Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Part VII: Why I Need Monasticism

Now to many, the idea of neo-monasticism which I’ve set forth might sound more than a little odd. The reason for this, besides a general reticence to try something so innovative (and, at the same time, so archaic), is that not everyone is cut out for monastic living. Though I think we’re often too comfortable in our American Christianity, for some people monasticism might bring an unhealthy level of discomfort to their spiritual lives. It’s not wise to try to revolutionize a deeply-ingrained culture of individualism in leaps and bounds. Or it might be the case that some Christians are more effective in their discipline and witness under current models of the church than they would be in a monastic community.

I would certainly like to suggest that neo-monasticism could be a spiritually healthy and powerful new way of doing church for most Western Christians, and it’s heartening to have heavyweight Christian thinkers like John Stott and Stanley Hauerwas backing me up in that assertion. But beyond any hopes of transforming the Western church, the real reason that drives my desire for neo-monasticism is that I need it. I said in one of my first posts on this subject that to join a neo-monastic community would in itself be a confession of weakness. And in my case, that would be wholly true.

I’m not very good at being consistent in the classic disciplines of the spiritual life. The power of a focused Christian community would help make up what I lack in accountability and drive. To have a communal schedule for entering the disciplines of prayer, worship, and study would be a powerful motivator. It would no longer rest solely on my own anemic self-discipline to pursue moments of intimate connection with God.

It’s too easy for me to get sucked away into temptations and sinful patterns of living, and the structure of the church as it is now, compounded with my own pride, keeps me from living out any genuine and consistent confessional repentance. I need a Christian community that allows for, expects, and encourages open and honest confession, as well as a community that rigorously and compassionately holds me accountable. Small groups are a step in the right direction for most churches, but even these fail to bring me to the heart of the matter. They often don’t address directly the deep brokenness and sin I bear in my heart. In most cases, the confessional accountability I have in mind would be out-of-place and uncomfortable in a small group setting, and the only place suitable would be a one-on-one friendship with a spiritual counselor. Unfortunately, in American churches we leave the prerogative for arranging such a relationship with the individual himself, and actively entering into such a relationship is so foreign and terrifying to my personality that I wouldn’t do it unless it’s forced on me. A monastic community would do just that—force me into one-on-one relationships with mentors who will expect me to be a broken and sinful man, and to walk with me in rearranging my actions and my heart. Denver Seminary does have a program which forces me into mentoring relationships, and though I have high hopes for the program, I get the sense that it’s often more of a practical mentoring, focusing on building up ministry skills and personal devotional habits, but not necessarily an open venue for heartfelt confession and spiritual direction. And unless my mentor directly guides me down that path of confession, I doubt I’ll have the courage to breach that level of relationship on my own initiative. I wish I did have that courage, though, and perhaps God in his mercy will provide me with it.

Further, I find myself largely unable to escape cultural influences that shape the use of my time. For many people, our culture generates a hectic and frenzied productivity in the chase to do and accomplish more. For me, though, I often find that the culture of individualism, consumerism, and constant entertainment makes me lazy and a poor steward of my time. Now everyone, including me, needs some ‘down time’ in the day, but given the choice, I often take far too much and spend it all on rather frivolous and unenlightening activities. I’m sure a lot of people consider me to be a fairly productive individual, especially when it comes to writing, but in all honesty, if I were to be even remotely conscientious in the use of my time, I could at least double that productivity. The schedule of a monastic community, which would regulate access to entertainment and hold members somewhat accountable for the use of their time, would be an incredible boon to me.

Though I’m passionate about evangelism and outreach, I’m miserable at it. I love to pray and speak about it, but I don’t very much like to do it. A large part of that is the natural tendency of my personality, and so I must continue to seek out ways to minister within the gifts and abilities God has given me. But my apathy and cowardice play a large part, too, and I’ve found from experience that when I have a community that consistently fosters a missionary mindset, I become a much better missionary. My fears, though still present and immense, are not nearly as crippling as they would normally be. I actually come to enjoy outreach. This power, for me at least, comes from the motivating influence of a community that has set its heart on reaching others for the sake of the Gospel. Moreover, a communal focus on evangelism allows us to work together, harnessing one another’s gifts and talents, so that the whole dreadful onus of being an outreaching witness doesn’t rest wholly on my shoulders alone, but on our shoulders together. As someone who both loves and fears outreach, that’s a blessing beyond measure.

