BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW MONASTICISM

by contemplativeinquiry

New_MonasticismHighly recommended. I knew I would be in business with this book as soon as I got wind of it, and it will take further contemplation and inward digestion before I fully understand my relationship with it. I believe that this is the kind of effect that what The New Monasticism: an Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living intends to create.

‘Monasticism’ is refreshingly used here “simply to denote a level of commitment to a spiritual life”. It is not about specific beliefs or a specific lifestyle. It asks us to free ourselves from our cultural conditioning and an unquestioning and un-questing life. Avoiding identification with material success, living in the midst of a contemporary society that does not support such a calling, we may enter a space of “radical profundity and divine transformative energy”. We seek simplicity not through renunciation but through ‘integration’.  We do need retreat space, so some people will indeed be called as specialists to hold the “containers of silence”. But most will pursue vocation in the world, in a life made up of contemplative practice, heartfelt conversation and sacred activism.

Authors Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko are situated within the Roman Catholic tradition, in an emancipatory strand which is reaching out to others and hoping to transcend itself. The term ‘interspirituality’ was coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale, an ordained Christian Sannyasin who  presided over an ashram in India. The authors see interspirituality as “humbly placing itself in partnership and collaborative discernment with our time-honoured religious traditions”.  In the last decade we have also seen the linking of Father Thomas Keating (who developed ‘centering prayer’ as a Christian answer to Buddhist-style meditation) with Ken Wilber’s Integral Life project, which is itself increasingly seeking alliance with like-minded Christian communities. Indeed a lot of the philosophy, psychology and social science in this book comes straight from Ken Wilber and the stance of the Integral movement. The authors come from a collectively confident and mature spiritual base, and there are advantages in that. The book is rich with specific suggestions about life and practice in the new monasticism, drawing for its core inspiration on an ‘Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st. Century’ following a week long dialogue with Father Thomas Keating at his monastery in Colorado in 2012.

McEntee and Bucko are both “under 40” and feel a connection with the younger generation now coming into adulthood. Bucko works with young homeless men in New York City. They see a potentially emergent spiritual culture that is: “spiritual not religious”; this worldly and concerned with nature and the fate of the earth; has (post) modern commitments to personal ‘authenticity’; and finds the sacred in the secular. They believe that these values can be championed within a further development of their own tradition, transforming the tradition itself. For them the path is as much about the life and health of the earth as it is with an individual communion with the Divine: indeed, it is false to separate the two. Realisation is less a “gnostic quest for truths beyond the world” than “a reflection on certain processes taking place within the world”. Interspirituality wants to be the midwife of this, and in doing so become attractive to people, especially young people, who would not be drawn to more traditional approaches.

The New Monasticism is a valuable contribution to the re-visioning of spirituality and concomitant life practices. Given its provenance, it is not surprising that the reaching out to other traditions is quite selective. Beyond Christianity, the traditions being engaged with are neo-Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser extent Zen, modern Sufism and to some degree the Hasidic movement in Judaism and Martin Buber. ‘Indigenous religions’ are mentioned in two inclusivity lists, without definition or description. Shamanism is mentioned as a particular model of spiritual service. There is nothing specific from the Western Way outside Christianity.  Within Christianity, much is drawn from the contemplative strand in Orthodoxy, including an understanding of theosis (or divinisation) and the role of Sophia as guide. This is accompanied by an intent to “claim the wisdom dimension of all traditions and let the wisdom guide you” – a view which they attribute to Matthew Fox. Ethics is seen as “the call to active co-operation with the sophianic transfiguration of the world”. Quaker processes also get a mention because of their democratic and dialogical way of bringing people into Presence with each other. Since I am personally positioned in modern Druidry, Paganism and Earth Spirituality I have to express some disappointment here. However I don’t feel deliberately excluded. It’s just that these authors have their attention focused elsewhere.

I do have a worry, all the same, an area where I think that Earth and Goddess traditions could do with being heard. This is when McEntee and Bucko talk about ‘axial ages’, a view of spiritual/religious history once again taken from Ken Wilber. It depends on an evolutionary view of human culture as an aspect of a Divine awakening. In this view, the first axial age, from 800 BCE – 200 CE was a time of radical transformation marked by the appearance of great teachers who catalysed major literatures: Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Mahavir (of the Jains), Zoroaster, the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophy, as well as Jesus and the gospels. These people could stand apart from the tribe, question the worldview they had been given, and think for themselves. They could also wake up from the trance of complete immersion in nature and objectify it – seen here as a positive step, albeit one with a shadow side. They represented the coming of reflexive subjectivity and the technology (writing) that made it sustainable. Admittedly, the narrative goes, this tended to take world denying, sex denying, misogynist and more generally oppressive forms. But overall it is read as a cultural gain. Now we are seen to be in a second axial age where the perceived challenge is to transcend the limitations of the first whilst preserving the gains, and thus renew our overall movement onward. “We need both our individuality … and an understanding of our intrinsic belonging within a vast Kosmos”. I’ve been aware of Wilber’s position on this since he wrote Up from Eden in the mid 1980’s. It has always read to me as a one-eyed narrative, the mirror image of the primitive matriarchy still espoused by many Pagans.  One of its effects has been to offer a language of canny and limited concession by hitherto dominant traditions as they respond to an unstoppable shift in culture. Here is where the Earth traditions could have a role in the dialogue, to support a view of individuality and inter-connectedness, indeed, but which is less masculinist in language (I’m thinking about how the book suggests “dialogical sophiology” as the way of meeting with the divine feminine), more open, and more widely informed than this.

I am glad to be living in a time of spiritual ferment. It breathes life and hope in an otherwise darkening time. I acknowledge and celebrate the achievement of The New Monasticism and am already involved in exploring contemplative life in Druidry. I notice that I, and others who I have been linked with, have in some ways come to similar conclusions about life and practice, if not entirely of view. This book, although from a very different background, has stimulated and encouraged me. I hope it has this role for many other readers.

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