In our studies of the Desert Fathers, we attempted to look at the ‘heart’ of monastic spirituality. To do so, we had to divorce ourselves from our contemporary understanding of monasticism, in all its outward expressions, to try not to miss the originality and vulnerability of these early Christians, who as pioneers had no foreknowledge as to how their lives would develop as they responded to what was, for them, ‘the call of God.’
Thomas Merton makes this clear in ‘The Wisdom of the Desert’:
“Though I might be expected to claim that men like this, (The Desert Fathers), could be found in some of our monasteries, I will not be so bold. With us it is often the case of men leaving the society of the ‘world’ in order to fit themselves into another kind of society, that of the religious family, which they enter. And, since we now have centuries of monasticism behind us, this puts the whole thing in a different light. The social norms of the monastic family are also apt to be ‘conventional’, and to live by them does not involve a leap into the void.”
(DISCUSS THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF MONASTICISM) on tape
In this seminar when attempting to understand ‘a new monasticism’ our approach will be the same. Again, we will have to try and divorce ourselves from our contemporary images of the monastic life.
So in talking about a ‘new monasticism’ we are not talking about ‘joining’ a religious order, or the need for renewal of the ‘old’ monastic institutions.
What we are looking for is the ‘heart’ of monastic spirituality, and its application in our contemporary setting.
As Merton goes on to say;
“We cannot do exactly as they did” (The Desert Fathers THE CELTS!) “But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves; to discover our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build on earth the Kingdom of God.
“This is not the place to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve” (a new monasticism?). “Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the C4 how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion, and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.”
You may well ask at this point, (and some of you already have), why talk about, or use the term, Monasticism? Why not just talk about The Kingdom of God, or Discipleship.
The answer to that question is this:
The call to monasticism is a specific vocation!
Not all are called to the monastic life.
(DISCUSS) on tape.
The whole purpose of these seminars is to give people the opportunity to ‘test their vocation’. Now this may sound presumptions, and even a little bit cranky, but we already know that there are people here today, and others whom we are in contact with, who have sensed a ‘call of God’ on their lives, and are trying to make ‘sense’ of that call; because it is unlike anything they have experienced before!
…. Well, join the club!
There are also present today those of us who have responded to that ‘call’, and have made real choices to respond, and who have found ourselves in a christian context which defies definition and coherence, yet in some way only makes sense within the monastic tradition. And we are not alone.
William Stringfellow in his book, ‘An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land’, describes the characteristics of what he calls an ’emerging confessing movement’ in Western Christianity:
“Dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent’, ecumenically open and often experimental, visible here and there, now and then, but unsettled institutionally. Almost Monastic in nature, but most of all… enacting a fearful hope for human life in society”
We firmly believe that here, in Northumbria, the Lord is touching Christians’ lives, in the same way as he touched the lives of those early believers whom we now call ‘The Desert Fathers’. Christians are experiencing a ‘divine concern’ regarding the nature of their Christianity, a call to repentance, a call to self denial, and a call to recognise and to resist evil. A call from the Lord, to ‘find a different way’ of being a Christian in the society that we live in.
THIS IS THE HEART OF THE NEW MONASTICISM
But there are also real dangers on our journey, of which we need to be aware.
There is an old proverb that says:
“Whenever the Lord restores an Altar the Devil builds one nearby”
In the O.T. the restoration of an altar often signified that the Lord was about to do a great thing in Israel. The restoration of the altar called the people back to a true worship of the one God, which was, more than uplifting worship meetings; this involved a practical repentance, a breaking of idols and radical social change.
We believe the Lord is restoring an altar of true worship, and calling to us: To examine our lives, and to let go of the idols that have taken His place. To actively resist social evil. To find a ‘different way’ of being a Christian in a society that has rejected the God of Jesus, and yet one in which we remain almost completely identified.