Some of the richest times in my spiritual life have come in times of close, accountable community. This was especially true with my work in Angola this past year, in which we missionaries really did live as something of a neo-monastic community. For most of the time, there were just four of us there in Menongue—two Papua New Guineans, a South African, and me, living in voluntary poverty of a rather extreme nature. We shared devotions and prayers every day. We had our meals together. We worked together in building a mission house. We planned and carried out ministry trips together. We kept one another accountable for where we were and what we were doing every day. We were honest and loving enough to confront one another. We joined together to do outreach by harnessing our individual gifts in a concentrated, communal effort to run a discipleship course. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for us as a group, but I wouldn’t trade those times in Angola for anything.

This stark assessment of my own failings probably isn’t the best motive for advocating a new way of doing church, but at least it’s an honest one. Perhaps, though, it’s good for me in a way to learn some self-discipline on my own first. It’s not an easy battle, but I’m learning, and, by the grace of God, slowly getting better. In any case, I know that I for one would benefit greatly from deep, accountable Christian community, and I believe that it’s a model of the church that has great potential for our culture. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get the opportunity to be a part of an authentic neo-monastic community, but if I do, I’ll probably jump at the chance.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ode to a Brave New World

I still have one final installment of my neo-monastic discourse to post, and that should be up sometime later this week. But for now, here, as promised, is a poem that actually employs a clumsy sort of rhyme. It's a little different from any other poem I've ever done, but I was pleased with how it turned out. It was somewhat inspired by reading Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty, a common-sense critique of the current extremes of the sexual revolution in American culture.


The world is dark and gray and cold,
And I am backward and I am old.
The sun has set, it seems to me;
The bleak dusk mutes our misery
Against the twilight of our souls.

We are wasted, we are gone,
We are lost amid the throng.
We sigh with weariness and care
For the freedoms we now bear,
The delights we sought so long.

Daring we! who tore the veil,
Who noble ways of old assail;
We loosed the joy of liberty
With unrestrained ferocity
And opened paradise’s vale.

No more need and no more fear,
No more shame will be felt here.
Morality is of the past;
We are free and we will last
Beyond the universe’s years.

Virtue judged repressively
And vice is much more fun, you see.
Just glance around the painted smiles,
The joy of all our fads and styles,
This carnival of ecstasy.

We need no shame, we laugh and taunt
Our fathers, now that they are gone,
And we congratulate ourselves
On all our happiness and wealth,
For all our rights which once were wrong.

Who needs beauty? Who needs truth?
We are contentedly aloof.
A little lust, a little lie,
And we can surely get on by,
Secure in undeclining youth.

Honor was a pleasant thought,
By fanciful delusions wrought,
But no one’s evil and no one good;
We are all misunderstood,
And scarred from wars our fathers fought.

The world is filled with happiness
From our intrepid selfishness.
We’re free to laugh and sing aloud,
To hide our heartache from the crowd,
To revel in our aimlessness.

But now I wonder oftentimes
Why birds still sing and words still rhyme.
Beauty hasn’t fled away,
And sunsets crown each passing day;
This world is breathlessly alive.

Unfettered lust is fun, it’s true,
But romance can be wild too.
Perhaps honor isn’t meaningless,
Perhaps there’s mystery in a kiss,
A wonder too intense to lose.

Lust will wither, pride will fade;
These visions vanish from my gaze.
Pale they danced before my eyes
In lilting steps and tempting guise,
But now they end their loathsome days.

