Please note that this will be a series of articles exploring the theme of Pagan Monasticism. In this first one I want to simply set out the foundation stones of my thinking.
Today I want to write about a dream of mine, I’ve had for a long time, and it started back when I was a Christian. It is monasticism. From the age of 16 I started questioning Christianity and it led me through various different denominations and ideas until eventually I left Christianity completely 6 years later. However, some things stuck with me during that journey. I was a very conservative Christian for a long time, but as I started to research I became more and more liberal, both theologically and socially. I read books like “God’s Politics” by Jim Wallis, which opened my eyes to the fact that that Jesus wasn’t an arch-conservative but that his words in the Sermon on the Mount and parable of the sheep and goats were the heart of his message (obvious I know, but much of the time we only see what we want to in religious books).
Jim Wallis was involved with a movement called “Sojourners” which was essentially the “Christian Left.” And within that movement is a man called Shaine Claiborne. And he set up an intentional community in the USA called “The Simple Way” dedicated to living a “contemplative and prophetic life.” In other words, they are committed to two things – living a life of committed regular spiritual practice and living a life of radical service to the poor and needy in their communities (old testament style meaning of prophetic – calling people to live a better way through example). It was a vision that caught my imagination. It was the vision of a new movement called “New Monasticism.” Although protestant, it’s spiritual practices like praying the daily office, using a liturgy and following a rule of life, were inspired by Catholicism and Celtic Christianity. Shane wrote a book called “The Irresistible Revolution” talking about applying Jesus sermon on the mount to our lives and how this New Monasticism fitted into it. He was very clear in the book about the importance of people creating the Kingdom of God in the world here and now. This New Monasticism was not about withdrawing from life, but deliberately going into the most broken parts of society, places ravished by poverty and racism, and offering healing.
The members of the Christian New Monasticism movement dedicated themselves to 12 “marks” –
- Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire” [at the margins of society].
- Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
- Hospitality to the stranger.
- Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
- Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church.
- Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
- Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community.
- Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
- Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
- Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
- Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
- Commitment to a discipline contemplative life.
In other words, it was a community committed to working for peace and social justice while living a disciplined contemplative life.
The Simple Way is an intentional community, that is, “A community that is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common, social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle. They typically share responsibilities and resources.”
Recently I have come across another development within the New Monasticism movement – an inter-religious New Monasticism which has similar aims but is not limited to one religion but is open to the wisdom of many traditions. There is a strong influence of Buddhism in there too. It was inspired by a book by Raimon Pannikar called “Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Universal Archetype” which talked about how the “monk” is an archetype that we can all have access to. This inter-religious New Monasticism has the following vows –
- I vow to actualize and live according to my full moral and ethical capacity.
2. I vow to live in solidarity with the cosmos and all living beings.
3. I vow to live in deep nonviolence.
4. I vow to live in humility and to remember the many teachers and guides who assisted me on my spiritual path.
5. I vow to embrace a daily spiritual practice.
6. I vow to cultivate mature self-knowledge.
7. I vow to live a life of simplicity.
8. I vow to live a life of selfless service and compassionate action.
9. I vow to be a prophetic voice as I work for justice, compassion and world transformation.
Wow. What a vision! Is there any reason this could not form the basis of a Pagan Monasticism?
I’m not sure traditional monasticism of withdrawing from the world fits particularly well with Paganism, but the world-affirming nature of these New Monasticism movements can and do fit well with Paganism.
If we look at history, it is likely that the famous Druid teaching schools of Britain and Ireland were almost certainly turned into the first monasteries and Druid’s probably became some of the first monks. It is interesting to note that Celtic Christianity primarily spread through a “monastic model” rather than a traditional Rome-inspired parish model. And eventually it came to dominate the faith of the people of Britain and Ireland.
If we look further afield to India, the home of the largest and oldest Pagan Polytheist religion in the world, Hinduism, we see that monasteries play a very important part in the faith and the daily lives of people. It is the same with the Pagan Polytheist religion of Daoism in China. So Monasticism can clearly work in Pagan religions. In fact, some Pagans have been beginning to do just that but we’ll talk more about that in my next post.