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Mary Jo Bowman
Book Review
Christian Ethics
April 12, 2007

School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism
Edited by The Rutba House
Cascade Books, 2005

 

Introduction

This unique collection of essays provides an opportunity to touch and see the variegated fabric of an ecumenical and prophetic movement which is weaving patterns of authentic Christian discipleship in the context of the church in the United States today. In June 2004, The Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina initiated and hosted a gathering of persons who are drawn to “a new monasticism.” These essays articulate the common characteristics that mark the shape of this movement, as discerned at the gathering. Each essay addresses one of these twelve “marks,” with stories of personal pilgrimage and communal experiences, along with reflections on church history and on Scripture. The authors are often candid and confessional, sharing not only their wisdom but their struggles and questions. Along with a website, this book serves as a tool for continued formation, dialogue, and discernment for this network of persons and communities, and for the broader church. While being theologically substantial, this book offers a storehouse of colorful examples of faithful Christian living, and is highly relevant to a study of Christian ethics and church renewal in the twenty-first century.

The term “a new monasticism” is drawn from the last chapter of Jonathan R. Wilson’s book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from Macintyre’s ‘After Virtue’. Wilson acknowledges that when he wrote that book in 1990, “the New Monasticism” was but an experiment in thought.1 While Wilson’s connection to the 2004 gathering and ongoing movement is not clear, his work with Alasdair MacIntyre’s thought evidently is significant for the editors of this book.

In his introduction to School(s) for Conversion, Wilson offers “strategic guidance” for the vision that is developed in the rest of the book. He counsels the New Monasticism (NM) to draw on the wisdom of MacIntyre, i.e. to be aware of the failure of the Enlightenment project, grapple with the fragmentation of our life, think critically about our cultural history and its expressions of power, and pursue a clear purpose (telos) rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. He points to the importance of this movement being “historically situated,” “eschatologically directed,” and grace dependent.” 2 Wilson suggests that insights from MacIntyre, along with the wisdom of Saint Benedict and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can help this movement guard against the temptations to perpetuate its own life, or to focus on being heroic and saving the world.

The 12 Marks

Mark 1: Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire

Sister Margaret M. McKenna, co-founder of New Jerusalem Now--a community of fifty formerly homeless recovering addicts in North Philadelphia--focuses her essay on the theme of desert. She examines the opportunities for knowing God and ourselves in the desert, as she writes about Jesus in the wilderness, Elijah on Mount Horeb, and the poetic images of the desert in Isaiah 35 and Hosea 2, as well as her many personal experiences of relocation. She reflects on the experience and writings of the desert fathers and mothers who relocated in response to Constantinian influences in the church. For contemporary expressions of this mark of NM, she highlights Catholic Worker houses, Jonah House of Baltimore, and life in her own community.

Essentially, McKenna sees relocation as an expression of “conversion and commitment, the decision to resist imperial pressures and the pleasures and rewards of conformity to the way of all empires: pride, power, and reduction of all values to the ‘bottom line’…It makes it easy and almost necessary to live the Jesus way… In a new place, one must begin by looking and listening, and this leads to love, creativity, service, and surprise.” 3

More than any of the other essays in this book, McKenna’s reflects the critique of Constantinianism. Her focal image of desert is exegetically solid as she employs texts from throughout the canon to explore this significant Biblical theme and relates it to the early monastic movement and the life of Jesus.