Yet the Devil, too, has built an altar. The new age movement, with its alternative everythings, is calling to people to find ‘an alternative spirituality’ to that which we have experienced in the western world. But involved in this call is also the call to worship a different God than ‘He who has been revealed to us in the Lord Jesus’. And while the altar may look familiar, and the ‘liturgy’ sound the same, the worship will only lead to a greater manifestation of evil disguised as ‘good’. We shall not worship at that altar.
I am sad to say that one of the leading proponents of this evil influence is a monastic, and many of the older monastic movements are accepting this deception as a way to renewal. We ourselves must beware; but we must still take the journey.
While we are unsure of what the new, monasticism may look like in its outward form, we already are beginning to experience the nature of the inward call, and we can speak, however hesitantly, about that. That is what we shall now attempt to do.
Several years ago, I had a dream which I believed the Lord would have me share with a prominent church leader, who had the responsibility for many growing churches.
In that dream, I saw a man who was the leader of a great city which he had helped to build. The city was very prosperous, well organised, with lots of interesting activities which everybody participated in. Outwardly, the city seemed fine, and so did the leader. However, at night the leader would leave the city and go into the desert. Inwardly, he felt empty and afraid, sensing that there was something wrong deep inside him and his city. He would sit in the desert at night and weep, then return to the city next, morning, and continue his work, as if all was well.
The city was admired by all around, and this made matters worse; for he was afraid to tell anyone of his concern, and his own inner loneliness.
He continued to go into the desert for several nights; until one night he reached such a point of despair that he cried out to God to help him. At first he thought God would not answer him; and he sat down on a large stone, feeling dejected.
As he sat, wondering what to do next, he began to feel new life rising inside of him. He realised that the stone on which he sat was one which he and his people had carried through the desert to help build the city. The stone evoked memories of the faith, the commitment, the first love relationship he and his people shared with God, then.
This is what he had lost, that inward desire for God that gave meaning to everything else: this is what he wanted.
He then began going into the desert, by day as well as by night, others followed him, and renewed their covenant of love with the Father. They didn’t forget their responsibilities in the city, for their families and their work; but priorities began to change. Instead of seeking God for his blessings, they began to seek him for himself. Some moved out of the city, into the ‘poor’ towns, taking with them their new found love for the Father to those who were hurting and vulnerable. Common to all was the desire to be single minded in their love of God.
1. The Divine Concern
All true spiritual renewal begins with an urgent desire for God. It comes with the realisation that our Christian experience, no matter how ‘good’, no matter how ‘blessed’, is lacking: we are not truly getting to know God.
The call to the ‘desert’ begins with a ‘divine Concern’, an urgent desire to get to know the Lord more deeply: this is the one thing necessary. Such a desire need not occur during a time of spiritual crisis; but, rather, when it would seem our lives are on course, and being blessed by the Lord.
Thomas Merton talks about two types of darkness that come into the life of a believer:
The first is caused by our sin, our rejection of God and his plan and purpose for our lives. This often issues in moral failure, both personal and corporate, and a breakdown in our relationships. To come out of this darkness we need to repent, and return to the Lord, to receive his forgiveness and healing, to make restitution, and be reconciled with those we have wounded an our way.
The second type of night is when God seems absent, and yet we can find no reason, though we search diligently for one. Activities, both sacred and secular, which once gave us meaning and fulfillment, now seem dry and arid, Our hearts become restless, as it they cannot be satisfied. It is in this darkness that God is calling to our hearts to seek a deeper relationship with him.
When this happens we must STOP!
FOR WE ARE EITHER BEING CALLED TO A DESERT VACATION OR A
2. A Strategic Retreat
To retreat is to remove ourselves as far as possible from the normal, and everyday, responsibilities that we share. The purpose is to give more time to seeking the Lord in prayer, meditation and study. This is a time to reflect on God, and a time of self examination. This is practical repentance; for our deliberate decision to re order our priorities to be with the Lord reflects our seriousness.
