A recent conversation with someone interested in ancient church priorities and practices highlighted one very troubling issue: While Evangelicals give lip service to the importance of being under proper authority, very little life-service is given to the same. We say that we need authority, but we prioritize and practice autonomy. And, although this is a disturbing feature of Evangelicalism as a whole, it is most disturbing when applied to Evangelicals who are seeking to integrate monasticism (or monastic practices / disciplines) into their lives.
In his most recent article in First Things (online), “The New Monasticism Gets Older,” Rev. Dr. Greg Peters asks a poignant question: “Will they grow up?” With this Peters also asks why they “prefer something ‘new’ to something historical.” This is an important set of questions. Upon posing these questions, however, Peters also posits three potential reasons why “growing up” may be difficult for many Evangelical monastics. This brief article will focus upon one of these reasons.
According to Peters’ brief comments, the New Monasticism (and, I add, Evangelicals interested in monastic practices or disciplines) has trouble being under authority (my wording). “Strong authority” is questioned or rejected by many Evangelical Christians, New Monastics among them. In this case, contrary to some contemporary “Christian” trends, Evangelicals want substance without the structure. (Certainly this is much better than the “Liberal” ethos of structure without substance, but it is still highly problematic.)
Whether we like it, structure is essential to substance. Although a number of illustrations might be referenced, let me cite only a few. We cannot have Christ without some of the structures of Christianity. We cannot have Christianity without some of the structures of religion. We cannot have religion without some of the structures of concrete action — ways of life and living. Structure, at least to some degree, is essential to the substance of these ideas. Christ was revealed by God, but was structurally communicated through the church. St. Peter’s first sermon, while Spirit-inspired, was communicated from the context of a community (the 120 disciples gathered in the Upper Room) who were gathered together under Christ’s direct authority. The “structure” of the message was communicated in and through the Christian community that was gathered with, in some way, Peter as titular head. They together contained and communicated the substance of Christ and the “good news” of the gospel.
Similarly, building upon this, Christianity implies proper religion. From Genesis through Revelation God communicates His concern about proper worship. In seeking to provide His covenant people with proper structure, through which the substance of their faith could be properly communicated, He gave them instruction for Tabernacle, Temple, Feasts, Baptism and Eucharist (Communion). God’s covenant people were given “religion” as a vehicle for exercising proper relationship. Stories such as Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and “Strange Fire” clearly communicate the need for structure to communicate substance — and the dangers when appropriate structures are not utilized. Christ has been and must be in some way mediated through a revealed faith (Christianity) that has structural religious components.
Finally, religion, proper religion that is revealed by God, is essential to both the structure and substance of what God wants to communicate. Religion, simply speaking, is little more than how we live our lives. Religion is a way of life. It is, in some small way, an expression of discipleship. One might say that religion is the embodied substance of relationship that is given practical structure. This is most clearly articulated in the New Testament where it says that “true religion” (emphasis mine) is to care for the widows and orphans. Religion, properly exercised, is the hands and the feet of substantive religious belief. It is the behavior of belief.
Christ is communicated, albeit not minimizing the role of the Holy Spirit, through Christianity that is the vessel of substance that is structurally “contained” and religiously communicated through the lives of God’s covenanted people. As such, one needs authority, proper authority, to ensure that the substance has not been in any way compromised. Without proper authority, its essence and expression, the substance of faith cannot be effectively communicated. We must, so to speak, have a bucket to carry the water.
These thoughts, briefly expressed, have direct and dynamic bearing upon Evangelicals who want to embrace monasticism. While we might seek to enhance our walk with God through incorporating the Liturgy of the Hours and other “monastic” practices into our lives, such practices do not make us monastic — either lay or Religious. In fact, a person could pray all of the Hours without having any practical authority in and over h/er life at all. This can be asserted, as well, regarding any spiritual discipline. Disciplines require DISCIPLES seeking discipleship. The disciples were under the discipline of Jesus whom they followed. This was a crucial issue for St. Benedict. For prayer to be effective, truly effective, it must not simply have “two or three gathered together in [Christ’s] name,” but, as well, a catholic community under a functionalauthority. St. Benedict capitalizes upon this in his Rule (RB) and, while encouraging a proper appreciation for the writings of Scripture, the Fathers and the Lives of the Saints, he was quite aware that books could not provide the disciplines a disciple needs. A community under authority and in prayer is needed.
It might be asked, of course, how this differs from any of the churches we see today. As well, because the New Monasticism does encourage some form of community life, how does historic ancient monasticism differ from its modern (contemporary) counterpart? Let me make a few suggestions.