 Mark 2: Sharing Economic Resources with Fellow Community Members and the Needy Among Us

 Money. Downward Mobility. Radical Sharing. Fasting. Celebrating Jubilee. These are some of the topics in this essay by Shane Claiborne, founding member of The Simple Way, a community that began in 1997 among college students whose Christian faith was challenged and transformed by their friendships with homeless families in North Philadelphia. Looking at scripture (e.g. Matt. 25) and church tradition, he calls for moving beyond caring about the poor to knowing persons in poverty. He points to the early church, as in Acts 4, where rebirth is connected with economic practices of redistributing property and “falling in love with each other across class lines.”4 While he sees value in ascetic elements of the monastic tradition, instead of a “vow of poverty”--which he says has no appeal to anyone who has ever been poor and “reeks of privilege”5--he advocates a “theology of enough” as expressed in the important command to our ancestors in the desert: “Each one is to gather only as much as s/he needs.” (Ex 16).6

The biblical text he chooses for a focal point is Mark 10: 29-31, i.e. Jesus’ call to leave the security of home, family, and property, in order to receive the exponentially greater blessings of eternal life, now and in the future. Claiborne discusses this text in the context of the story of the rich ruler’s encounter with Jesus, where Jesus counsels him to “sell everything you have and give to the poor” (v 21-22). Jesus was saddened by the rich man’s refusal, but he did not compromise his demand. Claiborne observes: “Jesus doesn’t exclude rich people, he just lets them know that it will cost them everything they have.” 7 He further illustrates his points about sacrificing privilege by relating a story about Mother Teresa, with whom he served in Calcutta. He also offers stories about the joy of simply sharing resources with neighbors, of dividing up large monetary gifts and windfalls among a network of communities and sharing with strangers.

Having heard Claiborne speak last year, I remember his winsome dedication to the Gospel, his joy and his lack of a judgmental attitude towards our mostly middle class, comfortable seminary community. His essay expresses compassion for the rich as well as for the poor, and indicates his awareness of the privilege he has to choose to live simply. His exegesis of the Mark 10 passage, as well as his emphasis on friendships with persons in poverty, are especially challenging to middle class Christians.

 Mark 3: Hospitality to the Stranger

 Maria Russell Kenney centers her essay on her story about John, a man—homeless and mentally ill--whom she and her husband befriended and eventually invited to live with them. It is a story of struggle and transformation for Kenney and her husband, as well as improved health and stability for John. This small experiment in intentional community in Lexington, Kentucky, (which they have come to call “Communality”) also involves a network of others who have supported and cared for the couple and for John.

The mark of hospitality is rooted in the biblical story, where God is known as a welcoming God, incarnate in the connection and welcome of Christ. 8 The biblical story also reminds God’s chosen people that we are strangers and aliens, instructed to care for strangers among us. The Bible also has many stories of celebratory meals with unexpected guests, in the Old Testament and especially in the ministry of Jesus.

A key point in Kenney’s essay is that the Bible presents hospitality as a discipline or command, not as a special spiritual gift of a select few. She states: “Hospitality is found, not among the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but in what some Bibles call the ‘Conduct for Christian Living’ portion of Romans 12”—i.e. “alongside exhortations to faithful prayer and brotherly love”9 which are hardly seen as optional. She further cites injunctions for hospitality in I Peter 4:9, Titus 1:8, I Tim. 3:2, and the parables of the talents and the last judgement in Matt. 25.

While hospitality is a biblical mandate, Kenney insists that it cannot be standardized.

Beyond her own story, she illustrates this with glimpses into the life of communities who care for refugees and who include persons with learning disabilities (L’Arche Communities). She advocates being open to receiving hospitality, remembering that Jesus is “our model for both guest and host.”10 She encourages hospitality that is quiet and ordinary.

The message in this essay is so simple and yet quite challenging. Most of us are too busy to engage in the kind of hospitality Kenney insists is the call of all Christians. The transparency in her personal story serves as a realistic picture of the difficulties of hospitality along with the possibilities, especially when undertaken with communal support.

Mark 4: Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of Just Reconciliation

Chris Rice is a white man who lived for 12 years in an interracial Christian community called Antioch, in Jackson, Mississippi. He is currently co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. Presumably he knows The Rutba House folks. For him, lament emphasizes remembering the long-standing racial divisions in the church in this country, and grieving that reconciliation is not yet realized among us. He writes of segregated neighbors in Durham, of the messiness of working at racial reconciliation, especially the barriers of white privilege. He calls for careful social analysis, rooted in biblical call to openness and hospitality to the stranger, and the reconciling work of Christ.

