mind, Simon’s answer is inadequate:

The couples came to monasticism out of frustration, a sense that modern Christianity had grown soft and self-centered.

Jeromy, 29, and Debbie, 30, worshiped at an evangelical church with a bouncy six-piece band, but they thought the sermons empty; they went more out of habit than conviction. Kyle, 30, and Phyllis, 25, had stopped going to church because their lives were too hectic.

The two couples and Jake, 29, sought a more fulfilling path in the Bible. They found themselves drawn to accounts of how Peter organized the early church into communities of believers. Members sold all they owned, shared necessities in common, and “continuing daily with one accord . . . did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”

In other words, the couples were dissatisfied with their religion and sought to imitate the early Christians. Maybe this is true, but it sounds like something’s missing. Dissatisfaction with one’s religion at some point is practically a universal sentiment. Few believers, however, abandon their former lives to live like monks.

Simon mentions earlier in the story that the couples are part of “the New Monastic movement sweeping white, suburban evangelicals.” But she makes it sound like a fad rather than a revolutionary social movement. Indeed, the movement describes itself in radical terms:

Throughout the history of the church, monastic movements have arisen during times of rapid social change. When the minority movement that Jesus started was flooded by converts after Constantine, desert mothers and fathers went into their cells to discern a new way of life. When Europe collapsed into the Dark Ages, Benedictines carved out spaces for community and new life. When the advent of a cash economy revolutionized European culture, St. Francis started an order of beggars to proclaim the divine economy of providence. Over the past two thousand years, monasticism has helped the church remember who we are.

Ours is a time of rapid social change. We are post-modern, post-Cold War, post-9/11, even post-Christian. All signs point to change, and we know things aren’t what they used to be. But we hardly know who we are. Amidst wars and rumors of war, our global identity crisis threatens to consume us.

This description casts the adults’ decision to form a religious community in a wholly new light. These people are more than a bunch of well-meaning Christians. They are spiritual revolutionaries, ones who seek to create alternative communities in our age of globalization. They seek mysticism and community, not materialism and individualism; prayer and alms, not money and fame; the way of Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa, not that of Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer.

Now perhaps the young evangelicals depicted in this story don’t see their lives in those terms. But at the least, Simon should have probed their motives more.

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  • Asinus Gravis

    I’m quite suspicious about the accuracy of the history of the monastic movement, the desert fathers, etc. that is offered here. I think the reporter was too credulous in accepting the historical account.

    I have considerable difficulty connecting up what these people are described as doing with the gospel that Jesus taught and preached. What bothers me most is that the “monastic” or “communal” life described here comes across as “all about me.” The gospels depict Jesus stuggling to teach his disciples that the kingdom of God is NOT “all about me.” It is about enthusiasticly embracing the mission to meet the need of others–the poor, the sick, the aliens, the homeless, etc.

    Historically, the monastic movement essentially pulled out of the world of ordinary people in order to protect the purity of the monastic group. It rejected the mission of transforming their society, working to overcome the injustice, the corruption, and the evils throughout their society. It is still true that in some cases they did some beneficial things as byproducts.

  • Paul Maurice Martin

    That would be great to see a growing evangelical appreciation of the values in monasticism. I’m afraid I’ve seen a great deal of misunderstanding of Christianity’s venerable contemplative traditions on some evangelical blogs.

  • FW Ken

    #1 – The reason for “leaving the world” was partly moral purity (St. Benedict fled Rome for that reason) but also to establish a community where contemplative prayer is a possibility. That contemplative prayer transforms the world. My own time spent with monks convinced me that those people in prayer hold the world together for the rest of us.

    All of that aside, this article fails, in my opinion on several fronts. The problem stems, I think, from so much attention to the novelty of the situation and the problems the people are experiencing. I don’t see much analysis of the the source of those problems.

    First, “monk” derives from the Greek “monos”, a single person. Years ago, the Benedictines at Pecos, NM established St. David’s in Arizona as a community of monks and families. As I was told it, they quickly found that the rhythms of monastic life didn’t work for families. When I was through their a couple of years ago, they did have some older couples in the community, but it was mostly single people.

    Second, the article shows a dearth of communal prayer, but fails to hook it to the difficulties they were having. The Rule of St. Benedict specifies prayer at 2am, then 7 times during the day. It also specifies a minimum of conversation, which certainly makes communal life smoother. :-)

    The main problem with the article, however, lies in the lack of context even in the contemporary milieu. Friends, we did this back in the 70s and before. Think: the Bruderhof, Reba Place, Epis. Church of the Redeemer,Houston (now the Community of Celebration near Pittsburgh). Some friends were involved in a community near Minneapolis that began in the 40s (sorry, I can’t remember the name). Another friend was involved in a group of communities called something like Dayspring. All of this is out there, but you wouldn’t know it from the article. These people just seem to be on their own, and no wonder they failed. But that’s just missing from the story.

  • Jerry

    Does this sound at least vaguely similar to this story:

    …families were united in wanting a better life for themselves and their children, one grounded in love, compassion and tolerance. The idea was to create a model for a world seemingly at war with itself.

    The rules were simple: Take a vow of poverty… make a commitment to be as compassionate as possible toward each other, to the animals and to the land. Abortion and premarital sex were frowned upon.

