One of the problems of communication is the lack of consistency in the agreed use and meaning of words. Typical of this is our use of the word ‘community.’
Community is an ‘in’ word at the present moment. We apply it to various groups of people and organisations which in previous times would have been ascribed a different title to indicate their function. A typical example of this is the ‘business community.’ One of the reasons for this is that ‘community’ embodies or implies certain characteristics that are felt to be typically absent in our functional modern lifestyle. It implies; belonging, human relationships and a common-ness of values. The use of the word has increased in our society in direct proportion to its felt absence in most people’s lives.
In its more general use, we can say that we all belong to, and participate in, a number of communities. For example, the neighbourhood, the workplace, companionship in social activities, political affiliations, the church etc. However, this may be true without being significant.
If we are to use community in any significant sense, it must be to express an intention or experience which defines more substantially ‘a way for living’ or even ‘a Rule of Life.’
In this seminar I intend to continue and expand our discussion of ‘a new monasticism’ with particular regard to the formation of monastic communities.
In our discussion we will need to remind ourselves occasionally of the ground we have already covered in our study of The Desert Fathers, Celtic Monasticism and the Early Northumbrian Church, and continue to draw lessons from our Fathers in the Faith.
Our aim is to address for ourselves the question that is the beginning of the monastic way;
‘how then shall we live’
We begin, by going back to the beginning!
Earlier, during our study of the Desert Fathers, we noted one of the reasons for the growth of monasticism was a reaction to the establishment of the church within society after the Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in the 4C.
This acceptance, whilst providing an opportunity for the mission of the Church within the Empire, also had the adverse effect of ‘dulling’ the essential nature of the Christian gospel. Membership of the Christian community, which had previously been a call to ‘vulnerability in the world’ now offered ‘safety in the world’ and with it the possibility of political power, economic security and social status.
The Father’s creative subversion, their
simple and radical renunciation, cut
powerfully through all the subtleties
of religion, and reminded ordinary people
that behind the argumentation was the
simple gospel challenge:
“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine,
let him renounce himself and take up his cross
and follow me.”
The community in the desert was a prophetic reminder of the primitive and radical elements that remain the essential characteristics of the Kingdom of God. This challenging of the Church was not, however, a self cultivated, self appointed task.
Rather, they were aware of their OWN sense of failure in responding to Christ and in living the way of the cross. And so, the unconscious message, coming out of the desert, that resonated through the Church, calling her constantly to renewal, and encouraging fidelity to Christ in her mission to society, was only the indirect result of a community of believers, seeking themselves to persevere in the ‘way of Jesus.’
There are immediate lessons we can learn about the nature of the monastic community from the example of the Fathers.
1. Intentional Vulnerability
Community is a response to the call of Jesus to go the way of the cross. The early disciples when responding to his call had to separate themselves from what they had established in their lives. The way of the cross involves ‘a separation from the establishment.’
The way of the cross is ‘vulnerability in the world’ a journey towards ‘intentional vulnerability.’ By intentional, I mean; freely chosen.
But first, we must not spiritualise the way of the cross. For the first disciples, and for the desert fathers, the call to follow Jesus would involve real questions:
How long are we going to be away?
Do we take the family with us?
Who will look after the family when we are gone?
Do we give up our jobs, our business?
How are do we support ourselves?
How are we going to eat, or pay our taxes?
Where is all of this leading too?
HOW THEN SHALL WE LIVE?
For those of us who have sought ‘a new type of monasticism’ these questions and others like them have a demanding immediacy about them with no room for a theoretical response.
2. Intentional Uncertainty
They were called:
‘to go they knew not where, to find they knew not what.’
The way of the cross means the laying down of our own agendas, our own plans, our own expectations:
‘Christianity has to be disappointing,
precisely because it is not a mechanism
for accomplishing all our human ambitions
and aspirations; it is the mechanism for
subjecting all things to the will of God’
Simon Tugwell OP
The way of the cross involves a remaking of our hopes, and disappointments are an unavoidable part of the process. The first disciples were disappointed because Jesus turned out to be a different kind of Messiah to the one they had anticipated. They had to be disappointed, so they could get to know the ‘true’ Jesus and not the Jesus of their own expectations. Only a community that can bear disappointment with all the attendant feelings of disillusionment will become all that it is meant to be in God’s sight. The sooner the shock of disappointment and disillusionment comes to a community and an individual, the better it is for both. To avoid this ‘crisis of uncertainty’ will eventually lead to a collapse,
‘The man who fashions visionary ideal
of community, demands that it be realised
by God, by others and by himself.