Given this biblical mandate to welcome “the other,” Rice is concerned about the use of the term “new monasticism” and its connection with white privilege. He sees this phrase as conjuring up images of white men living in cloisters, and has appeal only for “people with a certain kind of tradition, or network, or education.” 11 He recalls his African-American friend Spencer Perkins warning him that mostly white, educated people are attracted to radical Christian communities, especially to those which emphasize downward mobility. At the initial New Monasticism gathering, Rice observed that while the communities represented often live in multi-ethnic neighborhoods, their membership is essentially white.

He says it’s a sign of hope to be bothered by this. He writes: “Lament reminds us that we area not God, that visions like the new monasticism do not capture the Kingdom, that true reconciliation is only in the eschaton...We have to keep proclaiming what is not, even what is not in our own midst.” 12 Rice sees the bringing together of strangers, such as the traditions of Benedict and Martin Luther King, as the kind of imaginative work needed today.

I am familiar with Rice from a book he co-authored with Spencer Perkins, a powerful story about the hard work of racial reconciliation.13 I am disappointed that his essay for the NM book does not address his choice to now be a member of a predominantly white church in a mostly white neighborhood, nearby but clearly segregated from the neighborhood where The Rutba House is located.14 Hearing that piece of his story would provide a valuable, mature perspective on the challenges of racial reconciliation.

Mark 5: Humble Submission to Christ’s Body, the Church

Ivan Kauffman writes about his journey of being raised Amish, which he found oppressively legalistic, tribal, critical and suspicious of the larger church. Driven close to suicide by the high ethical demands of the Amish, as a young man he discovered “the Great Tradition”—“the set of beliefs and practices that have been maintained by Christians throughout the centuries and are still held by the vast majority of Christians.”15 This discovery saved his life: “The impossible burden of having to do it all by myself and the terrible insecurity of never knowing if I was right were both lifted from my shoulders. A new life opened before me. I now saw the church as a gift rather than as an accomplishment.” 16 While it is not clear from his essay, evidently Kauffman (who I discovered was executive secretary for MCC Peace Section in the 1960’s) has found his home, at least theologically, in the catholic church.

Kaufmann works at articulating a theology of church, and makes an intriguing observation:

The Christian churches are currently divided between two very different understandings of church. In short we can say that some Christians hold that we become Christians by joining the church, whereas others hold that we create the church by becoming Christians. One group emphasizes the religious experience of the individual in the present, the other emphasizes the importance of the church as a community in history.17

He argues that St. Paul’s theology of the church counters the notion of autonomous church members (like marbles in a bucket)18 and rather emphasizes the organic whole, the body of Christ. Kauffman warns against the sin of individualism and the related temptations that he sees throughout Christian history and in his church of origin: the Pharisaical sins of pride and separation and inauthenticity (thinking we are superior to others of lesser commitment and refusing to associate with them). He commends the Benedictine monastic movement as an historical example of being a renewal movement which maintained its accountability to the wider church. In addition, he gives the example of Reba Place, an Anabaptist intentional community and its journey with issues of denominational connections and accountability.

While Kauffman does not clearly state what his own denominational and local church affiliation is at present (and I wish he did), he makes a strong appeal for the communities involved in the NM movement to establish strong connections with the wider church. This he sees as a matter of survival and integrity which can take many forms. He also advocates grassroots dialogue across ecclesial divides, such as Bridgefolk movement (of which he is a part), which connects leaders of Mennonite churches and Roman Catholic Churches.

 Mark 6: Intentional Formation in the Way of Christ and the Rule of the Community Along the Lines of the Old Novitiate

David Janzen, a member of the Mennonite-affiliated Reba Place Fellowship, illustrates this bridge building beautifully in his essay on the wisdom of Benedictine practices for spiritual formation. He grounds his essay by articulating the New Testament vision of the novitiate (especially the emphasis on renunciation) in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, the apostles’ discipling of the early church in Jerusalem and in the scattered church in subsequent generations. He also points to St. Anthony and the early monastic movement in response to the corruption of Christendom as exemplars of spiritual formation practices which had a huge impact on church history.

