Back to the future? New Monks, New Friars and a return to the 1930s…

What is new monasticism? What is the difference between monks and friars? And are we heading for a 1930s revival? The/my answers to all these questions, plus a competition and a joke are all to be found in the following article…

In the 1930s much of the world was gripped by a severe financial downturn, this downturn was one of the factors which (arguably) precipitated the rise of right wing politics, and even the second World War. But it also precipitated a birth of a wave of ‘New Monasticism’ among Christians in UK, Europe, and the USA.

Chief architects of this wave of New Monasticism were the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who posed the thought that what was needed was a ‘new type of monasticism,’ the American radical Dorothy Day, who founded (with Peter Maurin) the Catholic Worker Movement, and George MacLeod, who established the Iona Community.

There are many interesting points to draw out of this period of activity, and I try to draw some of them out in my book, which is due out next year. But I want in this article to try and get across some of my perspective on some points which have been raised on the interweb recently.

They are all related, so hopefully it wont be too disjointed…

1) Andrew Jones reckons we are heading for a revisiting of the 1930s, citing certain shifts in church thinking which will lead to a more sustainable platform for new forms of church and mission, including the new monastics. He thinks people will be paying more attention to writers like Bonhoeffer (of course) and also Dorothy Day.  It’s interesting to me, because I see this as a cyclical thing, he suggests new enterprises will be the way to support new forms of church, and this has been tried over and over again, with different measures of success. I dont want to get bogged down in discussing the ins and outs of enterprise, business as mission or so on, I just want to say that I agree to an extent. I think that aspects of the 1930s are already appearing in the church landscape, and in many ways that is very welcome.

Which leads me on to point two, but first a precursor:

None of the three people I mention above (Bonhoeffer, MacLeod and Day) were (self defined) monastics, they are however inspirational to a generation of new monastics.

2) Maggi Dawn mentions briefly that there’s a lot of chit chat about ‘urban monasticism’ on the internet, which she describes as an ‘oxymoron’ and promises to talk more about some other time.

We come here to the main point of this post, is it oxymoronic to suggest there’s such a thing as urban monasticism? In my opinion, no it is not.

The reason we’ve come to understand monasticism as we do now, is that we’ve accepted as our all consuming definition of monasticism the one offered by the Roman monastics. Now it’s fair to say that they’ve been around a long time, Benedict of Nursia was born only about 450 years after Jesus died, there’s a lot of heritage there! However, the roots of monasticism are further back and more diverse than this.

And this is the point where my other strand of grumblement comes in, the way that people are dividing up Monks and Friars. So ok, this might be quite boring if you’re not a monk nerd, but stick with me, I’ll throw a joke in before too long.

My assertion is this:

Monasticism as drawn from the root ‘Monos’ meaning alone doesnt just refer to cloistered Roman type monks or nuns. Yes, that is what the Roman and many Anglican orders now say, but they are actually relatively speaking, the new kids on the block.

Monasticism draws its inspiration right back to the Old Testament, to prophets like Elijah (if you can tell me which Monastic order is named as they are because of something to do with Elijah, you win a prize, post your answer in the comments below).

One of the first great monastic figures identified as a ‘proto monk’ by some, is John the Baptist. He has many of the hallmarks of a monastic, having the aloneness, and the element of having retreated, gone through what monastics later described as ‘purgatio’ or the ‘desert experience’ and also the simplicity, which is usually a by-product of the desert experience (suffering causes one to get a proper grasp on the value of material things.)

Then of course there are the desert fathers, many and varied where they, some lived in sketes, some as hermits, some eventually formed the first proper monastery… etc.

Anyhow, the way that this way of life was passed on to the Celtic fringes of the UK is still a mystery, there are many theories, but to cut many long stories cruelly short we can say that the Celts had monks knocking about in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and then Northern England, before the church of Rome got a grip over here.

(I’m not even going to talk about the Eastern Orthodox monks who lived in Constantinople!)

How did these monks live? For many/most/perhaps all there was the initial period of purgatio again, of ridding oneself of earthly desires and so on, but they then lived together in communities which formed the very heart of thriving communities full of business, healthcare, agriculture, you name it. In fact their here in Britain some settlements are marked still by place names, throughout places like Scotland and Ireland  you can see Kil as a prefix to a town name which denotes a monk’s cell.

Andrew Jones’ point about business or enterprise springing up to support ministry was pretty much pioneered by the monastics, who were doing all kinds of stuff to keep their communities afloat.

In later days the Roman monastics excelled at this, many orders corrupting themselves by growing too rich through their success at business.

If you go into an ordinary town now, you will find evidence of monastic life, roads named after monks or Abbeys for instance. As often you will find places named after Friaries, or Friars, and this reflects the fact that as one of the many iterations of Monasticism came the Friars.

I’m not going to do the whole history thing now, it would be dull (er). I’ll keep it simple and quick (ish). The orders of Friars were distinct from the Roman Monastics because of a number of peculiarities; for instance they took the same vows as the monks (poverty, chastity, obedience) with one exception, that of stability. The Friars were able to mooch about, interacting with communities, teaching, healing, preaching or whatever. They didnt have that same tie to a monastic house or particular place, they did however (to begin with) have a very strict adherence to the vow of poverty, unlike some of their monastic brethren.

There were/are of course other differences, the main duty of a monk in the Roman tradition, one must understand, is to pray the office. Monks are basically bound to pray, regardless of whatever else they do. They are set apart for God (in the Old Testament Nazirite tradition) and their job is to seek him at all times.

Friars however are part of what Catholics call ‘Religious Life’ as apart from Monasticism, members of Religious Life orders (including the Friars and others, such as the Jesuits) have other jobs besides the praying of the office.  Does this mean they are less ‘Monastic’? Only by one definition of the term, and certainly not if we accept the precursor monks, be they those of the Old Testament, Desert, Orthodox or Celtic Fringes as Monastics. They had a duty to pray, of course, they (sometimes) had vows, they were not cloistered though, and they were able to dwell in all kinds of different situations.

So to draw an incredibly long and rambling post to a near close I’ll try and sum up my ramblings (I’ve not forgotten about the joke, just wait a little moment longer):

1) I agree with Andrew Jones, and believe we’re heading towards/already in an era where the works of 1930s new monastic inspirations like Day, Bonhoeffer, & MacLeod are given real prominence.

2) I disagree with those who say there is a profound difference between ‘new monasticism and new friarism’, I beleive that the distinction between Friars and Monks, which labels one as monastic and the other as not, is incorrect. They both draw from the same root, the later interpretation of Monastic as cloistered is a recent division, and neednt be applied across the board.

3) Which means that I probably disagree with Maggi Dawn, and think that  Urban Monasticism can exist, people can be set apart, alone together, or alone alone in any setting, the urban environment can be just as much a desert as a literal desert.

Anyway, I promised a joke… so: this guy goes into a  chip shop called ‘Monastic fish and chips’, he sees a guy in robes behind the counter and asks a fellow customer ‘Ah, is that the fish Friar?’ To which the other replies: ‘No, he’s the chip Monk.’

I didn’t say the joke was any good. Hope you found this interesting, I talk more about this stuff in the book, and look at a number of communities which according to some wouldnt be seen as ‘monastic’ because of the places or ways they live, but to me they are quite clearly drawing upon the same source for their ways of life.

2 thoughts on “Back to the future? New Monks, New Friars and a return to the 1930s…

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