Dominicans, fresh expressions, habit, Monasticism/Neo-Monasticism, Neo(new)-monasticism, neo-monasticism, spiritual disciplines

Monasticism and the habit: To habit or not to habit? That is the question.

It has been quite a while since my last post. I’ve been quite busy experiencing and exploring my new vocation. I’ve done my first funeral and first baptism, so now all that is left is a wedding… I’ll then have the trifecta or the grand slam or (insert sports metaphor here)…. Overall, I’ve been just getting used to the rhythms of parish life and trying to keep up with everything that needs to get done.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about, what is called here in the U.K., ‘fresh expressions’ vs. ‘traditional’ debate. Along with this, the idea of a ‘mixed economy’ in the Church, which the ABC has brought to the discussion. Also, I’ve been wondering what role monastic communities might play in this whole kerfuffle.

As we have all heard, new monastic communities seem to be popping up everywhere. However, that might have more to do with its usage as a buzz word, rather than actual communities being created. Whatever the case, monasticism in its various forms seems to be growing amongst evangelicals.

For some the question is whether or not these communities are ‘true’ monastic communities. Their critiques seem to be mainly focused upon the initial idea of monasticism, that is, monos – being one before God, is not found within new monasticism. However, the moment the monastic movement began to form communities, it moved away from this initial understanding. So, could the ‘traditional’ orders be considered true monasticism by this definition? Only a few, such as the Carthusians, could stand up to this scrutiny.

The second critique is found in the structure of the communities themselves; particularly that those involved are not bound by the ‘traditional’ vows of monasticism. The main cry is a need for celibacy for new monasticism to be true monasticism. However, this does not take into account such monastic expressions as the Celtic monastics. Celibacy for what ever reason, we do not have the time to address fully the issues here, was not viewed as a necessary part of monasticism for the Celts. Their understanding would be more along the lines of chastity to the life situation to which God has called you. Moreover, much of ‘traditional’ monasticism was reinvigorated by the Celtic monks who ‘re-evangelized’ Europe.

All of this to say that much of the critique by ‘traditional’ monasticism seems to fall short and sounds more like the cries of those originally opposed to monasticism and its expressions in the first place.

However, there is something that I have a question about in ‘new’ monasticism. In order to make my point, I will begin with an outward expression in order to lead us to the inward issue.

The question I pose is: Should ‘new’ monastics wear a habit?

I can already hear the outcry of denouncing these expressions as irrelevant and not applicable. But, let’s not be too quick to make these statements.

I was thinking lately about these new communities and how I’ve had two impressions about them. My first impression has been a positive one. Anyone who wants to live in community, implement the gospel and become more Christ-like, whatever that looks like, is to be commended. My second impression is that this desire is tempered by a connection with the world which could be seen to be too close. Have you noticed how certain monastics seem to sport the newest, trendiest clothes, glasses, mobile, iPod, etc.? Not that they can’t but it appears that this seems to be a conglomeration of trendy Christian-Hippie  expressions. Maybe that is too harsh. It is not my intention to attack, but rather for us to explore together. Back to my original question: Should ‘new’ monastics wear a habit?

What I do not mean by ‘habit’ is a limitation to the traditional understanding of a habit – robe, sandals, etc. Although, I do think that this can be helpful depending on the situation. What I do mean by habit is in its definition – a characteristic piece of clothing or accoutrement which visually denotes their vocation.

Let me explain. Many people argue against the wearing of specific clothing for those who are ordained. They argue that it separates, implies an incorrect understanding of the priesthood of all believers, etc. Despite this objection, I believe that wearing  a ‘habit’ can be quite helpful, for ourselves and those we encounter as we live our daily lives.

Before I was ordained, I spoke with quite a few people (pastors, ministers, priests, etc.) about clerical wear. I asked the usual questions – how do people react? does it help in your ministry? does it cause problems?  Depending on their tradition and background I received a variety of answers. However, this did not prepare me for the first time I put on a clerical collar.

The first day I wore a clerical collar I walked around excited, not because of the collar but because I was beginning the next chapter in my call. But as the day wore on, I noticed something. Behind the excitement, I felt strange. I felt exposed to all those I was walking by, talking with… I couldn’t quite place the feeling. After a few weeks it finally donned on me. The feeling I was noticing was about my own insecurities. I could no longer decide when to be a Christian or not. In whatever the situation I was no longer in control of my Christianity and its impact upon the circumstance. When people saw me I was already ‘out’. Now some would say that our speech, our actions and our behaviour should reflect our Christian faith; and they should. Nonetheless, when one dresses in a manner which separates oneself from the culture we are in, people notice. In essence we are allowing ourselves to be submitted to the lordship of Christ even before we say or do anything. We are placed into a situation, when people immediately see us, in which we are called to be obedient to Christ. Yes we are always to be obedient. But what I am saying is that our obedience is made public; not to flaunt ourselves, but rather to submit ourselves to the lordship of Christ. Until one wears a ‘habit’ we do not understand the outworking of this.