Following the Benedictine model, Janzen highlights several formative practices which he commends to the NM communities. First, he puts forth the practice of “testing the spirits,” a process of discernment about involvement and levels of accountability in a particular community. He offers the example of the layered process used by The Simple Way, which they call the “Onion,” with differing expectations and commitments for “Visitors, Guests, Nomads and Novices.”19 A second Benedictine practice is that of spiritual direction for novices. Third, a community rule (or covenant, commitments, oath or vows) further assists in discernment and accountability. Fourth, Janzen advocates having a celebration of membership, similar to the monastic practice of taking vows. And finally, he advises creating and maintaining connections between new and older communities, and for more mature communities to plant and mentor new communities. He gives the example of the Bruderhof, which has a relatively long history and encourages the formation of new communities while modeling a structure of sister communities.

Janzen cautions the NM movement not to buy into the grandiosity and idolatry suggested by MacIntyre’s idea (in After Virtue) that “Western Civilization can only be saved by a new Benedict. He counters that Benedict “had not intention of saving ‘Western Civilization’.”20 The focus of a NM needs to be on the way of Jesus, and not on trying “to meet the needs of the world as defined by the world.”21 He makes this confession of faith: “Our hope is not in America, not in Western Civilization, and not in our communities. Our hope is in Jesus and the power of his Spirit…”22

I found this essay to be an especially clear statement about the connection between Christian discipleship (as expressed in the New Testament) and the monastic tradition. Janzen’s words make a significant contribution to answering the question, which may be especially prominent in Believer’s Church circles, about the validity of monasticism as model not only for intentional communities but for more mainstream congregations seeking to revitalize catechesis.

 Mark 7: Nurturing Common Life Among Members of Intentional Community

Sherrie Steiner, an author and teacher living in Wayne, PA (near Philadelphia) writes together with Michelle Harper Brix, a founding member of The Simple Way. In their section on biblical and theological resources for common life, they present the most eschatological view of any of the essays thus far. They emphasize the destiny of God’s people expressed in the Old Testament, as God’s people chosen for the purpose of blessing all nations. According to Scripture, the early Christian church was oriented toward the future and the hope of the coming kingdom of God, grounded in Christ’s victory over the powers of evil. This telos brings with it the pattern of longing, which gathered, united, and sent out the early Christian community.23

To avoid distortion from an exclusive focus on this future and visionary goal, Steiner and Brix write of the need for direction concerned with daily life in the present. They caution against several pitfalls in this everyday journey: (1) “obsession” with our own significance, which can be accompanied by “desperation”; (2) “desire” which can make us grasp at privilege, be ego-centric, and manipulative; (3) “ecstasy” which seeks the pleasure of human intimacy above the Gospel; (4) “detachment” which distorts healthy asceticism into a Gnostic dualism; and (5) “despair” which can arise from lack of self-care and neglect of relationship with God amidst communal demands.24

A story from Steiner’s personal experience of burnout, traumatic grief, and healing in the context of Christian community illustrates well the hazards and blessings of common life. She especially points out the crucial perspective that can offered by persons from outside of our everyday, most intimate communal relationships. Likewise, the stories offered by Brix of her journey emphasize the guidance and healing she and her husband received from other communities which they visited during a period of respite from their community in Philadelphia.

This essay offers honest reflections on the difficult challenges of relationships in community, and the need for a network of friendship which can provide nurture toward healing. Although not stated, I imagine that these women may be functioning in this supportive role for each other as neighbors who are not actually members of the same community. Their essay highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in nurturing communities and empowering resistance to “prideful, narcissistic sectarianism.” 25

 Mark 8: Support for Celibate Singles Alongside Monogamous Married Couples and Their Children

 Jana Bennett, a Ph.D. student in theology at Duke University, does not identify herself with a particular community, although she draws from insights from Carmelites, Benedictine, and the Catholic Worker communities. She offers a helpful overview of biblical material pertaining to singleness, celibacy, marriage, and childbearing, ranging from Genesis to Hosea, the Gospels to Paul’s writings (especially 1 Cor. 7).

