This past semester my MRE brothers Graham and Ryan wrote a fantastic reflection on Monasticism and the Church while reading Steven Bevans 'Constants in Context' and David Bosch's 'Transforming Mission'. With their permission I had to share it with my readers!! :) Bevans paints a picture in chapter four of monasticism as one of the primary means of mission in the church during the fourth through tenth centuries. Bosch adds to this the idea by stating that the monastic movement may be responsible for allowing any hint of authentic Christianity to develop in Europe during their “dark ages” (Bosch, 235). Given this illustrious history, many today in North America are seeing a return to monasticism as a place to go in order to more faithfully live out the gospel. It seems that those who seek to return to monasticism see it as a retreat from the failure of the church, or perhaps even a retreat from the culture surrounding us. While both of these are not necessarily bad, Bevans’ work pushes us to think about the roots of monasticism and understand its true history. If people today have a false picture of early monasticism, how it arose, and its purpose, we may romanticize monasticism and misunderstand what if offers Christians today. Therefore, monasticism could become a place to hide from the world, and even the church, and lose its missional nature. Bevans’ calls monasticism one of the primary conduits of mission during this time period. Rather than monasticism being a retreat, Bevans pushes us to see monasticism as a resource or service to the church. Given this better understanding, we are moved to observe what monasticism offers the church of today.
Monasticism teaches and opens up many things to the church today. Generally speaking, the monastic movement throughout the fourth to tenth centuries played many important roles both within the church and within society as a whole. The interrelationship between church, mission and baptism that was at the core of mission in the early church was predominantly lost when Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. “However, monasticism arose as a movement that radicalized and symbolized this basic baptismal commitment within the church. The monk and nun replaced the martyr as the ideal in the Christian community” (Bevans 129).
Currently, we are in an era where most churches in the west view missionary work as a vocation or as something that is a program as opposed to central to the identity of the follower of Jesus. The monastic movement however, saw mission work as part of the baptismal and communal life of the church and was represented in their rules of life and monastic community. The Celtic monastic practice of pilgrimage became a practice of missionary work: “But the pilgrim must help others he meets on their journeys, that the concept of pilgrimage often merged into that of mission…” (Bosch 238). The monasteries themselves were central in cities as places of education, translation, medicine, vocational training, industry, and mercy: “The citizens of the heavenly city were actively seeking the peace and good order of the earthly city” (237). Monastic movements served and associated with the peasant class of the places they formed their communities: “…through their sanctifying work and poverty they lifted the hearts of the poor and neglected peasants and inspired them while at the same time revolutionizing the order of social values which had dominated the empire’s slave-owning society” (Bosch 237). The rule of St Benedict emphasized the holiness and spirituality of daily work. Monastic communities carried out by the work of their own hands the building of roads and bridges, the clearing of land, and the cultivating of agriculture where there was none before. Their mission not only lifted up the peasants, but transformed the land and reformed the society as a whole. Thus monasteries and the rule of life were themselves practices of mission.
Finally, the monastic movement served the local church. It transcribed manuscripts, trained leaders, priests, and lay people, discipled new converts and deepened their faith and spiritual practices, gave them a sense of mission, and set examples by their own lives and witness. The monastic movement was often a bright spot in an otherwise dark time during Medieval Christianity. Furthermore, the Western expression of monasticism was “far more independent of government interference” (Bosch 236) which allowed them to not only play a reforming role in society but also provide a “prophetic witness” to the church (Bevans 134), calling the church to a deeper walk with Christ and a practical spirituality, as well as a critique of tendencies towards power, busyness, wealth, and material possessions.
“In the midst of a world ruled by the love of self, the monastic communities were a visible sign and preliminary realization of a world ruled by the love of God” (Bosch 235). How could we not see a need for all of these monastic practices and tendencies in the church today? We need a more integrated spirituality that sees working with the earth, secular work, and identifying with and advocating for the blue collar worker just as spiritual as the work of the pastor. We need a more communal expression of our spiritual life and a rule of life would certainly help with discipleship and with personal spiritual growth and personal responsibility for mission and acts of compassion. The slow patient way of St Benedict is needed for transforming our neighbourhoods and there is certainly a need for a prophetic voice to speak to the churches of the West about fascinations with power, wealth, busyness, and consumption and to instead call followers of Jesus to a life of simplicity and an embodied practice of mission and compassion. Our question is, how is monasticism to be embodied in the local church? Can one local church seek to serve other local churches in their neighbourhood in helping them see an embodied practice of mission rooted in our identity as followers of Jesus just as monastic orders served the local churches of their day? Or does this kind of service need to be done by a non-church body for the sake of other church bodies?