Monasticism, in the Christian tradition, goes right back to Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries. For a brief period in Christianity’s early history it was very dangerous to have the name Christian. Martyrdom was seen as a virtue precisely because the empire was trying to crush the Jesus movement which claimed that a Jewish peasant was lord over all. This proclamation that Jesus is lord was a direct affront to Roman authority and the claim that Caesar was lord. All that changed as Christianity became not only legal but the official religion of the empire. When that happened, all sorts of military generals and wealthy business people started calling themselves Christians and that didn’t sit right with those who were still dedicated to the original idea of the Church as a community with a radically counter-cultural way of life.
In response to this change in the Church from being a grass roots movement which was good news for the poor and oppressed to Christendom which was the same old bad news for the poor and oppressed, a group of radical followers of Jesus decided to leave the empire altogether and seek God and holiness in the wilderness, where the corruption of Roman society could not reach them. These people we call today the Desert Mothers and Fathers.
These early Christian monks lived very harsh lives of asceticism and solitude, but they also discovered a depth of wisdom which has continued to inspire people throughout all of Christian history. The task of new monasticism, in a nutshell, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. While we may not choose the radically difficult life these early monks chose, can we still learn something from them? Can we find a balance between loving ourselves and denying ourselves? Can we accept the radicality of the true gospel while still living in human society?
I think that our present situation in particular needs the wisdom of monasticism more than ever. Ever since Covid we are all finding ourselves living lives of solitude in one way or another and the luxuries and conveniences we’ve grown accustomed to in our overly privileged society are becoming less and less available. What can we learn from people like Julian of Norwich who lived in a small cell during a massive pandemic? How can we maintain inner balance in the midst of the chaos of the world?
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