1. Contemporary Evangelical Christian culture does not, practically speaking, generally encourage submission to proper church authority that is both freely chosen and functionally enforced. In short, Evangelical ecclesiology is grossly deficient and, because of this, the exercise of radical discipleship (monasticism) is (at best) compromised. This is most clearly seen in our rank and rabid denominationalism that suggests, as did Job’s friends, “Surely we are the ones, and with us wisdom will die.” We write church with the low “c” of Western culture instead of with the high “C” of biblical revelation. This has led many of us to move from small “c” church to small “c” church with little consideration afforded the big “C” imperative of THE CHURCH that makes valid claims upon us. We have, in short, “spiritualized” the inherent structures of the faith that carries and communicates the substance a Christ-centered relationship that has robust religious expectations. Growth in Christ cannot occur when we are not under a functional authority.
2. As well, “growing up” implies creative movement beyond where one has “grown within.” If Evangelicals will not recognize ancient and established authority, if we are always seeking trend without tradition, we will never be able to “grow up” at all. An example from monasticism itself, Benedictine monasticism in particular, is in order. There is a difference between a monk who lives in community and a hermit who lives alone. Generally speaking, a monk is not allowed to be a hermit until such time as s/he has been stabilized within a community. To move beyond community, to grow up before being grown up, is at best dangerous. Thomas Merton, as one example, was not allowed to be a hermit until he had passed many years in community. This is appropriate to Evangelicals generally and Evangelical monastics in particular. There is no doubt that Evangelicalism encourages an “alone” community — or, more pointedly, an individualistic emphasis upon faith. This is, likely, an extension of our emphasis upon the 16th century “alone[s]” we so ardently embrace. This “alone” emphasis has dynamically and in some ways dangerously impacted the New Monasticism’s emphasis upon “new.” It is, so to speak, Evangelicalism seeking to wear “big boy pants” when, in fact, we are not entirely ready to abandon our “short pants.” It is an effort to walk before we have crawled. Although the past forty years have sought to reclaim the maturity of both the 16th century Reformation and the Fathers (as well as Mothers), we have as yet not been sufficiently grown up within them to effectively move beyond them — if, of course, moving beyond them is even possible. Consequently the New Monasticism, for all of its positive points, can only be the monasticism of the perpetual novice. Being under real and established authority, for a protracted period of time, living the disciplines with other disciples, helps to address this pronounced lack.
3. Monasticism is committed to a life of common prayer, common prayer that is an extension of the common life. Saint Benedict knew and communicated this well. His emphasis upon being in the “enclosure” is critical to prayer. Why did Benedict place so much emphasis upon how the community would function? Why was community so important to him? Why so much attention to what might appear to be fussy detail? Why submission to the Abba? Why the emphasis upon the common life? The reason is that how we live is how we pray. As well, of course, how we pray is how we live. Do we Evangelicals, monastics included, REALLY know very much about a common life that generates a common prayer? We have sought to apply the structure of prayer (Book-life) without being immersed in the substance of prayer (Body-life). This is why Jesus said to be reconciled before we worship. This is why the forgiveness of sins is embedded within the Prayer that Jesus Taught Us. If Evangelicals are to truly embrace monastic practices, we must embrace THE monastic priority: Stability in Community. The practice of prayer is empowered by life in community. Chapter 20 in the Rule of Benedict (RB), Reverence at Prayer, suggests relationship in community. We have no “common” prayer without a “common” life.
4. Many people will assert, based upon the first three points, that Evangelicals HAVE embraced a common life. I would strongly disagree. To be sure, there are some who have done so. As well, there are others who want to. But Evangelicals as a whole DO NOT understand community. We see community as a social construct and not as a spiritual priority that has clearly articulated structures to which we must confine and conform ourselves. After the Prologue in the RB, the Father of Western Monasticism begins his brief 73 chapters with an examination of “The Different Kinds of Monks.” He lists four. Hermits are one type of monk. As stated above, these are monks who have ALREADY, AND FOR SUSTAINED PERIODS OF TIME, been in a monastery and have lived under both a Rule and an Abbot. (How many Evangelicals belong to “stand-alone” denominations asserting their unnervingly unique “spin” on both essentials and non-essentials?) “Gyrovagi” are another type of “monk.” They are wanderers. They move from place to place, never stable nor still. Benedict is swift in his condemnation for these drifters and their lifestyle. (How many Evangelicals church-hop for the latest trend, the most powerful musical and experiential narcotic that will satisfy a “hunger” that can be understood as little more than a religious addiction?) A third type of “monk” is s/he who has never been “tried” by living under a Rule or an Abbot. This type of monk also receives abrupt condemnation. (How many Evangelicals are beginning to embrace, at least in their thinking, Christ without Christianity?) Evangelicalism, particularly in the United States, caters to this type of Christianity and community. We celebrate an “alone” (individualistic) faith whose sole “Rule” is the Bible (often individually or denominationally interpreted) in churches that are culturally committed to “seeker sensitive” and “mega-church” agendas promoting a “feel good” faith. This individualism can be illustrated through an ordination interview to which I was once subjected. I was asked by one of the interviewers if I believed in “Scripture Alone.” I stated, quite emphatically, that I certainly did not. He asked, quite dumbfounded by my answer, why I did not believe in this Evangelical imperative. My answer was simple: Even the Reformers did not isolate the “Scripture Alone” priority without also keeping it in the contexts of faith alone, grace alone, in Christ alone, to God alone be the glory. In short, contemporary Evangelical understanding of both Bible and Church is grossly deficient. In fact it is our “Scripture Alone” emphasis that compromises biblical and practical ecclesiology. This “Scripture Alone” premise quite naturally and dangerously leads to “Stand Alone” communities which raise “Stand Aloof” communicants. We are not stable. We do not submit. We often reject structure. No real structure = no real substance. Is it any wonder, therefore, why Evangelicalism has at times been criticized for its shallow and narrow constructs? (I ask this as a committed Evangelical Anglican.)