In most cases, such a retreat is temporary. The purpose: to renew our commitment to the Lord, so we can give ourselves more compassionately to the vocation he has called us to.
Or, it may be that the ‘call to the desert’ was initiated by the Lord to give us a new sense of direction for our lives, and to prepare us to go a new way.
In many cases, the Lord just wants to draw close to us, to reveal his Fatherhood in a deeper way, to increase our sense of security in Him.
These temporary retreats are desert vacations.
For some, the retreat into the desert is for a longer period. Temporary retreats bring no respite from the sense of abandonment by the Lord, no ease from the urgent desire to be closer to the Lord. Nothing else will do: the Spirit and the Bride say, “COME AWAY, MY LOVE”.
This is the beginning of the call which is the desert vocation.
3. Self Denial
To make any type of retreat we need to re order our priorities; we know we are going to be ‘away for a while’, and need to make sure all our responsibilities are covered. At times this can stretch us, and we soon start making excuses as to why we shouldn’t bother taking time out. Remember the story from the Desert Fathers: “Stay in your cell”? Well, some of us don’t even get there! and, for the same reasons, we want to leave when we do get there!
A desert vacation will involve self denial
If we are sensing a deeper call to the desert, then we need advice and assistance, for it will involve some major changes of priorities in our lives. This was the role of the Abba in the desert, to give advice and direction from personal experience. Such changes need to be approached slowly and with great humility; our vocation needs to be tested before we make life changing decisions. But self denial, often of a radical nature, will be involved.
We have been blessed to see couples called together to the desert, and also partners supporting each other when only one senses the call.
We need great wisdom to discern our vocation in God; and the Lord gives us time and support to find our new way.
But a necessary word of warning here:
Anybody who feels called to a desert vocation must be willing to give up all ‘opportunities for success’, whether they be sacred or secular. The desert vacation is not an opportunity to jump onto the latest spiritual bandwagon!
Again quoting Merton:
‘The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness; in a certain sense he is supposed to be useless, because his mission is not to do this or that job, but to be a man of God.”
4. Resistance of Evil
One doesn’t have to be in the desert very long to be aware of the reality of evil. Without the usual distraction and activities, one becomes aware of another level of reality present in the world, and in our own consciousness. That is why the desert is never a ‘sickly’ attempt to escape from life and its complications, or indeed from ourselves. It is in the desert that these paradoxes of our lives in the world come sharply into focus. It is this self awareness and the awareness of spiritual darkness that drive us to prayer; that drive us to the study of the scriptures; that drive us to seek support and counsel.
“The cry to Gad as ‘Father’ in the New Testament is not a calm acknowledgement of a universal truth about God’s abstract Fatherhood; It is the child’s cry out of a nightmare … a cry of outrage, fear, shrinking away when faced with the horror of the world… yet not simply or exclusively protest, but trust as well… ABBA! FATHER! ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE TO THEE.”
Our prayer becomes one of protest. This is the beginning of intercession, of the desire to see the Kingdom of God come in all its power into our lives, and into our world. But if our prayer was just protest, then we would soon turn in despair from the Lord, overwhelmed by the reality of sin and evil.
But our prayer is also trust. This is the beginning of contemplation. In the night, the Lord is present in all his beauty and splendour, and we discover he has indeed overcome all the realities of sin and evil. This is our joy; this is the ‘quies’, the ‘rest’, of the desert.
That is why the Fathers warn people not to come to the desert if they are attempting to escape from themselves.
This warning we must take seriously.
We are not escaping from the world, condemning the church of which we are members, nor seeking to escape from ourselves.
The desert vocation is not an attempt to set up a new church; indeed, it must be sustained within the community of all true believers. No-one comes to the desert to leave the church!
The desert vocation is not an attempt to start a new movement, to issue a new plan or programme. It is, in effect, an attempt to be delivered from all such ideas.
Let me close with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
‘The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism, which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the sermon on the mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.’
John T. Skinner