Modern monasticism: Ancient patterns for living become new
By Kami L. Rice
When 89-year-old Helen Heath was hospitalized, 18 Congolese refugees, befriended by the New Day community of which she's part, visited her and sang. "The only thing we spoke in common was to smile real big," she says, "but it was a wonderful feeling to have them visit."
Equally wonderful to Heath is what happens when New Day comes together each Sunday evening in Dallas. The diverse group eats supper together, worships and shares Holy Communion. Half the members are refugees from countries in Africa; the rest are students, mostly from Perkins School of Theology.
|Megan Davidson (top left), facilitates a mealtime discussion at Epworth House that includes the Rev. Christian Kakez-A-Kapend.
"The people in New Day bloom," Heath says. "The people from the community notice the buds and want to know more."
New Day falls within a quiet but growing movement dubbed "new monasticism." The Christian communities vary, but most share 12 characteristics put forth in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism edited and published by The Rutba House. Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove, Duke Divinity School graduates, founded the community in Durham, N.C., in 2003.
Marks include a common rule of life that includes disciplined contemplation, justice practices, support for celibate singles among monogamous married couples and their children, hospitality, "humble submission to Christ's body, the church" and geographic proximity. Most relate closely to an "anchor church." Communities tend to be in the figurative desert of blighted urban areas inhabited by people marginalized and abandoned by society rather than the literal desert to which fourth and fifth-century monks fled. While the movement receives press for attracting young adults, Helen Heath's enthusiastic participation confirms that the draw crosses generations.
New monasticism is about "inhabiting our neighborhood where we live and bringing the good news there," explains the Rev. Elaine Heath, McCreless associate professor of evangelism at Perkins, founding pastor to New Day community and daughter of Helen. "In the United States we ask people to come to our buildings for church. That's not really the call of the Bible for the church. The church is supposed to be the people of God in mission with God in the world."
The Rev. Christian Kakez-A-Kapend, a native of Democratic Republic of Congo, is a recent Perkins graduate and an associate pastor at Lover's Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, New Day's anchor church. Serving as a New Day pastor "has helped me engage myself on a journey of understanding who Jesus is and who my neighbor is," he says.
In Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (New Monastic Library), co-author Elaine Heath says the new monasticism aligns with the old Methodist class and band meetings, places where people were known and grew in holiness.
"When new monasticism is well expressed, there's a real humility to it," she says. "You assume Jesus is already there with your neighbors, so you're going there to meet Jesus in them, not to solve all their problems. Showing up in community every day is hard work. We are daily being converted."
New Day includes the Epworth Project, four houses of intentional Christian community centered on rhythms of prayer and mission. About 20 Perkins students receive one-year scholarships to live in the houses, experience monastic life deeply and gain understanding of God sending the church into the world to witness to and participate in Christ's work.
Isaiah House of Hospitality in Durham is a longer-term residential monastic community. Rebecca Byrd and husband David Arthur founded Isaiah House in a home they purchased. Five members plus children live together, along with women and children transitioning from shelters to more permanent homes.
|A birthday party at Isaiah House brings together residents (from left) David Arthur, Luke Arthur and Rebecca Byrd and former guests Jewells and Jaden..
|COURTESY SARAH ARTHUR
Asbury Temple United Methodist Church, a nearby historically black congregation, is the anchor church. Members commit to simplicity, living sustainably, peacemaking and reconciliation, daily prayer and meals together. Isaiah House invites its neighbors to a weekly community dinner.
The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner lived in Isaiah House for a year between graduating from Duke and being appointed to Faith United Methodist Church in Lititz, Penn. Life in community "showed me the value of having people you can pattern life with and pray with." It makes the sacraments "that lead us into community ... richer for me because of experiencing such authentic Christian community."
Having lived with people living the Scriptures brings a different passion to her preaching. "The mantra that's in my head is that Jesus said they will know you by your love. Living in community and working through the hard things is a really beautiful way of showing the world the unity of the body and Christ's love."
After three years at Isaiah House, the Rev. Tom and Sarah Arthur, Duke alumni, moved to Lansing, Mich., where he is senior pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church. Now living in suburbia, they continue the Isaiah House practices: morning and evening prayer together, sustainable living, hospitality and starting a community garden.
Because the United Methodist itineracy can run counter to the monastic principle of "stability in one location for a long time," Sarah says, the Arthurs joined with another United Methodist clergy couple in Vermont to form the Order of St. James. It allows them to be accountable for living monastic community principles, whatever their ministry context. Their rules of life are simplicity, hospitality and evangelism.
Serving in the wild world
In New Orleans, the School for Contemplative Living, a ministry of Parker and Rayne Memorial United Methodist churches, offers another model for people unable to share a common house. "The new monasticism includes people like us who seek to integrate our contemplation in a seamless way as we serve in the wild world," explains the Rev. William Thiele, spiritual director.
The school hosts monthly day retreats using contemplative practices including centering prayer, sacred yoga, lectio divina (sacred reading) and sacred writing, listening and watching, as well as walking in meditation in nature and on labyrinths. Many community members participate in centering prayer groups and in a homeless ministry each week.
|The School for Contemplative Living in New Orleans practices centering prayer.
|COURTESY WILLIAM THIELE
"The spiritual fruit of what's happening in your (contemplative) heart is that you want to serve," explains Beth Morgan, a community member who works at a Navy library. She and her husband started a street library to give books to the ministry's homeless friends and build relationships with them.
Burnout from addressing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina helped the community form, Thiele said. Members realized the necessity of making their contemplative prayer life one with their service. "We just can't keep doing our life the old way: serve, serve, serve. We must balance that with our prayer life."
Morgan so respects the calling to be part of the community that she feels almost "like I'm wearing monastic robes. We're stealth monks. People can't see it, but that's what it is." She daily takes the peace and presence of Christ into her workplace. "I go about my work with this calm center. Others look at me and ask what is different."
"The daily focusing on contemplative practices that bring us into a sense of oneness with God [plus] having people to gather with daily, weekly and monthly encourages me to know God really is present in my daily life," says Thiele. "It helps me be more aware of the presence of God and the mysterious ways God works."
|Beth Morgan, a part of the School for Contemplative Living, shares books with people coming to Luke’s House, a free community health clinic in New Orleans. Morgan is a member of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Slidell, La.
|UMNS Photo/Kathy Gilbert
Kami L. Rice is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.