The New Monasticism

Contemplative Living in the Modern World

As the Institutional Church continues its decline, and monastic communities along with it, we are invited to Re-Vision Church, while at the same time re-visioning monasticism. What does it mean to be contemplative, in community, and in service to the betterment of the world without taking vows of chastity and poverty?  What does it mean to be called to the contemplative life while living in the modern world?   In this week’s lesson, we are going to explore these questions. I invite you to join in this exploration with me!

Church, as we have known it, is dying.  Included in this death is the dramatic decline of women and men entering religious orders. In the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal traditions, these monastic orders have been the guardians of the contemplative traditions while dedicating their lives in service to the Divine and to the betterment of our world. These are the women and men who serve the needs of the poor, bring healing to the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and who are continually working for social justice and the rights of the vulnerable and oppressed.  These are the people who are “boots on the ground.”

In the modern age, however, the number of those who are “boots on the ground” has drastically declined. To put it simply, few are called to the vows of chastity or poverty that are required for in most monastic orders. Additionally people (in the first world anyway) are not looking toward religious life as an escape or as a means to an education. As our world becomes increasingly pluralistic (embracing the truths present within a multitude of belief systems) and institutional religion continues to decline, there are quite simply fewer to choose from as potential candidates for religious life.

This does not mean, however, that women and men are not looking for what monastic life has provided:

  • A life centered in contemplation, meditation and prayer.
  • Spiritual Formation and Empowerment.
  • A Community of like-minded women and men.
  • Meaningful and fulfilling work that is both personally enriching and which serves the betterment of the world.

How can women and men get these needs met outside of institutional religion, while embracing a multitude of beliefs? 

I have shared this quandary with many of my friends, students and clients.  There seems to be a deep hunger among people to connect – and to do so along a similar intention or goal.  One friend for example, has carries within him the long-standing vision of building a sustainable community – one whose focus is on agricultural sustainability and permaculture – living away from the distractions of the capitalistic world and providing for their own needs while providing for others.  He has seen this as a collaborative collective of like-minded people dedicated to building community, while caring for the earth with sustainable farming practices.  This is a vision that he has held for the six years (lifetimes) I have known him.  He has been slowly working toward this vision and only recently have the pieces fallen into place which are allowing him to fulfill this vision. 

A former student has held a similar vision, but for her the vision isn’t centered on agriculture, but is instead about providing a place for women to be safe (her focus is women who have been abused and their children), where they can heal and become empowered through a sisterhood of supportive women.  The focus of this community would be on ritual, healing practice, meditation and prayer.  Additionally, shamanic healing practices, counseling and empowerment would be offered to help these women create a new life for themselves – either within or outside of the community.

Another example of attempts that are being made to support women and men in receiving the benefits that monastic life used to provide is the way that many Catholic retreat centers have re-visioned themselves.  Many are housed within former convents or monasteries, providing a place of prayer, contemplation, formation, healing and stewardship.  The FSPA (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) sisters, for example, have several retreat centers that share a common mission – stewardship of the earth, sustainability, contemplation and prayer, outreach to the community. 

These are all examples of how women and men are finding creative answers to the deep calling within themselves that would have formerly been met within vowed religious life. The one thing that all of these examples have in common is PLACE.  They all require land and buildings – a place people have to go to be a part of these communities. While these examples meet the needs of some, what about the needs of those who are not called to “place”?

I am one of those people, and I suspect if you are part of this community, you might be too.  How do we live a monastic life outside the confines of place and within the rhythm of our everyday lives?  Most of the women and men in this community have “day jobs” and/or a family to care for.  We are called from a wide range of professions, vocational callings and life circumstances – all of which preclude living out a contemplative life defined by place.  Instead, we are called to create space within our everyday life for the benefits of monasticism:

  • A life centered in contemplation, meditation and prayer.
  • Spiritual Formation and Empowerment.
  • A Community of like-minded women and men.
  • Meaningful and fulfilling work that is both personally enriching and which serves the betterment of the world – work which we may or may not get paid for.

It isn’t easy, but it can be done. In order to fulfill this calling we will likely have to defy the rules and conditioning of our patriarchal world – rules that say our value is determined by what we do, how hard we work, how many people know us, how much money we make and by association, what we own.  Living a contemplative life in the modern world requires a shifting of priorities – creating space for the above mentioned items.  Carving out time for meditation and prayer. Making a commitment to our spiritual formation and to the calling which comes forth from that exploration and study.  Taking time to connect with those who are choosing to share in this journey.  Turning away from work, relationships, activities and expectations that no longer serve our Divine calling and turning toward that which fulfills and serves the betterment of the world.  All of this while ceasing from judging the paths and choices of those within our community, understanding that we are all on our own path – just trying to find our way home (to ourselves and our “God”).

I have been and continue to work on this for myself.  I can attest that it is a continued unfolding and a continued deepening.  Every day, it seems, I am called more and more fully into living out the contemplative life I have envisioned.  This alone is a practice.  In addition to my daily meditation and prayer, is the constant evaluation of the rhythm of my life and to what I am giving my energy.  Each day I am observing, witnessing, tweeking – what is life giving and what is not? What is an energy drain and what gives me life?  What makes me feel safe (peaceful, calm, content) and what is overstimulating, taxing, anxiety-producing?  It is an ongoing practice and my hope is that in doing this for myself, I can in turn, support you in doing the same – in the way that works for you!  (Not everyone is called to transmute the darkness of the world – you lucky souls! )

Join us for weekly reflections on monastic living.
Join us for our weekly spiritual service and twice monthly community sharing circle.

Suggested Spiritual Practice:

In the Christian tradition, Jesus provides the perfect example of the contemplative life. 

  • A life rooted in contemplation and prayer.
  • Ongoing spiritual formation.
  • Engagement with a like-minded community.
  • Meaningful work in service to the betterment of the world.

When his disciples asked Jesus how he did this, he answered was simple, PRAYER. He instructed them as such:

Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Divine Parent who is in secret; and your Divine Parent who sees in secret will reward you. MT 6:6

Jesus prayed (meditated) a lot!  He invited his disciples to do the same.  He did this because he knew:

Seek ye first the kingdom of God (within) and everything will be given unto you. MT 6:33

It is within this intimate connection with God that we find ourselves and in finding ourselves, we discover who we are, who we are called to be and how we are called to live our lives.  We also find this in the quiet discernment of our heart where we know what is “of God” and what is not. 

My invitation to all of this this week, is to enter into our quiet place and ask how we are individually and personally called to live out the contemplative life in our modern world?  As the pieces come through for you, please feel free to share them with our community, either in the discussion section below or if you are part of the social network, please share it there.

With love,


2 thoughts on “The New Monasticism

  1. Last night, I had the craziest dream about this very topic. I was wearing beautiful red robes with a gold-leaf pattern, kneeling on my knees in the middle of the parking garage near where I currently work, and I am preparing to meditate, while those I’m instructing are paying attention to cars that are attempting to drive in and out. I am trying to bring their attention back to the meditation, admonishing them to “pay attention.”


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