For many centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire the monasteries were the guardians of Western civilization. They were centers of learning (most of the time monks—nuns less so—were the only literate persons around). They also produced institutions that adumbrated the modern welfare state, and last but not least were places of relative safety and comfort for travelers. Of course most of these services are now provided elsewhere: It makes no sense for monasteries to compete with BlueCross for health insurance or with Holiday Inn for clean accommodations. Catholic orders continue to run excellent universities and hospitals, but individuals who feel called to be monks or nuns are in short supply, as are candidates for the priesthood. There are different reasons for this, as I will touch upon next.The Protestant Reformation abolished monasteries, though there have been some revivals in the modern period (notably in the Anglican communion). However, there has also been a shortage of clergy in many Protestant denominations. Of course celibacy is not much of an issue here. Marriage has been suggested as a solution for the complaints of celibate Catholic priests; ironically, marriage may be a problem for many of their Protestant colleagues. I don’t think that sexual frustration is a central problem for most troubled Catholic priests–loneliness is. Combining ministry with married life is indeed a problem with Protestant clergy, because fewer women are prepared to play the traditional role of pastor’s helper. As more women are ordained themselves in Protestant denominations, the problem remains the same.Again I’m skeptical about the widespread view that feminism is the main reason for this–it is what one might call spouse-hood. Increasingly the spouses of ministers pursue careers of their own, and may even be of a different faith. The minister, though protected from loneliness if the marriage is a reasonably happy one, must bear the burdens of ministry alone. Perhaps the situation is different if both spouses are ordained and can serve in a joint ministry. There are not many cases of this.Eastern Christian Orthodoxy has its own way of dealing with the issue: Monks my not marry; ordinary priests must marry; only monks can become bishops. This is quite ingenious. I doubt if this formula will be happily embraced by either Catholics or Protestants.The history of German Protestantism is very interesting in terms of ministry and family. The Protestant parsonage (das evangelische Pfarrhaus) was for a long time a center for cultural and intellectual activity (including chamber music), presided over by the pastor and his wife. Many German academics and artists were raised in this milieu. The household of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora supplied the prototype of this institution. Katharina was a nun who was early on enthused by the Reformation movement. Along with several other nuns she escaped from her convent and sought refuge in Wittenberg, where Luther taught, preached and led the movement. He quickly found husbands for all the nuns–with the exception of Katharina. There are two versions of the drama: One says that no one wanted Katharina because she was strong-willed and opinionated, and that Luther finally felt it to be his duty to marry her himself. The other version has it that Katharina had quite a few suitors, but that she turned them all down, saying that she wanted to marry Martin Luther. I have no idea what really happened. Contemporary portraits (one by the famous Lucas Cranach–he may have been unduly flattering—show a very handsome woman. Be this as it may, by all accounts the marriage was a very happy one. Among other things Katharina gave birth to six children. Luther wrote many letters, some written with warm affection to Katherina and his young son Hans. Incidentally, Katharina was independently wealthy and she efficiently ran a household constantly invaded by visiting disciples of her famous husband.The International Martin Luther Foundation is located in Erfurt, in the Augustinian monastery where Luther lived as a monk when, so to speak, he invented the Reformation. A couple of years ago the Foundation sponsored a lecture and an exhibit in Berlin about the history of the German Protestant parsonage. The lecture, by a historian, described the eminent role of that institution in the development of German culture. The lecturer concluded by saying that this history has now come to an end and is unlikely to be revived. One person in the audience asked whether one could imagine another Christian institution that could play a similar role of influencing the culture. Nobody ventured a suggestion. Two recent stories in The Tablet (the British Catholic journal) at least give a hint of how one might think about this problem.The two stories, both dated September 13, 2014, were put under a heading “The New Monasticism”. Story #1, by Liz Dodd, reports further on a development that I had commented upon in an earlier post: the invitation by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a group from the Community of Chemin Neuf to live in Lambeth Palace (his historic residence). This project is now taking on a clearer shape. Chemin Neuf was founded in France in 1973 by the Jesuit Laurent Fabre. Originating in a Catholic charismatic prayer group in Lyon, it has now morphed into an international movement that does indeed propose a new model of the monastic life. Affiliates of the movement live together around a daily practice of communal prayer. In that respect the new model of monasticism doesn’t differ much from the classical one. In other respects the difference is radical. There are no vows of permanence, individuals stay for shorter or much longer periods. The mix of people includes clergy and laity, men and women, married couples and singles, Catholics and other Christians. While living in a community, individuals work outside at all sorts of jobs. As of September 2015, twenty individuals will move into Lambeth Palace, and stay for one year. The mix will be much like that of the Chemin Neuf model, though the spirituality will be Benedictine (Welby is a lay affiliate of the Anglican version of that order) rather than Jesuit. The Lambeth experiment will be called the Community of St. Anselm. The name emphasizes its English location, but also the unity of Western Christendom before the great schism of the sixteenth century (Anselm was of Italian origin, a Benedictine monk and one of the fathers of Catholic scholasticism. