New Models for New Monastic Spirituality

There seems to be an emerging consensus about what contemporary Monastic spirituality and practices are going to look like in the coming years. They are coming out of experience not theory. They are being practiced by contemporary monastic and spiritual leaders such as Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and James Finely of the Center for Action and Contemplation. They are a combination of traditional Monastic practices that have existed for centuries and modern religious practices that have been practiced and studied and practiced for some 50 years by such spiritual gurus as Anthony de Mello, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton.

The contemporary monastic whether they be cloistered or dispersed, will be actively endeavored in a combination of spiritual activity which includes; The Monastic Office of Psalms, Contemplative or Centering Prayer, Spiritual Body Practices such as Yoga or Walking Meditation, and Service to Community and the Marginalized. These are the new “spiritual pillars” of contemporary Monastic Spirituality.

For some, these practices seem far from new, for others they seem a break from the traditional past of historical monastic life many times based on a medieval concept of what we think Monks did forever and an age. (Gregorian Chant, Flowing Habits, total Isolation, Severe Aesthetic Practices, Tonsures, etc). But there is a growing consensus that modern Monastic Practices are not so much about externals as they are a deeper integration of Mind, Body, and Soul. They include a combination of the ancient and the new. They are about balance and personal integration.

When I was a child I watched a television movie in the 70’s Called “The Catholics”. (Surely on PBS) Also in other circles named “Conflict” Set in Ireland where the Catholic Church has been superseded by a repressive order with new ideas, such as ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and a relaxation on Eucharistic Theology to include protestant groups. When a group of Irish monks rebel, by returning to the traditional Latin Mass, a Vatican official (played by Martin Sheen) a youthful and robust modern monk who meditates, wears no habit, only a black turtleneck sweater, is sent by the Superior to bring order once more. It is a hefty discussion about faith, doubt, the role of dogma and doctrine, but also asks many questions about what the Church might look like in the future (after Vatican IV in the film).

As a child I was fascinated by the role of Martin Sheen in this movie. I was only fourteen years old when the film came out. I was probably middle school or high school when I saw it on Television. I had gone through these changes that everyone was talking about in the movie. Vatican II was in full swing. Paul VI was Pope and John XXIII was loved and remembered dearly by nearly everyone Catholic and Non Catholic. I remember the day the Mass changed from latin to english and the altar was turned around with very little notice or preparation of the faithful. It was at midweek when we were at a funeral of one of my father’s co workers. Suddenly everything was the “other” way around. In the years to come I lived through the different english translations of the “new” mass. Originally lifted from the Episcopal BCP 1929 Prayerbook translation of the Eucharist. Latter retranslated by ICEL, The International Commission on English Language. Then came Folk Masses with Guitars and modern instruments. Many of these masses were prohibited in church and were celebrated in makeshift places like school halls and gymnasiums. These were definitely turbulent times. Meanwhile nuns, priests and missionaries were dying at the hands of extremist regimes in Latin America.

But what struck me most about the movie was not the discussion on liturgy or eucharistic theology, or politics in church, but the Priest/Monk who had totally adapted his style of life and living to the needs of the present age. He was an Urban Monk, who cared about social justice and change (labeled a socialist/comunist by the traditional Irish Monks), and practiced contemporary forms of prayer as a regular part of his religious practices. Would I ever become like him? I asked myself deep down. Is this what the Church needs?

New Monasticism in this day and age, which is no longer so so new, is paving the way for a new form of spiritual integration. It is NOT about throwing out the old, but about including the new-ancient, and seeks spiritual integrity which no longer sees a conflict between body, mind, and soul, but an Integration of all three.

By means of this new vision fasting is seen from a perspective of healthy and sustainable eating practices. Food for both the body and the soul. Meditation or Contemplative Prayer is integrated into the daily prayer practices of the Monastic man or woman. The recitation or singing of Psalms (The Monastic Office or The Opus Dei) by observing the sacred hours of the day Morning, Noon, Afternoon Evening, and Night are integrated into one’s daily rhythm wherever one may be. Physical Exercise that respects body movement such as Yoga or Walking Meditation is added to the weekly life and schedule of the New Monastic. These are the “new” yet not so new Models for a New Monastic Spirituality.

The final piece of Monastic Spiritual Practices is Service to the Community. The Monastic lives not in isolation, even if one is cloistered or living in a hermitage alone. We are deeply tied to the world out of love and service to each other. Jesus washing the Feet of His disciples on Holy Thursday, what some traditions called the Eighth Sacrament is the image of monastic service to the world in Hospitality and Servant Ministry. Every Monastic should have some form of external expression of this internal virtue of humility and service to neighbor and to the LEAST of these. It is not about What is done precisely but How it is done. Serving a meal to the hungry without hospitality just become a mechanical labor. But when done out of love and service to neighbor we are transformed as are those whom we serve.

For some all of this seems obvious. But for others this is flying in the face of ancient tradition and practice. I like to see it as a contemporary movement to weave or braid together three of the long standing monastic traditions of the West (Celtic, Franciscan and Benedictine). New Monastic living expresses bits and pieces of all three of these traditions and also includes both East and West Christianity. They include use of Icons, Prayer beads, Labyrinths, Oriental Prayer forms even postures. They make up a beautiful woven tapestry of contemporary monastic living which can be practiced both in Cloister, in Community, and at the Domus Ecclesiae, the Domestic or Home Monastery of the dispersed monastic.

I share this publicly because not many are speaking openly about what the Models are for Monastic living in 2020 and beyond. There are tensions of old versus new, ancient versus modern. Traditionalist monastic settings continue to pop up here and there and some are thriving. But there is also a great clamor for those who want to be IN but not OF the world as modern day monastics living with integrity. There are those who want to embrace an open attitude of inclusion, dialogue, balance, which invites. and integrates. These two models will continue to live side by side for many years to come. But Both….will be part of the monastic panorama in the future, even if they feel uncomfortable with each other.

At the end of the film, the Prior of the conservative Irish community isolated from the world accepts the new, but with fear and trembling, humbly bowing before the Divine and begging guidance and wisdom in their new endeavors alongside his rebel Monks, many who are deeply conflicted by the new practices. The modern priest/monk flies away in a helicopter never seen before by the Monks on the Island, since for centuries the only transportation was on foot and by boat. We never see what becomes of either the Modern Monk nor the Traditional Isolated Irish Community. But Something in the tone of the film says they ALL will be well.

Pax. Bene. Vincent+