He enters the community of Christians
with his demands, his own law, and judges
the brethren and himself accordingly.
He acts as if he is the creator of the
community, as if it is his dream which
holds the community together.
When things do not go his way,
he call the effort a failure.
When his ideal picture is destroyed, he
sees the community is going to smash.
So he becomes first an accuser of his
brethren, then God, and finally a
despairing accuser of himself.
Intentional uncertainty does not mean the refusal to ask difficult questions. It is the refusal to provide our own answers, motivated by our desire to control situations that make us feel uncomfortable.
3. Intentional Uselessness
Those who have idealistic, romantic, wishful, illusionary notions about community eventually go on to destroy true community.
Community is a Gift of God.
‘Community is a terrible place.
A place where our limitations
and egoisms are revealed to us.
When we begin to live full time
with others we discover our
poverty and weakness, our
inability to get on with others.
Our mental and emotional blocks,
our affective and sexual disturbances,
our frustrations and jealousies…
and our hatred and desire to destroy.
Community uncovers our uselessness.
The sayings of the Desert Fathers were born out of their experience of community. Hence their constant calls to:
Humility instead of pride
Meekness instead of anger
Forgiveness instead of judging
Serving instead of dominating
These were not pious platitudes, but were values forged out of their experience of uselessness. For the Fathers, community was a gift of God.
Hence their constant warnings:
Don’t come here if you are running away from yourself.
Don’t come here with ambitions.
Don’t come here looking to be somebody. (a ministry a strategy)
Don’t come here to nurture bitterness.
Don’t come here with a preconceived plan.
Don’t come here with a list of expectations.
However, the paradox of intentionally embracing vulnerability, uncertainty and uselessness actually leads to the experience of true community. In vulnerability we find ourselves safe and secure in the love of God and with each other. In our uncertainty we transfer faith in ourselves to faith in God, which gives true hope; and in our uselessness we find our true worth and a sense of meaning and purpose linked to our vocation in Christ rather than limited to our self understanding.
We then find ourselves with a sense of belonging, for the heart of community is relationship and the fruit of community is hope.
From the heart of community, we move on to the physical and visible and physical expression of community.
As we discovered when looking at the life of the Desert Fathers, the community in the desert needed shelter, food and water, basic human necessities and the warmth of human relationship. They had to find very practical answers to the question: How then should we live?
As we noted, there was no one answer to the challenges they faced. Some chose to live alone, coming together to share a common meal, to share in Eucharist, and to share their hearts and the vocation to which they had been called. Others chose to live together under one roof, living a common life. Similarly, provision for their essential needs was worked out in different ways, Some worked for local farms or village industries; others made everyday goods they could trade or sell; while others were able to become self sufficient tilling their own land. There were also those who lived of the generosity of others, though that was rare.
The early monastic communities while united in there ultimate intentions and vocation were rich and diverse in their lifestyles. There is no reason for that not to be the case today. However, these outward expressions of community grow from the fact of their commitment to respond to the call of Christ…Come, Follow me.
We move on now, away from the desert and enlist the help of another seeker to address the question; How then shall we live.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the story of his life and in his writings has played a significant role in the development of my own thoughts. Those of you who know me well will recognise his name from my quoting of him alone! But, for any body unfamiliar with his story, here is the briefest outline.
Active in the ant-Hitler movement, the German Lutheran clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in 1943 and hanged by the Nazis at Flossenburg on 9th April 1945. When Hitler came to power in 1933, student chaplain and lecturer at the University in Berlin, Bonhoeffer joined the anti-Nazi pastors in the German ‘church struggle.’ In 1935 he was appointed head of the Confessing Church which was closed by the government in 1937. In 1939 he refused a job in the USA, safe from the impending European war. During World War 2 Bonhoeffer, forbidden to preach or publish, served as a double agent on Admiral Canaris’s military intelligence staff. Using his ecumenical contacts, especially in England, he sought in vain the British Government’s support for the anti-Hitler conspirators. His arrest in 1943 arose in part from his involvement in smuggling 14 Jews to Switzerland.