5. Benedict addresses these issues when he discusses the forth (the first one noted in the RB) and the best type of monk, the Cenobite. The Cenobite lives in community and under the Rule and a Ruler. S/he is the one to whom Benedict addresses himself in both the Prologue and in the remaining chapters of the RB. The content of what Benedict briefly outlines provides sound and stable directives for Evangelicals who seek to embrace more fully the classic Christian disciplines as capably communicated through monastic communities. These are, after 1500 years, “old” directives and disciplines for “new” monastics. I will be brief.
Evangelicals must embrace, and be stable within, properly exercised apostolic authority rooted in Holy Scripture as communicated through the Abbot — or practical equivalent. Recent attempts to inform and reform present practices with ancient faith are an excellent beginning, but only a beginning. “Scripture Alone” needs to be placed and practiced squarely within the context of its Reformed understanding and within the entire Totus Christus (RB 2 -3). Authority is essential to monastic priorities and practices. If we are all, architecturally speaking, in the same boat (Nave), we will all need to be rowing in the same direction. And, as we are all inclined toward individualism, this will require someone to be in authority and attentive to all of the contexts in which this community exists — and not just our own limited community and denominational context. While Christ is indeed our head, and Holy Scripture is our “road-map,” these require both navigator and navigation. It is far too simple to assert that the Holy Spirit will guide us. How many errors have been propagated because of the misapplications of our Lord’s word in this regard!?
Evangelicals must renounce our self-will (RB 3) and begin to see Christian disciplines as part of Christian discipleship within the larger context of committed catholicity (RB 4 – 5). Disciplines DO NOT exist, properly speaking, without or beyond true community. Discipleship requires, in some way, a shared following of Jesus Christ with other disciples. This must embrace and embody both organism (spiritual) and organization (structure). Good works must have some form of community to whom (and within which) these works are expressed and exercised.
This will require Evangelicals to be far more silent (RB 6), embracing a humility (RB 7) that resists strident Evangelical isolationism. Humility plants us squarely within the humanity of others. I find it darkly humorous that Evangelicals want to embrace “catholic” practices without “catholic” community. We hunger for disciplines and discipleship without the requisite of other disciples with whom we share a life. To clarify this point, we do not have Holy Communion without Community. We do not have Holy Baptism without the Body. Disciplines exist only within the context of the discipleship of other disciples.
Evangelicals need to understand Christian supplication (prayer) as part of Christian society (RB 7 – 19). Jesus taught us all to pray “Our Father.” We need to radically reclaim this “Our” if we are to truly be a family (“Father”) at prayer. While God DOES hear our individual petitions, He is quite clear that even individual prayers exist within the wider catholic context. It is quite easy to minimize or restrict the relevance of chapters 8 – 19 of the RB. We could, unwisely, suggest that these chapters only relate to monks who are living within the “enclosure.” And, to be honest, this limited application must to some degree exist. As a “lay monastic,” “oblate” or “associate” there are certain rhythms of monastic life that we cannot entirely share. But we cannot entirely avoid them either. While the applications of chapters 8 – 19 may be somewhat limited, the applications are not limiting. These chapters from the RB suggest a catholic community at prayer. That is, in some way, these chapters speak to the philosophic “Our” in the “Our Father” becoming the practical prayers of the church catholic who share a common history, heritage and hope. “Let all prayer,” writes Benedict, be “made in common” and “together” (RB 20, emphasis mine). If there is no “common” there can be no real “prayer.”
