God Wants a Relationship With a Peculiar People

In the history of the church, it’s nothing new to look around and find our institutions severely compromised. Ours is a tragic story.

But it is also a story of hope. In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation. That is why the first task of any monastic movement is to remind the church that our story is the adventure of God’s relationship with a peculiar people.

pages 54-55 of New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Relocation to Abandoned Places

New monastic communities are analogous to prophets having been carried out to the desert to hear from God. It’s sort of like the stars, from a city street you can’t see many stars even on a clear night, but from a country field or desert plain, the stars fill the sky. Removed from the chaos of life as we know it, a community can begin to hear and to re-learn the story God is spinning, and soon they begin to embody that story themselves, and soon others recognize something familiar in the community of folks living differently and eventually realize its a clearer picture of that same image in which they were created.

Is everyone called to a “monastic” life? Is everyone called to intentional community? Is everyone called to relocate to the abandoned places? No, but those who are called to serve remind the rest of us what we were created for and called to. The lives of a new monastic community serve as a prophetic voice speaking against the tumult of a world overpowering the still, small voice of God, and calling a people subsumed to become once again a “city set on a hill” in the midst of a world desperately seeking its purpose.

A City Like a Sore Thumb

God gives the law on a mountain, the prophets predict that people will flock to God’s holy mountain and worship the Lord together there, living according to God’s law. Jesus reminds us that a “city set on a hill cannot be hid” all while standing on a mountainside reiterating the law of God. The point of God having a holy city, on a holy mountain (Zion) is that God calls a people to live according to his law and in so doing, be like a city set on a hill in the midst of a world of flatlands. We’re supposed to stick out; we’re supposed to be different. This is supposed to happen by virtue of following God’s mountain-fed spring of teaching, instruction, and guidelines for good living.

The point of having a city on a hill is that it’s a community. It’s not a call to an individual; it’s a call to a people. “Come be my advertisement to the world of what you were meant to be.”

ht: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church, Chapter 4

Tradition Must Live and Breathe

In Chapter 10 of his De institutis coenobiorum (Institutes), which contains 12 chapters on the ordering of monastic life, St. John Cassian (circa 360 – 435) gives practical and pithy wisdom on the adaptation of “rules” to time and place.

But we need only keep to those which the situation of the place and the customs of the district permit. For the severity of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with slippers or tunics or a single frock; and the covering of tiny hoods or the wearing of a sheepskin would afford a subject for derision instead of edifying the spectators. Wherefore we hold that we ought to introduce only those things which we have described above, and which are adapted to the humble character of our profession and the nature of the climate, that the chief thing about our dress may be not the novelty of the garb, which might give some offence to men of the world, but its honourable simplicity.

Too often we are enamoured of whatever tradition informs or fascinates us, and we attribute to the rules and instruction of a former time or a foreign place a rigidity unknown to their original formulation.

Tradition is helpful, indeed even necessary, so long as it serves a principle or set of principles. When it usurps the place of principle and becomes that which is being served, tradition becomes inflexible, harmful and counter-productive.

One of the things I love about God’s torah (teaching, instruction) is the eminent practicality of His nature revealed therein. I think of Deuteronomy 14 as an example:

“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. Deuteronomy 14:22-26 (ESV)

So God says to take 10% of the fruits of your labor and have a feast in Jerusalem with it. However, if you live too far away to get your animals, and produce to Jerusalem, sell your produce and bring the money to Jerusalem to have a feast filled with whatever your heart desires. That is a God in tune with the day-to-day realities of the people He was communicating with.

The quote from John Cassian delights me because we so often think of monasticism as one of the most rigid, legalistic forms of Christianity, yet here is one of the fathers of monasticism saying “take it easy, use what is appropriate and don’t let your punctiliousness cause you to stick out like a sore thumb rather than evidence your humility and simplicity.

A New Dark Ages?

“If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages that are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds of hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 355-45.