    It wasn’t until later…that debt, disillusionment and rancor over the unequal distribution of goods and labor shattered the dream…

    The story about the quintessential hippie commune, the Farm, illustrates is that a historical theme in American culture where idealistic people try to build a utopian community. It goes back to the earliest settlements and continues, with generational variations, today. I would have liked some historical perspective either agreeing with my idea or even offering another viewpoint.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I’m with FW Ken. While the sentiments and the goals were laudable, this effort comes across as an attempt to have Gethsemane or the Charter House depicted in “Into Great Silence” if not on the cheap then at a significant discount. It’s analogous to the way that some “emerging church” types seem to think that you can import “symbols” and other elements from what TMatt calls “ancient Churches” without actually important the theology and liturgy.

    Having said that, let me reiterate that I respect what they were trying to do. Why not start with something simpler such as living closer together? The traditional idea of a parish meant that, at least in theory, you lived in proximity of those with whom you worshiped on Sundays and feast days. Now, it’s possible to live on the other side of the Beltway from the people in the same pew.

  • Maureen

    Monks moved out into the desert not so much to run away from the world, as to roll up the rug and push back the furniture. Out in the desert they had room to train and room to fight both themselves and spiritual dangers. They were moving both towards God and towards confrontations with demons; and the desert monks were very clear about this.

    The idea of taking kids with you into the desert would have been appalling, unless the kids were darned near grown up. It was a rigorous life, and not for the weak. Later monastic groups did take in “oblates” who were very young, following the Biblical example of Samuel being given to the temple, and there have even been modern cases when a child attended a boarding school run by a convent and the mother, now a widow, joined said convent. But kids generally didn’t join the monastery in order to live _with_ their parents; families gave up the kids. (And the kid got a good apprenticeship and a solid future career, always good for the hardworking medieval family with many mouths to feed.)

    Some monastic groups did include both spouses, but… they didn’t live in the same cell and they sure didn’t sleep together. Part of the point was also to discard all human attachments so as to be freer for the duty at hand and more ready to die.

    (It is possible, of course, that they have read too many Sister Fidelma mysteries and are trying to be Celtic. In which case, good luck, but you’ll notice that Fidelma-type orders are not around. Usually one wants to follow traditions that work over long periods, and survive to leave solid evidence.)

    So if these folks want to say that they’re a religious community or imitating the early Christians or whatever, that’s fine. But imitating monks and nuns, consecrated virgins and widows, or even canons and canonesses? No. Not at all. Not even trying.

  • FW Ken

    Actually, the Rule of St. Benedict does allow for the presence of boys in the monastery, but these would generally have been orphans. I’ve talked with Benedictines who consider the tradition of monastic schools to be in that tradition.

  • Mattk


    Your criticism of monasticism is something of an echo or the words of St Basil, one of the most imortant figures in the history of Monasticism. He criticized some hermits living alone saying, “Who’s feet are you going to wash, living all alone out there in the desert?” Like all human beings, monks can be self-centered. Monasticism is, like matrimony, a discipline that helps one overcome self-centerdness. I am not sure the married people in the article realized that when they tried to live a monstic life. I’m sure part of their difficulty was attempting to do “double duty”.

  • Julia

    Anybody thinking about living life in common, whether with family or as a single, should first read “In This House of Brede.” It was made into a movie starring that woman who wore leather pants in The Avengers as the Mother Abbess. For even the best of people, it’s difficult.

  • Lucy

    One thing I noticed in the article is that these young people seem to be very much out on their own. If they are under any kind of authority, it’s not mentioned in the article. The only other person quoted doesn’t seem to have any relationship to these “monastics.” (They’re not really monastics anyway. Monks (and nuns) are not married, don’t bring their children, etc. Do these people think they just reinvented monasticism? I totally understand the idea of living in community and often families do live close to monastaries to be a part of the monastic life while not actually being able to be monastics.)

    I don’t feel that the article did a very good job of fleshing out these people. Where did they get the idea? What church do they go to and what does their pastor think? They don’t seem to have any counsel or direction on how to live simply in order to minister. There’s also no history of monastisicm (or utopian communal living) to give context to what these people are doing and what they’re trying to accomplish (nor do the young people give any indication in this article that they know of any historical precedent for their situation). Where did the one quote from an author come from? What else did he have to say about this movement? How is he connected to these young people? You’d think an article about supposed monks would ask a Catholic priest for his opinion. One could possibly even ask a real monk (Catholic or Orthodox), since they do exist.

    I’ve read about this “movement” and I think this article barely scratched the surface. There was much more research that needed to be done. It seemed that the author was more fascinated by the people’s difficulty getting along (which is true in any roommate situation and is hardly news) than in how this actually relates to a growing interest among one segment of the Christian church (and long-established practice in other segments of the church).

  • Bruce Tomaso

    A blogger from the University of Southern California’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion (possibly my friend Diane Winston, though I can’t say for sure) found Simon’s story seriously wanting.

    I disagree. I think it was very well-done. It isn’t great on the theological underpinnings of this “new monasticism,” but it’s an interesting, nicely written, admirably researched look into the lives of some folks who are doing something in the religious realm that few of us have done, or even contemplated.

    Personally, I’ll read anything that has Simon’s byline on it — she’s that good. And I’m glad the LA Times let her invest the time and energy in it that she obviously did. With so many papers cutting back so much, that sort of support is becoming, sadly, rare.