What does this have to do with new monastic communities? It leads us back to the vows of monasticism, particularly that of obedience. (Monastic vows vary depending on community – Benedictines have: Obedience, Stability, conversatio morum; Franciscians have: poverty, chastity, obedience. The interesting thing to note however is that obedience continues to pop-up no matter the Order.)

The vow of obedience firstly restores our relationship with God. As an evangelical, I’ve heard many times that I must be submitted to the lordship of Jesus in my own personal life. And probably like you, I submit myself to Christ well and sometimes not so well. But the vow of obedience takes this concept one step further. It does not leave us on the first commandment: Love the Lord your God… But it takes us to the second: love your neighbour as yourself; as Abbot Christopher Jamison notes in Finding Sanctuary: “…obedience is not just about doing what the boss says; it is about mutual love… To obey in this interpersonal way requires great inner freedom: the ability to judge what you desire and what the other desires, then to choose freely to set aside your desires for the sake of the other.” Abbot Jamison highlights that obedient freedom must meet two criteria: 1) there must be a choice to obey and 2) obedient freedom opens up possibilites rather than enslaving us. It is obedient freedom that I do not necessarily see in these new monastic communities. That being said, I have never been to or spoken with anyone from these communities. Therefore, it may be the case that this particular aspect is present in these communities and I am willing to be corrected. However, from what is shown to those outside the community, through websites, blogs, articles, etc., one could question where the foundation of the monastic life is found? Are we using monasticism, its novelty to most Protestants & evangelicals in particular, to experience a new aspect of our Christian faith? Is this simply a post-modern expression of Christian faith on which we will look back in fifty years as a phase or short lived blip on the screen of history? Or are we willing to lay the foundation which monasticism calls us to in order that we might be communities which express the monastic ideal? This remains to be seen.

As I have already stated in a previous post, monastic vows can and, I believe, do liberate us from the post-modern culture in which we currently live. Moreover, without these vows we can easily slip into a post-modern version of the hippie movement of the sixties, with hints to or sometimes explicit references to the gospel. Nonetheless, it is still no closer to monasticism than I would be through my own personal exploraiton. Monasticism is a critique of the Church, one which does not destroy but one which calls the Church to be its true self – the Bride of Christ. We must be careful that an uncritical romantic desire, formed by our culture, is not at the heart of what we are trying to do. This is why wearing a habit could be benefitial. Are we willing to take the chance?


2 thoughts on “Monasticism and the habit: To habit or not to habit? That is the question.

  1. PH says:

    Whether it be the clergy collar or the monastic habit it invites the world and holds your feet to the fire, to be the person you claim or identify as being.
    I have wondered how much of original monasticism can we dilute, change or add to before it is no longer monastic life but something else. If it is something else, what should we call it ?
    I applaude anyone willing to makee the monastic journey. Never an essy decision.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your reflections on this topic. It is one I have often pondered myself. As a bi-vocational priest I am regularly confronted with the choice of when it is appropriate to don clericals. A sales call seems inappropriate for clerical collar, for example, since I’m functioning as the representative of a secular organization, not as a priest of the Most High God.

    In the Order of the Anam Cara, we’ve addressed the issue of habits by having a major and minor habit. The major habit is a flaxen robe with cincture, while the minor habit is a particular celtic cross.

    Culdees need where either habit only when participating in gatherings of the Order, while life-professed monks are to wear the minor habit on all occasions.

    Since the Order of the Anam Cara is a neo-monastic religious order, (though we preceded the buzz-word, we are characterized by similar approaches and philosophies) we are still wrestling with issues like how does this translate in day-to-day scenarios. For example, the official minor habit seems overly ostentatious for wear during my business life, and I wear a smaller version as a necklace, rather than the pectoral cross while exercising my role as representative of an Israeli internet security firm.

    Admittedly, however, I wrestle with the issue of this defeating part of the habit’s purpose, which is to act as a form of accountability, as you so aptly described the effect of donning the clerical collar. It is interesting to note, by the way, that God designated a habit for all of his people, which purposefully reminded them of the specifically priestly garments. The fringes or tzitzit were clearly to function as a reminder and external form of accountability to the laws of God as a way of life for His people.

    All that to say, I think new monastics would do well to consider a habit of sorts, even if it varies from community to community.

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