New Monasticism movement: a modern take on an old tradition

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

There's a growing movement of people using monastic traditions in everyday life

It’s hard to open a newspaper these days – particularly health supplements – without reading about the benefits of meditation. These articles (and I’ve written some myself) usually expound the virtues of practices derived from Eastern religions and philosophies. But there is also a growing international movement of lay and religious people seeking inspiration from the Christian monastic traditions.

Loosely defined as New Monasticism (see panel), this group includes people of all ages who are drawn to the rhythms of monastic life and seek inspiration from Christian prayer and scriptures to live more fulfilled lives of benefit to their communities and wider society. These New Monastics don’t aspire to live in monasteries but instead lead ordinary lives and mark their days with pauses for prayer and reflection – sometimes even being called to prayer by Twitter and Facebook.

Garth Bunting is a member of New Monasticism Ireland. He works for the Church of Ireland diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, and is based in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. “It’s about how we can be inspired by the traditional monastic ways of life. For example, the [monastic] rhythms of the day with their time for work, time for rest, time for study and time for reflection can be reinterpreted for modern-day living.”

Ian Adams, an Anglican priest who lives in south Devon, has written a book, Cave Refectory Road: Monastic Rhythms for Contemporary Living (Canterbury Press, 2010). In the book, he recommends three paths in the traditional monastic life which people can follow in their everyday lives. The first path or starting point, he calls “the cave”: a place of stillness, prayer and simplicity. The second, “the refectory”, is the point of reconnection with community, work colleagues and neighbours. The third, “the road”, is an engagement with the wider world. “I sense that there’s a deep stream of possibility in the monastic way that can help us in the 21st century to find new ways to live – in balance with ourselves, reconnected to our fellow humanity, in harmony with the planet and at ease with mystery,” he writes.

Adams suggests that not only does each path have the potential to bring about change in us for good in an age of “dislocation, upheaval and uncertainty” but also each may also “shape an emerging Christianity in the 21st century. If you are tired of pastiche, parody and the cult of celebrity, this represents an exhilarating return to the garden of our beginnings.”

Adams will lead a retreat in Dublin later this month, offering people a contemporary take on monastic practices they can use based on his forthcoming book, Running Over Rocks (Canterbury Press, 2013).

“The small, the local, the quiet have as much to show us about how to live as the big, the event, the spectacular,” says Adams, who rises before 6.30am each morning to spend time in stillness, prayer and yoga, and then also takes prayerful pauses in late afternoon and before bedtime.

Dr Bernadette Flanagan, director of research and lecturer in spirituality at All Hallows College, Dublin, manages the newsletter for New Monasticism Ireland. She says there is a lot of academic and corporate interest in New Monasticism (also known as Monastery Without Walls). “Lots of world-class academic disciplines are integrating the skills of a contemplative mind into practice, and business leaders are taking it into their workplaces,” she says. “There is also global inter-monastic dialogues on issues like health or ecology. Many people think monastic practices should not be confined within the walls of monasteries.”

Her own contribution to the discussion includes a new book about women monastics ranging from a third-century desert mother in Egypt, to Belgian and Italian founders of spiritual movements, to Irishwoman Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Order.

Inner practices

Asked why many people have been drawn to mystical traditions from religions other than Christianity, Flanagan suggests it’s because in Ireland, there has been a particular focus on Christian institutions rather than inner practices. “The public performance of religion has been complex and difficult in Ireland but there is a whole wisdom tradition within Christianity which offers meaning to people who live in complex situations and helps them live authentically in the face of life’s challenges.”

Ian Adams suggests that Christianity hasn’t always offered its best learning and practices for people “living in thrall of speed”. He says that while belief in God can give people a “vital grounding”, reliance on it alone can leave people “indifferent, arrogant and isolated from the realities of human existence.

“I want to imagine an alternative to religion as purely belief system. I want to suggest a religion as a discovery of balance, a mix of being and doing, as prayer and practice as self-awareness and self-giving.”

The Morning Bell is a daily call to prayer and/or reflection that Adams sends out each morning on Twitter, Facebook and by email. The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life and i-Church, an online Christian community based on Benedictine principles, also offer online opportunities to explore New Monasticism.

New Monasticism has also spawned new communities where like-minded people meet. The mayBe community in Oxford is one example. It has embraced habits such as a weekly community meal, caring for allotments, public storytelling and outdoor celebration of the Eucharist.

Meanwhile, within the Irish New Monasticism group, there are seminars, retreats and bookclubs. Some members are also planning to offer people places of stillness where they can rest, be silent or engage with others. “Christ Church is already being used in this way when we invite people to come for quiet days, centring prayer,” says Bunting. He hopes to open up nearby St Werburgh’s Church as a reflection space for people on their way to and from work.

“The monastic tradition also creates opportunities for people to ask questions, come to their own conclusions and continue on their journey,” he says.

Seeking to live more fulfilled lives

New Monasticism is an international movement of lay people and professional religious who seek inspiration from the Christian monastic tradition. Contemporary figures within New Monasticism are Dietrich Bonnhoffer, who wrote about new ways of being in community after the second World War, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who in 2003 travelled with his wife to tell Iraqis that American Christians did not support the war.

Some people have set up new communities that explore ways to reconnect with God through prayer, art, music, dance, communal dining and Lectio Divina, a form of engagement with the Bible through slow meditative reading and re-reading of passages.

Forthcoming events organised by New Monasticism Ireland include Retreat in the City led by Ian and Gail Adams in Christ Church Cathedral and St Werburgh’s Church, February 15th-17th. Cost €85. 01-6778099, email

Another event is Awakening Wonder and Engagement – Rediscovering the Rhythms of Nature and the Pulse of the Spirit, led by Rev Philip Roderick in All Hallows, Drumcondra, Dublin, on February 23rd. Cost €30. 01-8373745.

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