Contemplative Renewal and New Monasticism
An Interview with Fr. Adam Bucko by New Camaldoli Hermitage looks at the “Spiritual but Not Religious” and the need for new models of spiritual mentorship
New Camaldoli: We hear a lot today about the younger generation not being interested in God or religion. Some denomination church statistics tell us that by 2050 there will be hardly any people left in the church. What do you think about that?
Fr. Adam: I hear that “young people are not interested in religion or God” a lot, especially from the clergy. It is true that the number of churchgoers is shrinking, and young people in particular are leaving. It is also true that we have all kinds of stories to explain this mass exodus. We even come up with catchy phrases like “moralistic therapeutic deism” to explain why the numbers are getting smaller and smaller. Most of our stories and explanations tend to point to the deficiencies of the people who leave and to an increasingly hostile climate towards religion in our contemporary world. But let’s remember that every time we point a finger at someone, at least three fingers are pointing back at us.
One thing that is clear to anyone who’s listening is that young people are leaving our churches not because they are no longer interested in lives of meaning, purpose, and significance, not because they are no longer interested in God, but because, from where they are standing, it is increasingly difficult to meet God in the church. They tell us that, even if we do have a corner on the truth, the church resembles — in too many ways — every other broken system that organizes itself around power, wealth, and privilege, rather than offering itself as a radical alternative to the status quo. This generation is telling us that Christ has left the building and the tabernacle is empty, that it is easier to meet Him elsewhere.
This dramatic change is reflected in the new studies on the religious landscape of America, which tell us that while Millennials and Generation Y show the lowest level of religious affiliation compared to previous generations, they show the highest level of desire for spiritual connection. In popular culture, we call this the “spiritual but not religious” or “the nones” phenomenon.
And yet…the church as a whole seems to be having a very difficult time accepting that there may be some truth in what both young people and these studies tell us. There is a real opportunity here to re-examine our tradition and to discern what is truly valuable in our tradition and what is worth offering to support in the future.
New Camaldoli: Adam, you yourself are rooted very firmly in the Christian tradition. Do you believe spirituality can flower just as deeply if one is not practicing within a tradition?
Fr. Adam: Well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that when people hear about spiritual but not religious people, they often immediately think that these are people who are just shopping around and not really that committed, that they want to use many different tools to dig different holes and, as a result, they can’t go deep.
But when we look at some of the people who come from that group, we realize that actually many of them spend more time practicing than regular churchgoers. As one Hindu monastic once said to a Christian priest friend of mine, “It is possible to use different tools to dig one hole. For most things we need to accomplish in our lives, we actually use more than one tool.” So, maybe it is actually possible to use different practices to go deeper in your spiritual life, too.
I think we have to be cautious about criticizing this. It would be arrogant to assume all those people are just simply wrong. What if that whole movement is the Holy Spirit doing some kind of work? What if a whole new generation is being called to a new way of pursuing God? That being said, we should also be cautious in accepting this as a given and acknowledge that we need proper discernment on this.
When we look at our traditions, it’s very clear that in order to go deep, we need some very specific things. We need theological frameworks that can help us see what spiritual maturity looks like and how it is lived in the context of hearing “the cry of the poor” and “the cry of the earth.” We need practices that allow us to “gather the marginalized parts of our hearts” and turn them into prayers. We need mentors and spiritual guides who can help us listen to the presence of the Divine in us and in our world. We need communities where we can help each other to build courage to say yes to what is emerging in our hearts and begin to live in service of God’s dream of compassion and justice in the world. And, in this new space of being spiritual but not religious, at least in my view, those frameworks and practices have not yet been developed.
This leads to my conviction that, in this time, our religious and spiritual traditions have two roles. In the past, they had one role, which was to basically make disciples and to initiate people into the experience of God in the way that the tradition offers. Perhaps, in this day and age, there’s another role our traditions are called to be — to be present to this spiritual but not religious movement, to be helpful to the “nones” and to be in deep relationship with them. Perhaps it’s not our role to convince people to become Christians, but to be present to them in a prayerful way by offering them the gifts of our tradition and helping them discern their way forward, with an understanding that God might be doing something new in this new generation.
New Camaldoli: Speaking of the spiritual but not religious, how do you personally engage with this group in your own work?
Fr. Adam: Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who played a very important role in helping Christians rediscover the contemplative dimension of their faith, said that, after 90 or so years on this planet, he was convinced that the best way to teach spirituality is through telling each other our stories. Pir Zia Inayat Khan, a Sufi teacher, while commenting on spiritual mentorship, said: “In my experience, spiritual mentorship means holding up a mirror in which a seeking soul is enabled to perceive the light of its own divinity.” Both of these ring true to me and reflect how I was guided by my own mentors, who were less concerned about passing their tradition on to me and more concerned about sharing both how God was present in their lives and how they responded to that presence. They shared their lives and struggles with me. They shared their joys. They shared moments of losing and finding God. In the process, they helped me notice how God was present in my life. Their stories and ways of being present became that mirror that Pir Zia talked about, in which I had begun to see my true life. The way in which my mentors walked with God and lived their lives became a map for responding to the call that I felt in the depths of my heart. In the end, that is what enabled me to rediscover the Christian tradition that I was born into — to rediscover it not as an abstract system of beliefs, rules, and regulations, but rather as a motherly presence with her arms around me loving me into who I was born to be.
New Camaldoli: You speak of Monasticism and New Monasticism as helpful tools for young people. Can you say more about that?
Fr. Adam: I believe that monasteries have a special role to play in what is emerging in our spiritual landscape. We need countercultural communities of practice that can give spiritual seekers a real felt sense of what it means to say yes to God. We also need people who have experienced God and who can teach and mentor from that place. That can naturally be felt in communities like New Camaldoli Hermitage. Not only can people go there and experience “the fragrance of God” and get much-needed mentoring from the monks, but they can also learn how to take the spiritual practices developed by the monks into the world, through the oblate program.
Our Community of the Incarnation in New York was directly inspired by the spiritual legacy of a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, Fr. Bede Griffiths, who believed that the call to contemplation is universal. As such, we are trying to create a model for contemplative life in the world, where our prayer lives can be embodied in the context of hearing and responding to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and where the longings of contemporary seekers, who so often don’t find their home in the church, can be welcomed and held in Christ’s transforming care.
Reprinted with permission from New Camaldoli Hermitage’s newsletter. New Camaldoli Hermitage was established in 1958 in Big Sur, California. Their newsletters can be found on their website.