The following post was written for the Acts 8 Movement blog, but has some information about Benedictine monasticism that might be usefully read more broadly. You can read more about the Acts 8 Moment that came out of the Episcopal Church's General Convention on their website.
Recently a number of us from Acts 8 were talking about how monasticism and the neo-monastic movements might inform and strengthen our work in building up ourselves and our church. Monastic habits are making a comeback, both as Benedictine virtues are applied to home and parish life, and as small groups of people form new, intentional communities.
In coming weeks, I hope to put together a few posts on aspects of monastic spirituality that might be relevant for our conversations in Acts 8. These ideas come from my own experiences as an oblate for more than twenty years with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and time spent with the ecumenical community of Richmond Hill. Today, I want to talk about the monastic commitment to a specific community of people.
When people enter a monastery, they pledge their lives to a specific group of people in a specific place that has a particular manner of life, a particular focus of ministry, and the unique quirks of human relationships the call forth a full gamut of emotion from joy to exacerbation. The closest analog most people experience is marriage, and monastics often referred to each other as brothers and sisters not just out of Christian piety, but because of a loving kinship forged between them. In a good monastery, the love and intimacy among its members is palpable, and such love is compelling to newcomers, life-giving to members, and a true gospel witness to the world.
This love is not easy to attain. While prayer and common purpose are essential, so too is what the Benedictines call stability. We can only get to that level of love if we pledge ourselves to be together with this same group of people, doing what God calls us to do, until we grow into the people God has made us to be. We can only be challenged to grow by people we are close to who we have agreed to stay close to even when they call us on our own failings and character defects and require us to grow up. Without a commitment to stay with people we would sometimes rather leave, love cannot reach the depths necessary to transform our own hardened hearts, much less the church or the world. Any talk of monastic spirituality that does not ground us deeply with particular, flawed, sometimes difficult individuals may be helpful development, but will not be able to call us to God when we need it most.
A key question before the Acts 8 Movement is, I think, whether we are willing to make the kind of significant commitment to one another that will allow us form such a community of love. If so, then we need to figure out how to do so when we are scattered geographically and already have other commitments to families, parishes and dioceses. Yet if we can make such commitments, or even a small core of us can in a way that grounds the rest of us, we could have an amazing calling. Instead of working to change the church into the vision God has given us for it, we will change ourselves into such a loving household of God that the rest of the church will drop everything to join us.
I end here with a question and a quote. The question is what you think about Acts 8 trying to become a community of deep personal relationships at a near monastic level and how that might be accomplished. (Please comment below.) The quote comes from Thomas Merton, and is a good reminder to all of us when we decide we are going to go out and do great things on behalf of God and the church:
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even acheive no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything. --Thomas Merton