I dream again, and what a dream!
A dream that silences the screams.
A new world dawns with brilliant hue,
A world that beckons me and you,
Where virtue recklessly redeems.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Part VI: Becoming Celtic Franciscan Moravian Jesuits

In a brilliant display of procrastination from my seminary homework, I’m presenting you with yet another neo-monastic discourse. Now we move from some of the cultural connections of evangelical neo-monasticism to discuss its practical application and historical precedents.

One questions demands our attention above all else: Is this sort of Christian community possible in this day and age? The answer is, of course, yes. Neo-monastic communities are already popping up all over North America. The real difficulty comes in considering the makeup of these communities. I’ve said several times that it would be good if neo-monastic villages could embrace a wide range of ages (and, if possible, subcultures and ethnicities), but most of the emerging communities are largely being formed by young adults, usually no older than their late 20s. But, practically speaking, I think that’s how it would have to start. While it shouldn’t be a great surprise if Christians of other age groups decide to join once the community is up and running, the fact is that young adults have the greatest flexibility and independence of any group. Many are just coming out of college and haven’t put down permanent roots in a particular place. They also tend to be somewhat poorer, again because of college (and to that I can attest from personal experience). These factors make it easier for them to commit to a communal lifestyle of voluntary poverty. Older age groups, however, already have houses and properties of their own, and so the sacrifice would be greater for them. If the movement is to start from the grassroots of American evangelicalism, it would probably have to be the young adults that start it.

We need now to turn our attention to historical precedents. The very first comes in Acts 2, in the initial form of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (vv. 42, 44-47).

A number of things need to be noted in conjunction with this. First, there is no evidence that any of the other New Testament churches operated on such a communitarian basis. In fact, there is no evidence that even the Jerusalem church continued in this pattern (but, on the other hand, there’s no evidence that they didn’t). Second, none of the regulations given for church organization in the pastoral epistles require this sort of organization. The point is that the New Testament allows for an incredible breadth of expression when it comes to ecclesiastical organization and leadership. We should not remain in the rut of thinking that the current paradigm of pastor/deacon board/church body is the biblical model. In fact, the evidence would suggest that ultimate leadership is more properly held by a group of elders rather than by a single pastor. My contention, however, is that since the NT allows such fluidity in organizing the church, and since the first model of the church (a communitarian one) seemed to work pretty well for them, why not give it another shot? My argument for neo-monasticism comes down to this: it’s not the only way, and quite possibly not the best way, but it’s a way that deserves to be tried.

Now that I’ve rushed through the relevant Scriptural connections much too quickly, let’s get on to the really exciting stuff: church history. Though there are numerous groups throughout history that have exemplified in one way or another the model I’m attempting to resurrect, I’ll only highlight four here: early Celtic missional monasticism, especially the form used by Columbanus; the Franciscan and Dominican movements; the Jesuits; and Zinzendorf’s Moravians. All four of these groups share some combination of a communal lifestyle, a devotional emphasis, and a missional passion.

In the latter years of the sixth century, as the western Roman Empire continued to become more and more of a memory, the territories of Frankish Gaul, originally evangelized by intrepid missionaries such as Martin of Tours, Samson, and Aredius, fell into a spiritual languor. The ruling warrior aristocracies were largely rural-based, and felt no deep connection to the urban Christianity of the old Roman provincial cities. The spark that re-lit the evangelization of Gaul came from an odd source—not Rome or Constantinople, but Ireland. During that period the Irish church was flourishing and sending out missionaries all through England and Scotland. One of these missionaries, Columbanus, crossed the English channel and began planting monasteries in northern Gaul. Columbanian monasticism appealed to the rural culture of the Frankish patrimonies in a way that other forms hadn’t. The monasteries became missionary bases, at which new monks could be trained and sent out, and they in turn would found monasteries in unevangelized territories. Within Columbanus’ lifetime this explosive spread of Celtic monastic Christianity brought him all the way across Gaul and into northern Italy. The dynamics of early Frankish Christianity are too complex to be explored here, but I’ve chosen this example to show that even in its earliest forms, monasticism did not preclude missionary outreach. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that monasticism was the vehicle that brought Western Europe to Christ.