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1033 to 1109).Story #2, by Riccardo Larini, is about the Community of Bose (a town in Italy), founded in l965 by a Catholic layman, Enzo Bianchi. It is similar to Chemin Neuf in its ecumenical emphasis, though it is closer to the classical model of monasticism in that permanence is assumed. The Community had its origin in the radical student movement of the time and it continues to combine its spirituality with political activism. Its main focus is ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Bianchi has recently been appointed as an advisor by Pope Francis I. Significantly, Bianchi was a close friend of Roger Schutz, who in 1940 founded the Order of Taize (though it was only called this much later). Schutz was a Swiss Reformed pastor, who during World War II was active in helping Jews escape from Nazi-occupied France to Switzerland. After the war Schutz and a few disciples created a sort of monastery at Taize in the heart of Burgundy. The group developed its own distinctive liturgy, which is congenial to its ecumenical membership—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox. This too has now become an international order, whose members live and pray together, but disperse into the world in order to work. Taize has become a destination for pilgrims, mostly young people from all over Europe. I was there once, years ago. It is a tranquil place in a hauntingly beautiful landscape.I was the one at the aforementioned Berlin event who asked the question about new institutions, which might have an influence similar to the traditional Protestant parsonage. I didn’t really think much about this question afterward, though an idea crossed my mind: Suppose you had residences inhabited by more than one family… Now, reading about Chemin Neuf and similar experiments, it occurs to me that here may be a possible answer to my question. So-called communitarians and others have been talking a lot about the need for community. They are typically vague about the community they have in mind. Residents in the same postal zone? Members of voluntary associations, like bowling clubs, who assemble periodically for a common activity and then disperse to go home (like typical American churches)? Citizens of a nation? Hardly. These and similar “imagined communities” are either too artificial, too small, or too big.The Chemin Neuf model reconciles, in a religious context, two distinctively modern and often colliding realities: the assertion of individual freedom and the yearning for community. There are other relevant cases, without the religious context (which makes it more likely that the common faith may attenuate the collision). A case of individualism asserting itself again community experienced as oppressive: The Japanese company: One of the interesting feats of modernization in Japan was the shift of loyalty from the feudal orderto the business enterprise. The so-called “salary-men” were supposed to give primary allegiance to their company, which reciprocated by offering “lifetime employment”; in their free time they were expected to hang out with their colleagues. There are some economic reasons why this institution has weakened. But one reason is why more and more “salary-men” no longer wanted to spend evenings getting drunk with their colleagues in karaoke bars. They wanted to go home and play with their children. The Israeli kibbutz: In the classical kibbutz everything was shared. All the adults lived together, their offspring lived in the “children’s house”. As the Israeli economy became more affluent and Israelis more individualistic, the socialist kibbutz ideal lost plausibility. An important reason for this is that couples wanted to live with their children, not just make visits to them. The kibbutz became more like the moshav—an economic cooperative with individual households.And now some cases pointing in the other opposite direction—individuals feeling isolated and seeking a wider solidarity: The counter-cultural commune: During the 1960s communes, kibbutz-like residential communities, sprang up all over America and Europe. They defined themselves as rebellions against bourgeois individualism. The counter-cultural commune has gone out of fashion. But it survives here and there in American and European cities. For example, the Kreuzberg section of Berlin seems like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury preserved in amber. The old dream of sheltering community as a refuge from the capitalist “rat race” survives. The Indian “joint family”: The so-called “joint family” was a traditional Hindu institution. Several brothers, with their wives and children, would share a residence. The institution recently had a modest revival and some middle-class families found it functional once more. Middle-class Indian women are increasingly successful in the professions and in business. But they “want it all”, personal success and “quality time” with their husbands and children. The “joint family” suddenly seemed to offer a functioning baby-sitting system—somebody was always around. Of course some couples had enough of all this community, moved out again with their families into individual apartments.The Chemin Neuf of innovative monasticism offers some prospects for lonely celibate priests and for the spouses of Protestant pastors (the new Pfarrhaus?) The religious legitimation of these experiments makes success more probable. But even non-religious people struggling with the antinomy of individualism and community may find it useful to imagine a new chemin of their own.
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Published on: October 1, 2014
Chemin Neuf and the Community of BoseA New Monasticism
What could monastic life today look like? Two attempts at reimagining how it could thrive in the twenty-first century.