Her reflections are expressly eschatological, “which means that marriage and celibacy are always supposed to make us aware of who we are, whose we are, and where we are going as God’s people.”26 She suggests accountability to the community about marital fidelity and other boundaries, along with communal involvement in discernment about deciding to marry. Further, she advocates intentional support for marriage relationships and parenting, which involves formation of friendships among married persons and singles.

This mark of NM, along with the one on racial divisions, has evidently been somewhat controversial, as evidenced in the dialogue about it on the NM website. Questions have been raised about gender roles in communities, and about the possibility of including monogamous same-sex couples in NM communities. A member from The Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (posted 03 Jan 2005 on <newmonasticism.org>) commented:

We knew at the time (of the 2004 gathering) that the language (of this mark) was vague, but we said all that we could. God cares about our bodies. We live in a time when bodies and their sexuality are exploited by economic and political powers. New monastic communities are places where we want to figure out how to honor bodies for the sake of the body of Christ.

Further, Wilson-Hartgrove acknowledges that the NM network does not have a clear “position” about homosexuality. He indicates that he does not have the answer and that he has concerns that “even the way we usually talk about this problematic.” He acknowledges that Christians, both hetero and homo sexual folks, come out at different places on the spectrum when they interpret scriptures and the Christian tradition on this issue. In the end, he expresses his commitment “to keep listening to all of them.”

I, for one, will be interested in seeing what the NM community can teach the rest of the church on how to live with these questions. And I affirm the practical suggestions that Bennett offers, along with how she frames issues of sexuality as rightfully in need of theological attention by the church.

 Mark 9: Geographical Proximity to Community Members Who Share a Common Rule of Life

This essay is written by Jon Stock, a publisher of Wipf and Stock, a cooperative enterprise of the Church of the Servant in Eugene, Oregon, where he is a member of one seven intentionally communal households within a five minute walk of each other. While he claims no biblical imperative for proximity, he grounds his essay in concerns for identity and mission. He writes: “Many Americans derive identity from family, neighborhood, employment, or hobbies. We are trying to live in such a way that our identity as members of Christ’s church is primary.”27

While noting that “living in close proximity guarantees nothing” it functions as an expression of the important New Testament concept of koinonia. He names several texts that speak of this concept, as well as the “Greek reciprocal pronoun (allelon) that means ‘one another’.” He illustrates the importance of proximity through his descriptions of a church which supports refugees and another which is organized around house churches. He includes the text of their house church covenant. In addition, he describes the communal life of the Bruderhof, which is now around 90 years old, and a Christian community formed in the last decade which has adopted a Cohousing design for living in close proximity.

In practical and profound ways, this mark counters the lure of individualism, and has the potential for making the distinctives of Christian living more visible to our neighbors.

Having lived within walking distance of several fellow church members and other close friends in Washington, DC, and well as having lived in intentionally communal households for a few years, I can appreciate the wisdom of this mark of NM. When that kind of proximity has been lacking in my life, as it is currently, I have been aware of a longing for the spontaneous interaction and focus of relationships that can come with close neighbors. However, as I recall my several visits to Bruderhof communities, I know I would struggle with the emphasis on shared spaces and social activities and the relative lack of space and time for solitude. I wonder how NM communities address the needs of introverts. My longing for proximity along with a measure of privacy inspires the current interest my husband and I have in a Cohousing Community.

