A Brief Manifesto for Modern Monks
Thoughts on religion, discipline, and community
Following Christ has its complexities, but let us not over-complicate the basics. In the tradition of many Christian writers, let us imagine the Christian life as a long and difficult journey.
In order for our journey to be successful, to make the most of it and have the least trouble along the way, we need to keep three things in mind.
- The journey is pointless if the destination is off. We must keep our focus on Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, not distracted by pet agendas.
- Since the journey is long, it is not something we can do in one burst of energy. Discipline is the only way to make consistent progress.
- It is foolish to attempt such a difficult journey alone, since there are so many others with the same destination. We must find a practical and meaningful way to travel together.
In other words, to make the most of life we are going to need a solid grasp on the meaning of life (i.e. the Christian religion), the discipline to live according to it, and community to encourage us and keep us accountable.
Fortunately, these are not new challenges, and we have time-tested models of the Christian life to address them. One model is what we might call the traditional church, where Christians meet weekly to learn about and honor God together. This is great for what it is: an observance of the sabbath, which is encouraged if not commanded by scripture.
But as a primary source of community and spiritual growth, “going to church” has severe limitations. The pastor must preach to a broad audience, usually resulting in a very basic message which benefits only those who are both interested in the topic and know little about it.
Furthermore, because church is a special event (during which little socializing is allowed), it commonly takes months or years to reach a level of closeness that roommates or coworkers naturally attain in a few days.
Discipleship groups go a long way toward overcoming these limitations by gathering a smaller group in a more intimate setting. But these, too, can fall short of transforming lives unless the people involved have clear commitments to and expectations of one another. Strong community must be both deliberate and ardent. Ideally, it would be a way of life rather than a special activity shoehorned into one’s schedule.
The pursuit of such ideals leads us straight into an ancient and ongoing tradition: Monasticism. I said before that we need the proper combination of religion, discipline, and community—and these are the foci that unite monks of every order. Monks practice asceticism, which literally means “training”, and basically means denying the self in order to attain a sharp focus on what really matters. They undertake this lifestyle as a family, with the understanding that followers of Christ are family already.
As for the details of monasticism, we ought to look to those before us for inspiration while realizing that not all of their ideas were necessary or healthy (see note 5). Bonhoeffer said it best:
“the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ” - Bonhoeffer
We use the word monastery to describe our community because it conveys familial closeness and dedication to God which has historical weight, despite being beyond societal norms.
Here’s our model of monasticism (or, if you prefer, “intentional Christian community”). We read the Rule of St. Benedict, and talked to a number of people doing similar things, and came up with the following. It’s somewhat structured, but nothing fancy.
The gist of daily life is that we pray early and often. The goal is a balanced and varied prayer life. This is what I see as ideal, but it’s subject to work responsibilities, etc.
- Morning prayer: Communal, brief and liturgical. Brief because we’ve got places to go, liturgical because we’ll be too sleepy to be more creative or mystical.
- Breakfast. After morning prayer because prayer is more vital than food.
- Noonday prayer: Around lunch time, however you please.
- Dinner. As a family.
- Evening prayer: Communal, non-liturgical, before or after dinner.
- Compline: Prayer alone before bed.
A Few Notes
- Of personal possessions and luxuries. “Wherever things have become more important than people, we are in trouble. That is the crux of the whole matter. Figure it out for yourself!” - Thomas Merton
- Of co-ed housing. We’re hoping to buy a large, cheap house in Detroit and fix it up. And yeah, men and women will be living together. But we’ve talked about this with everyone in our particular group, and we’re comfortable with the complexities this presents.
- Of accountability. We must each come up with some goals for our own spiritual growth, and have an accountability talk with a fellow monk once a week about it.
- Of shared finances. We each make a monthly deposit into a communal bank account. From this, we pay for housing, utilities, building repairs, food, and whatever charitable or creative projects we can all agree on.
- Of ministry. It’s crucial that we are involved in bringing life to the wider community. However, the monastery must remain first and foremost a sanctuary, a house of prayer and rest,where we build one another into who God intended us to be.
- Of traditional vows and practices. We do not believe the core ideals of monasticism to which we adhere require robes, silence, celibacy, beating yourself with boards, etc.
- Of unity of belief. We do not all have the same theology, but we affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and that’s good enough.
- On whether or not this is really monasticism. If your only objection to this document is a semantic one, take it up with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the whole movement known as New Monasticism.
I consider this little document a work in progress. I will likely continue to add and subtract from it, and I welcome suggestions and criticism. Leave comments, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org