This truth, quite naturally, means that there will be relational guidelines governing prayer. Benedict does not simply establish a community. He does not simply enforce an “enclosure.” The community enclosure does not exist as a means of protecting the “fold” of Christian fellowship. Rather, the fold of fellowship exists as the functional framework for prayer (folded hands). Functional redemptive relationships empower the spiritual requests we make to God. Relationships make the “I” and “My” of individual petition into the “We” and “Our” of corporate catholic prayer. “Reverence at prayer” (RB 20) requires ordered relationships (RB 21 – 30) that are grounded in a common life, for the common good and to the greater glory of God. As such, chapters 31 – 73 in the RB are not simply for those who embrace the life of the Religious (specifically within the monastery), but in some way apply to all of us who seek to live a religious life — a liturgical life that is a common life within the broadest catholic context available to us. Although many of these chapters specifically address strict monastic living – roles, responsibilities and rules – these chapters also speak to how a community must function as community in order to enable, enhance and empower common prayer of a common people sharing a common life.
Let me follow with a detailed illustration that cuts to the core of what I seek to communicate. In 1986 I began to embrace an Anglican ethos. This began, quite simply, with purchasing a Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962). For about four years I disciplined myself by celebrating some form of the Daily Offices and reading books on “the Anglican way.” Although my prayer life was VERY rich as an independent Evangelical (with broad Lutheran leanings), it was only through praying the Daily Offices according to a set tradition that my devotional life became a life of devotion. By worshipping according to the Book of Common Prayer, my discipleship took on a functional discipline by which I sought to guide and govern my entire life. But this was not quite enough. I wanted, and in fact needed, more. As such, in 1990, I aligned myself with an Anglican monastic Order. Consequently, as I was now an “associate” of this Order, I not only celebrated the Daily Offices, but I also devoted myself to the Rule of that Order and submitted myself to the Superior. This meant that both my disciplines were expanded and my discipleship was deepened. Unfortunately, until about 2000, I was not entirely able to move into an Anglican Church community. Circumstances prevented this. However, around 2000, I officially aligned myself with an Anglican body and submitted myself to the Bishop, the disciplines of that particular Anglican jurisdiction, and a community of like-minded people who shared the same priorities and practices. This, once again, required an expansion of my disciplines and a deepening of my discipleship. These were, as well, further enhanced by submitting myself to a Bishop to whom I owed some measure of concrete and consistent obedience. And here is the point and the application: Although I had embraced some disciplines by celebrating the Daily Offices according to the Book of Common Prayer, it was not until I moved more concretely into the life of Anglican believers (with functional authority over me) that deeper discipleship began. Evangelicals want the “book-life” of liturgical living (a good beginning), but resist the “body-life” of liturgical living which, of necessity, has fixed expectations. This is evidenced, among many other examples, by the attention Evangelicals give to writing their own Rule instead of conforming ourselves to a long-established Rule. We want the “new” because it provides us with the ability to exercise our autonomy and independence. We want the “future” of the “ancient-future” without entirely embracing the “ancient.” We prefer the new autonomy more than the ancient authority. As such, for many Evangelicals who seek to apply ancient disciplines to their lives, these disciplines are little more than a gloss or shallow overlay — a façade.
Saint Benedict ends his Rule by stating that there are many “instruments of virtue” (RB 73). Encouraging his followers (Christ’s followers) to “hasten” to the Heavenly Kingdom, Benedict has instituted some initial priorities for “beginners.” But have we Evangelicals, apart from basic “salvation,” actually made a true beginning? Benedictines emphasize beginning again. Beginning AGAIN means, of course, that they have begun before. Benedictines have a history which is heritage, something from which to draw upon that resists what is always new and trendy. What is “new” is, therefore, what is “old” and “established.” Being under authority, in its many practical foci and functions, is part of this rich history. Are Evangelicals willing and ready to fully enter this “boat” and follow Christ in this manner? Are we willing to repent of our entrenched autonomy and join with others under authority? Are we willing to really and functionally say we are entirely catholic in our priorities, principles and practices?
It is to be understood, and appreciated, that Evangelicals are not all of one cloth. Evangelicals are represented in almost every, if not every, denomination. My Evangelical Anglican identity will differ from Evangelicals from almost every other denominational “stripe.” This said, however, Evangelicalism as a whole embraces an isolationist agenda that is in some way rooted in our Reformed Protestant “Alone” mindset. As such, Evangelical monastics will always hanker after something “new” because we feel (and are) so very “alone” in many practical ways. If this is to effectively change, if disciplines are to truly become a part of Evangelical discipleship, we must eject the “new” and root ourselves firmly in the soil of the “old” monasticism. To “begin again” we must first begin.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.