Mark 10: Care for the Plot of God’s Earth Given to Us Along with Support of Our Local Economies

Norman Wirzba is teaches Philosophy at Georgetown College, near Lexington, Kentucky. He tells little of his personal story, except that he grew up on a farm, and most of the Christians he knew in his youth were involved in farming. Nor does he tell us much about his connection to NM. He does offer an extended commentary on the care of creation in scripture and tradition, with a focus on the story of Noah’s faithful care for God’s creation and on the practice of Sabbath. He advocates several practices: gardening, shopping responsibly through support local economies, making room in our households for hospitality, and celebrating through practices such as those of the Slow Food movement—mindfully preparing meals and eating with enjoyment.

I was delighted to see the topics of shopping and food included in this essay. Wirzba makes a significant contribution to the NM movement by proposing a way of relating to creation that models a faithful response to Wendell Berry’s claim that most Christians are no different that anyone else in their participation in “military-industrial conspiracy to murder creation.”28

Mark 11: Peacemaking in the Midst of Violence and Conflict Resolution Along the Lines of Matthew 18

Fred Bahnson, a farmer and writer from Efland, NC (near Durham), served with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Chiapas, Mexico in 2001. His essay tells of his journey of becoming a pacifist, through study and encounters with Christians practicing nonviolence. He says of himself: “I was once part of that vague majority of Christians who knew that Jesus said we’re to love our enemies, but believed that doing so was ‘unrealistic’….I grew up confused about how Christians deal with a violent world because the church as a whole is confused.”29 This confusion is illustrated by images of an annual battleship Easter service held by his neighbor’s church in Wilmington, Delaware, with a U.S. flag draped over the cross, hymns juxtaposed with the Pledge of Allegiance, and worshippers turning toward the rising sun to greet the Lord’s resurrection to face large guns on the deck of the ship.

This mark of NM is rooted in the way of Jesus and its inherent critique of the church’s alliance with the Empire. Bahnson’s reflections about the Gospel imperative for peacemaking sound very much like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, although he does not name them. The kingdom of God is a political reality. The person of Jesus Christ embodied the kingdom. The church is a contrast-society, shaped by the cross and Jesus’ command of “active enemy-love.”30 Christian peacemaking is not driven by rules, but by eschatological hope amidst persecution, as expressed in Revelation.

Bahnson first saw this kind of pacifism embodied among a small group of indigenous Christians in Chiapas. Amidst the Mexican government’s low-scale war on it own citizens, Las Abejas rejected the violent response of the Zapatistas, and instead chose Jesus’ way of nonviolence. They were motivated by simple obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. Las Abejas lost 45 members during a massacre by paramilitary forces that gunned them down during a three-day gathering of fasting and prayer for peace. Witnesses said that during the massacre one Las Abejas man prayed the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Despite being displaced, this neo-monastic community in Mexico has stood firm in its witness for peace, even meeting with members of the paramilitary force and offering forgiveness.

Christian Peacemaker Team experiences in Iraq have also informed Bahnson and his friends at The Rutba House. That community evidently received its name through the experience of its founding members, Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove. Having arrived in Baghdad a week after the U.S. began to bomb Iraq in 2003, the group of CPT’ers was forced to leave the country. On the road to Amman, Jordon one of their cars was evidently attacked by Iraqi police and the injured CPT’ers ended up in a makeshift clinic in the town of Rutba, because the hospital had been bombed. The Iraqi doctor who cared for them refused payment; he asked only that they “just go home and tell the people of the world what happen in Rutba.”31

The CPT’ers were the first internationals to confirm that the U.S. military had bombed a civilian hospital in Rutba. They told their story to all the major news media who would listen, although CNN refused to air it. Jonathan told Bahnson: “We realized that the story of ‘the enemy’ extending hospitality to Americans after our country had bombed them was too disturbing a thing for American TV viewers to hear. The culture of hospitality we saw in the Rutba hospital ran so counter to the culture of war portrayed by the media, that the Rutba story couldn’t be told.” So, Jonathan and his wife Leah decided that rather than returning to Baghdad they would try to practice the kind of hospitality they received in Rutba. Along with Isaac Villegas they opened a hospitality house in an urban neighborhood. And whenever anyone asks them about the name of the house, they offer their story.