Our second example is more familiar—many have, at one time or another, run across the delightfully enigmatic St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for a number of things, including stripping down before a bishop, chatting with birds, fish, and wolves, and joining a crusade in order to preach to a Muslim sultan. St. Francis appeared on the scene in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but even before his advent monasticism had sparked an incredible revival of devotional fervor across Europe. The monastery at Cluny had been at the forefront of this movement, bearing in its wake such spiritual giants as Bernard of Clairvaux. Then came Francis and the mendicant orders. The Franciscans were troubadours for God, going out into the streets to find men where they were and to preach the gospel. Their fellow friars, the Dominicans, were also a preaching order, and together these two groups of Christians captured the imagination of the European church. Francis in particular had a passionate desire to minister to Muslims, trying several times to go to Morocco before finally finding a way to visit Egypt instead. One Franciscan, Raymond Lull, is now remembered as perhaps the greatest missionary of his age to the Muslims.

In the turbulent years of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, yet another order arose in the Catholic Church—the Jesuits. The Jesuits were inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the author of the Spiritual Exercises, and it was their outreaching (and sometimes hostile) action that reenergized Catholic Christianity and stalled the geographic progress of the Protestant Reformation. Jesuit missionaries flooded Europe, but they didn’t stop there. Hundreds of years before Protestants even began thinking about missions in the global sense, Jesuits were carrying the gospel and the Catholic Church all over the world—in eastern Europe, Africa, India, the East Indies, China, Japan, as well as in North and South America, in conjunction with French and Spanish colonialism. One of the greatest missionary heroes of all time, St. Francis Xavier, from the founding circle of sixteenth-century Jesuits, pioneered missions in India and China before dying in a final push to reach Japan. The Jesuits' passion for missions was unmatched until the Protestant surge three hundred years later.

The final example, and perhaps the best, comes from a Protestant group popularly known as the Moravians—Protestant refugees who had fled from persecutions in Bohemia and Moravia in the early eighteenth century and settled on the property of a nobleman named Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf, a man with Pietist leanings, organized these refugees into a village called Herrnhut, and he became the bishop of their church. But this little village of Protestant refugees would soon shake the world. They began a daily round of prayer in which there would always be someone in the community at prayer, no matter what hour of the day. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they prayed. Popular tradition has it that this prayer cycle went on unbroken for a full century. Zinzendorf soon caught a vision for global missions, and members of the Herrnhut Moravian community began going out to serve the Lord overseas, something almost unheard of in Protestant circles at the time. Moravian missionaries showed an admirable zeal for the work, some even going so far as to sell themselves into slavery in order to preach the gospel to slaves in the West Indies. Later the Moravians’ piety would be a major influence in the spiritual journey of John Wesley, one of the key evangelists of the Great Awakening.

These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the neo-monastic vision well. There can be a wild and beautiful power in intentional Christian community, a power that we have largely lost here in American evangelicalism. In a generation where more young people are going more often around the world but at the same time speaking less about Jesus, neo-monasticism could be the spark for a new evangelistic missions movement. It’s worth a try.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Mirth of Heaven

Here's another poem. For some reason I've been feeling poetic lately. Maybe one of these days I'll post one that actually rhymes.

Sometimes

When no one else is around

I feel laughter welling up inside

Like a fountain of crystal joy

It spills over in a clarion shout

And I rush to the window

And embrace the brilliant sky

Where the bright sun shines

In a field of azure joy

Where wild falcons

Wing their way

Into the blue horizon

And my spirit flies ahead

To meet them there

My feet begin to move

To rhythms all their own

The primal pounding

Of some ancient dance

Of pure delight

The mirth of heaven overtakes me

And for just one moment

I dance with all the angels

And the saints

Caught up in the splendor

Of the God we all adore

Here I taste the exuberance

Of the incomparable Christ

Here I discover again

The wild, secret joys

Of this beautiful adventure

Of life