The Old Monasticism is the New Monasticism

Our Lady of the New Monasticism
Our Lady of the New Monasticism

“The New Monasticism” has been a popular topic in religious journalism the past few years, especially in its relationship to the emergent Church–that is, the Church that is seeking fresh expressions of Christianity for a disenchanted, “post-Christian,” young world that finds no authenticity in old forms of Christianity.

The funny thing is, the “New Monasticism” looks a lot like the “Old Monasticism.” I say this as a lifetime professed Franciscan in the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis, an Anglican Franciscan religious order based on the Third Order established by St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century.

“The New Monasticism” seeks to marry contemplation with action, often in response to the needs of the poor and the marginalized in urban locations. It seeks community among like-minded people who want to live out a radical expression of Christianity in a “post-Christian” world–a life that cuts to the bone of the Gospel. It denies cheap grace. It seeks forms of worship that emphasize inclusion, participation, lack of hierarchy, contemplative practices, the unleashing of voices. Its followers write Rules of Life to guide them in spiritual practices that foster this delicate balance between contemplation and action.

That is exactly what the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis does–although so quietly and without fanfare that the communities being featured in magazines such as Christian Century and sites such as The Huffington Post have never heard of them. And perhaps that is the problem with TSSF–that nobody really knows about it. It might seem ironic to some who consider the Episcopal Church a bastion of Old School Christianity that many Third Order Franciscans are Episcopal priests and deacons–and a few are bishops.

I would never have heard of it if a priest at an Episcopal church hadn’t seen me looking at a brochure for some religious order in California and told me about the Franciscans. When I started exploring it, I realized that it was offering this radical expression of Christianity–one that emphasizes not only personal spiritual practices but also attention to the marginalized, the outcast, ecology, the proclamation of the Good News in this time.

It has a rule of life based on the rule of life that Francis created for the married and single laypeople of his time who said, “We want to live like you, but we can’t or don’t want to be First Order friars or nuns.” Perhaps they had a family to care for, a farm to tend, a spouse, other important responsibilities, etc. Francis recognized that “regular people” also wanted a fresh expression of Christianity that allowed them to experience this surrender to spirit, community and the Gospel in the “real” world.

And so he wrote a Rule of Life for them, and my religious order’s Rule of Life is based on this. Except that, like the “new monastics,” we TSSF Franciscans are required to customize our 9-point rule of life to fit our own lives.

For example, one of my “customizations” of the Franciscan Rule of Life is to use public transportation, my legs, and bicycle to get around. This falls under Rule #7, “Simplicity of Life.” This is our modern expression of Franciscan poverty. I interpret it to mean here that by using public transportation, I not only simplify the hassle of keeping a car and parking it, but I also save money and gas. And most importantly, I help the environment, an important goal for many Franciscans. Sometimes, this is a major pain, especially on a cold, wet and windy day on the train platform in my neighborhood, which has no weather overhang. That’s when life scrapes against the Rule, and I remember why I am doing this.

Part of our community “obedience” is to be in community with other Third Order Franciscans whenever possible. So, for example, after moving to New York, I started attending meetings with other Third Order Franciscans in New York City. Imagine moving to a big, crowded city, getting a friendly phone call and email from someone, just showing up at their apartment on the Lower East Side, and being warmly embraced just because we all follow this radical form of Christian expression. I’ve had the same thing happen in Sacramento, CA; New London, CT; and Canterbury, England. It’s the rule. And it works.

There are parts of the 9-point Franciscan Rule of Life that seem archaic: Eucharist and Penitence are two of those. Old School. But if you look closely at the New Monasticism, you see that we are all looking for something like this: a simple stripping down of Christianity to its early, ancient forms. When one does this, one takes to the street with the homeless; one revitalizes old buildings; one evangelizes on the streets; one worships in living rooms, churches, and train platforms; and one prays with people who don’t know how to ask for prayer.

As part of my Franciscan rule, I pray the Daily Office (a new monastic way of tapping into ancient Christianity). I was doing this one day in the little Starbucks area of a Bel Air grocery store in El Dorado Hills, California. A man saw me with my leatherbound book with golden-edged pages, and he said, “Will you pray for me?”

I said yes. I asked him what to pray for. He said, “Just–my life is so complicated, so many problems. Just pray.” I can’t tell you how touching and privileging it is to have a stranger ask you to pray for them.

The New Monasticism. It’s the Old Monasticism. It’s just that now we’re in grocery stores, we’re in Starbucks, we’re in apartments on the Lower East Side, a little church in Canterbury, a comfortable suburban home in Sacramento. We’re helping out llegal immigrants, praying to stop fracking in New York State, and talking to the stranger in El Dorado Hills who feels overwhelmed by life.

And all because several centuries ago, some Italian villagers said to that wacky Francis of Assisi, “Hey, we want to be like you because you’re really cool, but the existing Church is corrupt, etc. etc., so we want to do it a new way.” Bam. The Old Monasticism is the New Monasticism.

4 Thoughts

  1. As a member of the Fellowship of St. John associated with the SSJE community in Boston, I have a similar response to yours.

    At the parish I serve as a deacon, my “Episcopal 101” class this Sunday will be on the Daily Office and what I call the “Prayer Book pattern” of the Christian life.

    Because I travel five days a week for business, I mostly say the Office in hotel rooms or on airplanes, but through my blog I am connecting people from my work and church and personal circles with reflections on the day’s readings and prayers.

    1. Hi, Deacon. What a great way of spreading the word. I know several SSJE associates from seminary (Berkeley Divinity School at Yale), but I haven’t had the pleasure of going on retreat up there yet. I hope to in the coming year.

  2. I am glad to report that the TSSF European Province Facebook group has been pointed to your fine post (by Mike, not me). We (TSSF in Europe) are aware of the challenges and opportunities that the new media offer and I hope that some of us can persuade the Order to be positively encouraging to new initiatives – though sometimes we seem more like Br Elias than Francis or Clare.
    Blessings, C

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Chris! I had tea with some wonderful fellow tertiaries in Canterbury, England, who I met by chance while wandering around and ducking into a midday Eucharist service.

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