Although only 39 when he died, he left a rich legacy of books: Sanctorum Communio: Act and Being: The Cost of Discipleship: Life Together: as well as letters, papers, notes published after his death by his close friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge. These include: Letters and Papers from Prison: Ethics and six volumes of collected writings. A seminal thinker, Bonhoeffer refused to retreat from the harsh realities of his day. Bonhoeffer challenged Christian’s to reject complacent, undisciplined faith and life. His writings focussed on ‘Jesus Christ the man for others’ and on the nature of Christian community. In his prison letters, the most popular of his works, Bonhoeffer explored pathways of future Church renewal. Exposing the negative side of institutional religion, Bonhoeffer called for a mature faith in the God of weakness and suffering in a ‘world come of age.’ His ideas have sparked and shaped diverse movements including ecumenism: death of God theology: liberation theology: commentaries in Communist countries on the church without privileges:
Christian resistance to war and to oppressive political regimes: as well as traditional tributes to Christian discipleship, heroism and martyrdom.
…’ Ruth Zerner
With the Desert Fathers we have been challenged with the heart issues of community and by questions against which we can measure our own heart and intention.
With Bonhoeffer, we are challenged not only by the example of his life and the difficult questions and decisions asked or made, but also by concepts which are developed in his seminal thinking. These may well prove to be another pathway that will lead us to answering our question; ‘How then shall we live?’ in the present culture in which we live.
1. The Heretical Imperative
For many Christians, Bonhoeffer is regarded as having ‘heretical tendencies.’ Part of the reason for this, is that his most controversial thoughts, written in his Letters and Papers from Prison, were neither fully developed nor finished. We are often left to speculate at what he was actually trying to get at. Another reason for Bonhoeffer sometimes being regarded as heretical is his theological method; the way in which he thinks about God and his relationship to the world, forged out of the shattering experience and spiritual crisis following the rise of Hitler and National Socialism.
Sociologist, Peter Berger suggests there are main theological methods, or ways of thinking about God and his relationship with the world, or to put it another way…three ways of ‘doing theology.’ 1
a. The Reductive Method
b. The Deductive Method
c. The Inductive Method
The Reductive Method, is an attempt to make Christianity more relatable to the secular world and is prepared to define itself in terms of the current cultural situation. This attempt can at times be noble and genuine, but runs the very real risk of a radical reduction of the distinctive features of Christian belief. In Nazi Germany, Christians of all persuasions took this road, giving approval to Hitler’s initial programmes then slowly finding themselves trapped into accepting his ideology with little or know resistance.
The deductive method takes as its starting point scripture, tradition or dogma. It is prepared to engage with the world only in terms of its own arguments. Inevitably it finds its energies consumed reacting to those it sees as having abandoned a faithful adherence to its tenets. This is usually directed against those who hold a reductive position. In Germany the ‘confessing church’ feeling it was their duty to call the German Church back to the central truths of Christianity, as they understood them. As a result they engaged all their energies in this task, and as a result they did little to speak out against their real adversary, the Nazi regime and its leaders. With hindsight, at the end of the war, they were horrified by their own failure not to speak out or resist such a despotic regime, especially in its earliest stages of development.
The Inductive Method contrasts with both these approaches by insisting that the Word must be reflected on in the context of the world. Such a method involves risk because it involves dialogue rather than dogmatism. Yet, neither is it the dialogue of accommodation, to change ones understanding of reality with little serious thought or spiritual anguish.
The risk comes about because the ethics of true dialogue demand a genuine listening and a willingness to be converted to truth when it is spoken and recognised. Neither are there any guarantees that the dialogue may lead to the embrace of falsehood. Taking this risk is what Berger calls ‘the heretical imperative.’ Genuine heresy is dangerous and always claims to be truth; but any truth ready to challenge and overturn the prevailing view or dogma, will always run the risk of being suspected and persecuted for heresy.
Christians today need to take the risk of genuinely listening to secular thought. This has to be genuine listening and not that type of listening which is only waiting for the opportunity to get ones own view across.
Our mission today is to listen deeply before we speak, acknowledging we may not always at this stage on our journey have anything to say. The alternative is to become more and more irrelevant and listen only to the echo of our own voices. We must learn to listen ‘for God in the world.’