In addition to the life-and-death issues of pacifism, Bahnson also addresses the more mundane issues of interpersonal conflict in Christian communities. He discusses Matthew 18, and illustrates it with a story from the Bruderhof. A kindergarten teacher and several of her co-workers were troubled by the dictatorial attitude of the head teacher. They put up with it for a long time, and kept to the communal discipline of not talking about another behind her back.

Finally they were all able to talk openly about the problem, to confess sinful attitudes and hurt healings. They realized they their openness was indeed a gift, and that such a risk is necessary for peace.

This well articulated essay provides a succinct apology for Christian pacifism, powerfully illustrated with the stories about militaristic idolatry in the church and examples of communities which are learning to practice a different way.

Mark 12: Commitment to a Disciplined Contemplative Life

This essay by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is well placed after the essay on peacemaking. He credits his friend Jim Douglass, long time peace activist and author of the 1972 book Resistance and Contemplation,32with teaching and mentoring him in the way of contemplation.

Douglass in turn credits Thomas Merton with teaching him to pray. Notably, Wilson-Hartgrove’s friendship with Douglass began in the desert of Iraq, on the same Christian Peacemaker Team trip described in Bahnson’s essay.

Drawing from Douglass’ book, this essay states that scripture provides the foundation for learning the practice of contemplation, with the recognition that there are “two dimensions of liberation: freedom from social oppression and freedom from the sin which is the root of social oppression. Resistance is the fire in which we find freedom from social oppression. Contemplation is the flame through which our souls find liberation.”33 Repentance is where contemplation begins, and the transformative work involved takes a lifetime. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness illustrates the formative work that even Jesus, who was without sin, had to do “to train his brain in faithful patterns of thought and action.” 34 Jesus modeled a life of prayer, which enabled him to choose the cross.

“Contemplation is about learning to see the world through the lens of the cross.”35 It is a learning process, and Mother Teresa is an example of one who learned over many years of practice to serve as Christ served, to receive the mind of Christ. Contemplation is not a skill, nor a technique, but rather the process of coming to “the realization that we do not know what we are doing,”36 of trusting God amidst the darkness.

Wilson-Hartgrove’s stories of “neo-monastic contemplation” include glimpses into Jim Douglass’ practices of reading a few verses of the New Testament each morning, in Greek, which is necessarily slow. Like Merton, he also writes slowly and prayerfully, whether working on a book or correspondence. The essay also includes stories of renewal through the Eucharist, fasting and prayer, in the contexts of activist burnout and imprisonment for protesting war.

The author also writes of his personal journey with contemplative disciplines, including thirty minutes each morning with the Jesus Prayer, mysticism in singing black spirituals with his neighborhood church, and weekly Saturday morning prayer walks and vigils amidst drug dealers in the streets around The Rutba House.

This essay highlights the importance of prayer practices that become disciplines, and the wisdom that can be received from mentors and saints who have gone before us. Wilson-Hartgrove illustrates well the meaning of this book’s title—ways of experiencing ongoing conversion that put contemporary shape to ancient beliefs and practices.

 Conclusion

This book succeeds in its stated purpose of “giving more texture to the twelve marks by rooting the convictions in our Scriptures and the history of the church, and providing stories that display the kinds of faithfulness the marks describe.” 37 These essays flow beautifully and incorporate both strong and fragile threads, with colorful and complementary hues as “an attempt to show how some Christians in the church in the United States feel the Spirit leading them to creative ways of life that may provide the hope of new possibilities of faithfulness.”38 As a reader, I am moved by the struggle and hopefulness expressed in these pages. I can only imagine the rich conversation these essays have generated for those intimately involved in the NM movement, as well as their friends, onlookers, and critics. The humility, honesty and joy in these pages make this book compelling and winsome.

