Tell us about New Monasticism, Richard.
New Monasticism is a diverse movement. It seeks to take the positive aspects of the monastic tradition from the past and apply them to life today. The intention is to become more like Jesus. It involves committing ourselves to living with people for a time that we don’t choose - in essence, trying to make a new family from strangers!
This means that commitment, honesty and openness are important values of intentional communities.
What drew you to get involved in New Monasticism?
I was really excited by the idea of recreating the close community of the early church, as described in Acts 2. And, as a single person, I was attracted by the opportunity for intimacy through being involved closely in the lives of a group of Christians, some of whom were very different to myself.
Some people might be suspicious of the whole idea of monasticism. Isn’t it all about withdrawing from the world and becoming introspective?
Well, New Monasticism is just one expression of “community”, but it’s certainly not how every Christian has to do it.
Also, there’s quite a range of approaches and emphases in traditional monasticism, with some orders known for outward actions, and some known for more of an inward focus on disciplines.
I think it’s good to examine the values of a particular community and compare it against the Bible. In a way, New Monasticism can be about “cherrypicking” practices that are helpful from the monastic tradition. It also then involves leaving behind what you might think is unbiblical or not suitable for your life context.
The invasive requirements of some traditional monastic communities (celibacy, poverty and submission) can be worked out in a more relaxed way in New Monasticism if that’s what you want. However, living in community does mean that we need to submit to one another, and some residential communities do require the members to share all or some of their possessions. This doesn’t mean “poverty” in the sense of missing out on our basic needs, but it does mean living simply and under the authority of the community leadership.
Some of the practices of these intentional communities do seem radical to our modern individualistic mindsets, because they are! But in giving these things up, such as time, money, or complete freedom over your own choices, the community becomes really meaningful and valuable.
And what was your experience?
About four years ago, I joined an Anglican New Monastic group of about thirty Christians for an agreed period of ten months. It was multi-denominational, including a number of Roman Catholics, as well as those who thought more liberally on matters of sexuality. I found it to be a personal challenge in how to love people who saw things differently to me.
There were both single people and married couples in the community. But singleness was valued very highly. Indeed, one person was actually preparing to take vows of celibacy, which was really respected by the community.
My group had a focus on exploring unity across a diverse group of Christians. Although it was made up of those in their 20s and 30s, there was great diversity in ethnicity, nationality, marital status and church background. Some members of the community were residential and they oversaw the community life. But I continued to live at my home as a “dispersed member”. In this, I committed to one weekly meeting and a monthly Saturday morning together. I also submitted myself to various rules of living and I met regularly with a spiritual director to reflect on my experience.
Alongside this group, I continued to attend my local Anglican church. I found it quite a stretch to continue meaningful involvement with my local church while committing to the community, as well as holding down a job.
Of course, there might be a danger for some people in throwing yourself wholeheartedly into the community and withdrawing from your local church. That’s why it’s important to talk it through with a spiritual director, or with good Christian friends, or perhaps with a leader in your local church.
Overall, I had a very positive experience and, two years on, I’m still working through the impact on my life! Even though we seldom see each other, we still have a WhatsApp group, which helps us check in on each other and preserve some of the intimacy we had together.
What surprised you in your experience?
The significance of simple commitment! I think it was important, both for myself and for the community, that we each honoured our commitment to attend regularly. For me, this has been a lasting lesson: there is great value in simply coming along, week after week, however we feel at the time. Whether I was tired from work or found myself reluctant to talk and share with others, we continued to come along to the meetings and be vulnerable with one another. In time, I came to realise the deep significance of commitment.
Did you share with your church what you were doing?
I attend an Anglican church, which has a contemporary style. So, there was a strong contrast between that and the more traditional practices in the New Monastic community. By chance, or God’s providence, one other person from my church happened to have independently got involved in the same community as me. So, it was helpful to already know someone from my church who could help bridge the differences between community and regular Christian life.
Having said that, my church was actually very interested and supportive of my involvement in the community. They continued to want to hear about how it was going throughout my experience.
What were the lasting spiritual impacts that living in this community had upon you?
It really changed the way that I saw prayer. The community modelled contemplative prayer and times of listening to God, rather than just going straight to our wish lists.
Secondly, when there was a rupture in relationships, there were opportunities on every retreat to practise reconciliation with God and with others. I found the practice of coming before God and seeking reconciliation with Him to be very powerful. In hindsight, I wonder if I should have made more of the opportunities to seek reconciliation with other members of the community when I experienced differences with them.
How was it to end your time in the community and return to “normal life”?
Our commitment was for ten months, and I sometimes think it would have been interesting to see where it would have gone if we had continued for longer. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter, as it took time to get to know and trust one another. It was hard to maintain the practices of always showing up and being really authentic with others when returning to regular life. I continue to feel the pull to slip back into old habits. I think part of what sustained my commitment and authenticity throughout the programme were the community values. But part of it was also the regular meeting with a spiritual director – this maintained my motivation to keep pressing into the helpful practices that didn’t always come naturally.
Do you see yourself getting involved with an intentional community like this again in the future?
Yes, I would certainly consider this. Next time, I might even consider living in residence rather than as a dispersed member. However, these kinds of communities are much talked about but still quite rare in practice. Even if you’re residential in a community house, you can still go out to a regular job and live an otherwise “normal” life.
What would you say to someone who was also same-sex attracted and considering getting involved in a committed community like this?
I know that some people within TFT have been exploring where to find deeper experiences of church community.
For me, my time in community was an antidote to loneliness. I was actually too busy at the time to notice the impact on my sense of belonging! But, in hindsight, I can see it was a powerful time of being known and appreciated.
As well as belonging to the whole community, we sometimes met in small groups. I was sometimes able to share about my own same-sex attractions, and felt safe to do so.
My group had a number of Christians with liberal views on sexuality, as well as others like myself with an orthodox understanding. For some people that might be unhelpful. But for me, it was a chance for both sides to listen respectfully to one another. I also had the challenge of working through how to love someone with whom I had a disagreement.
The level of commitment and placing yourself under the authority of others does mean that New Monasticism is not for every Christian. The time together, and the expectation of openness, can feel quite intensive, particularly for someone who is used to living alone. Choosing to belong as a “dispersed member” does mean that you get a bit more space to yourself.
Having said that, you don’t have to commit to such a long period as I did. You could experiment by going on a silent retreat for just a weekend. I would suggest thinking about what in the monastic practices particularly interests you and then to try it out.
Thanks for telling us all about your experience of New Monasticism, Richard
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.