2. A World Come of Age
I would now like to give an example of the heretical imperative in a quotation from Bonhoeffer regarding ‘our true situation before God.’
‘God would have us know that we must live
as men who manage our lives without him.
The God who is with us is the God who
forsakes us. The God who allows us to
live in the world without the working
hypothesis of God is the God before whom
we stand continually. God lets himself be
pushed out of the world onto the cross.
He is weak and powerless in the world,
and this is the way, the only way in which
he is with us and helps us. Matt 8 v 7 makes
it quite clear that Christ helps us not by
virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue
of his weakness and suffering. The God
of the Bible wins power in the world by
virtue of his suffering
Such a statement seems to run contrary to Jesus’ teaching about the Fatherhood of God, and the very real and continued presence with us of Jesus in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Also, it is quite clear from Bonhoeffers life and writings that the reality of the Fatherhood of God and the continued presence of Jesus were real to him throughout his life.
In this quotation, which comes from one of Bonhoeffers letters from prison, he is wrestling with and speaking aloud his thoughts about the nature of the presence of God, not in his personal experience, but in the experience of society in the world outside the Church.
Bonhoeffer recognised that the Church in his day was already living in a secular world, a world he described as ‘come of age.’ ( a theme later writers would adjust and call the Post Christian Society see Jacques Ellul New Demons)
Such a society would no longer have any interest in the claims of Christ or believe that Christianity had anything to contribute in this new society.
This was the place in which Christians now lived.
3. A Church without Privileges
Bonhoeffer was advocating that God would have us know that we must live our lives in a society that feels they can live their lives without any recourse to God. Which raises the question, how then shall we live? For Bonhoeffer we must follow the example of God as it has been revealed to us in Jesus; in intentional vulnerability. God has chosen in Jesus to be marginalised, to be pushed out, onto the cross. He has chosen to be regarded as useless towards helping men on their way to success. It is in this way, and only in this way that God’s power is revealed in the world.
It is only when men are faced with the stark reality of the crucifixion that they have the opportunity of resurrection.
Bonhoeffer therefore welcomed man’s rejection of religion, his ‘coming of age.’ Religion had concealed man’s true condition in the world; man had sought from religion a way of being strong in the world. Without religion to hide behind, man had the opportunity of meeting the true God revealed in Jesus.
Bonhoeffer therefore calls on the church to not resist or ridicule man’s coming of age, nor attempt to retain the position the Church once had in society in order to retain its privileges. This was a call to be a church without walls, a call to meet the Kingdom and the King in the streets; to confront man in the power of intentional vulnerability. As a starting point, he suggests the Church should give away all its property to those in need. As usual, those who applaud Bonhoeffers heart think he is going over the top when he starts getting practical!
Footnote: Bonhoeffers Church without privileges proved to be a life line to the church in the East coping with life in communist societies. In the West Bonhoeffer began the discussion of the Church in the Secular World and ‘ how then shall we live’ Secularisation proved to be one side of the coin and the concept of a post-Christian Society the vital other.
4. Jesus; A man for others
Without the need to defend the church, without the need to defend Jesus ( who doesn’t need defending) the church could join Jesus in his calling: to exist for others. Such a calling would involve standing against the vices of; power worship, envy and illusion as the roots of all evil.
5. A New Type of Monasticism
In Bonhoeffer, as in the Desert Fathers, we see an attempt to answer the question; ‘How then shall we live.’ Unlike the Fathers Bonhoeffers attempt to answer the question was cut short; his legacy to us was the call to evade the question by retreating into a religious hideout, a private religion.
‘the restoration of the church will surely come
only from a new type of monasticism
which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack
of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the
Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it
is time to gather men together to do this’
(Bonhoeffer a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrick 14 Jan 1935 an extract
Footnote: This lecture was delivered 1991. It was the beginning of formulating a rule of community that eventually led to Availability and Intentional Vulnerability.
While Bonhoeffer was an architect of a new type of monasticism, he was not alone. Others voices, other experience was needed to develop a philosophy of new type of monasticism which became our own attempt to answer the question; ‘How then shall we live.’
NB I adjusted Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative to emphasize the three theological perspectives. 1