This book is an excellent example of the power of narrative. It powerfully illustrates the potential for communal discernment around Scripture, church history and social analysis. It displays the wisdom and humility that emerges out of conversations among persons from differing Christian faith streams, bringing together mainline Protestants with Anabaptists and Catholics. The value of “alternative” communities being connected with local, more mainstream congregations comes through in several of the essays. These characteristics make his book an excellent resource for college or seminaries as a companion book to the study of Christian ethical theory or to contemporary experiments in Christian living.

Reading this book as somewhat of an “outsider,” I found points in the book when I wanted to know more about the persons who were writing, their backgrounds, their involvement with NM, and their relationships with each other. On the other hand, as somewhat of an “insider” in terms of my familiarity with a number of the communities or individuals named in the book, and in terms of my appreciation of/knowledge about monasticism as a renewal movement, I wonder how the average Christian in the United States might receive this book. I think it is not uncommon for the typical Christian to have little knowledge of monasticism and to see it as a foreign, quaint, irrelevant or even objectionable part of the church. Perhaps a fuller explanation of what is meant by “School(s) of Conversion” and the significance of monasticism as a movement throughout church history would be helpful.

When I reflect on the monastic tradition, especially the Benedictine stream emphasized by NM, I see two areas of common life that are given very little attention in the twelve marks.

First, there is little said about corporate worship, liturgy, the Eucharist or singing. I am curious about how NM communities incorporate worship into their communal lives, and how they relate to congregations in this way. In the editor’s preface, and in a few other instances, worship is mentioned. I would like to see this developed further.

Another communal issue that I think is not adequately addressed in the twelve marks of the NM is leadership. The Benedictine tradition began with a clear designation of leadership, which carried a considerable weight of authority and pastoral responsibility. I imagine these diverse NM communities handle these issues in a variety of ways. I think it would be helpful to specifically address leadership styles and structures, concerns which are often especially complicated and contentious as an organic movement matures and moves into the second generation. The more mature communities included in these stories, such as Reba Place, the Bruderhof, and the Catholic Worker would surely have wisdom and questions that could be helpful in discerning the characteristics of leadership in the NM.

When I consider how this book might serve the larger church, I see potential for small groups or Sunday School classes in congregations studying this book together. Its format would lend itself well to that, as each essay is no more than fifteen pages in length. The website provides additional resources for those who want to learn more about the NM movement and to participate in ongoing conversations about what the Spirit is saying to the churches in the United States today, including attending seminars and inviting guest speakers.

The central challenge of this book to its readers is to move beyond the level of ideas about Christian discipleship and being church to actually risk following the Spirit into new ways of living. At least, that is the challenge which the book presented to me. Thanks be to God that The Rutba House was inspired to share this gift of stories of faithful experiments and questions with the wider church.

Bibliography

Douglass, James W. Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation: The Yin and Yang of the Non-Violent Life. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972.

Perkins, Spencer, and Chris Rice. More Than Equals: Racial Reconciliation for the Sake of the Gospel. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Rutba House, The, ed. School(S) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock, 2005.

 

Endnotes

The Rutba House, ed., School(S) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock, 2005), 1.

Ibid., 3-8.

Ibid., 15.

Ibid., 30.

Ibid., 32.

Ibid., 31.

Ibid., 33-34.

Ibid., 45.

Ibid., 46.

Ibid., 53.

Ibid., 63.

Ibid., 67.

Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals: Racial Reconciliation for the Sake of the Gospel (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

Ibid., 57-58, 172.

Rutba House, ed., School(S) for Conversion, 70.

Ibid., 71.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Ibid., 87.

Ibid., 95.

Ibid.

Ibid., 96.

Ibid., 102.

Ibid., 103-06.

Ibid., 111.

Ibid., 119.

Ibid., 124.

Ibid., 137.

Ibid., 149-51.

Ibid., 153.

Ibid., 158.

James W. Douglass, Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation: The Yin and Yang of the Non-Violent Life (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972).

Rutba House, ed., School(S) for Conversion, 164-65.

Ibid., 166.

Ibid., 167.

Ibid., 167-68.

Ibid., x.

Ibid.