A New Monasticism for Our Times

A New Monasticism for Our Times

by Rory McEntee

Part 1

“New monasticism is not just a theoretical concept.  It is an orientation in life, a commitment that asks us to bring every aspect of our lives into a living relationship with God, with the Spirit, with the Buddha Nature-Mind, with one's deepest Self.”
—Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko, The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living

The spirit that lies behind my work comes from a deep longing to harness our contemplative wisdom for a new age, helping those who long to cultivate their own gifts and graces to serve our human family in the greatest way possible, building community and mentorship and Life around that impulse. This is done while acknowledging the dark side of our human predicament; the neurosis in our personal and collective unconscious in need of contemplative healing, and the horrors of the collective dark side of humanity in need of the radical profundity and power of the prophetic spirit.

These elements have always been present in my own journey, from deep impacts in high school of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the exquisiteness of the Declaration of Independence, to my own eye-opening experiences with police brutality and racism, as well as the experience of being a committed single father despite horrendous impediments. A decade of descent into unfathomable darkness, hopelessness and despair wrought a great gift in the crucible of my soul, an ability to identify with the “least among us,” the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten.

I have found that the vast suffering in humanity, both personal and collective, can become one of the great motivations for passionate contemplative work wedded to social justice and the need to build a new creation. Out of this fulcrum of existential grief, through God’s grace can be born a holy power that demands nothing less than the transformation of our human society, and holds out an unwarranted and unbending hope as to its consummation in the “fullness of time.” The tragic elements of life, as Howard Thurman, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Jesus, and so many others discovered, holds a hidden key as to the fullness of our humanity—a dangerous, heartbreaking, and potent underground where the Spirit awaits to enact God’s most powerful intervention on Earth, the transformation of our own inner beings to become Her transfigured humble servants.

My contemplative journey began in earnest in college, on a class on the historical Jesus, where my professor and the Chair of our religion department, Ron Miller, presented Jesus as a wisdom teacher, one whom we could approach by degree in our own spiritual growth. Through classes, a private tutorial on Thomas Merton (including my first day in silence at Merton’s beloved Gethsemane monastery), and most of all friendship, Ron oriented me toward a life of “ultimate concern.”

After graduating I attended the Parliament of World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa with him, where I fatefully met Brother Wayne Teasdale—a close associate of the Dalai Lama, Free Tibet activist and pioneer Catholic monk who was a leader in the inter-monastic Hindu-Christian dialogue. Brother Wayne had been initiated as a Christian sannyasi by Fr. Bede Griffiths in India, and began what is today known as the “interspiritual movement,” a term he coined. Brother Wayne led me into the depths of the spiritual journey, becoming my first mystical guide, and with whom I was blessed to participate in the founding of the Interspiritual movement. Especially meaningful and touching was his final visit with the Dalai Lama at his personal residence in Dharamsala, India, where His Holiness expressed to Brother Wayne his unconditional love and support for all of Brother Wayne’s projects, because of who he was.

Since Brother Wayne’s passing in 2004 I have worked with and helped to found numerous inter-religious and interspiritual projects, currently serving as administrator for the Snowmass Interspiritual Dialogue, an ongoing 30-year project convened by Father Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., a Roman Catholic monk widely viewed as a spiritual master and founder of the Centering Prayer movement (and who Brother Wayne considered his “spiritual father”). “SISD” as it is known, engages contemplative leaders from multiple faiths in what Raimon Panikkar called the “dialogical dialogue”—where they meet not as representatives of their religious traditions but as contemplatives in search of the ultimate engaging intimately with one another.

Since 2011 my work has been anchored in birthing a novel expression of the radical “new monastic movement.” New monasticism has been around for decades, and it was with great respect and honor for its underlying spirit that I first engaged with it. This work emerged as I and a few other contemplative leaders, inspired by many of the uprisings in the Arab World, Europe and the United States, sensed the need to connect the moral outrage felt in these movements to our contemplative traditions. We felt that something beautiful and powerful could emerge through a merging of contemplative, prophetic and secular traditions, as it had in the Civil Rights movement—and that this collaboration could bring together synergistic constituencies with heart-full and nonviolent energy into these continuing struggles for a more just and compassionate world. In collaboration with others, a new monastic vision with an expanded emphasis on deep contemplative living and trans-traditional, inter-religious, and interspiritual sensibilities was formed, while maintaining the prophetic impulse and passionate living of life in the world at the root of new monasticism.

Together with Adam Bucko, a leader who had worked on behalf of homeless youth in New York City, India and Europe, and who founded an organization for homeless youth in New York City (the Reciprocity Foundation), I co-wrote in 2012 a short “New Monastic Manifesto.” It spoke of the evolution of “the archetype of the monk”—the total life commitment and spiritual transformation demanded by it—into a form that can be lived out in the world as a catalyst for lasting change, in contemporary lives dedicated to social and political justice, dignified romantic relationships, and spiritual maturation. Our work emerged as a dialogical evocation between contemplative, prophetic, philosophical, theological and social justice traditions. We subsequently received emails from interested professors, social workers, monks and nuns from varying religious traditions, and most of all from young people. Many felt it named something emerging in their hearts, or perhaps something they had already been living, yet didn’t have the language to describe.

In the past year I co-wrote a heavily researched book significantly expanding the vision of the manifesto, The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living (w/ Adam Bucko, Orbis Books, 2015), offering the beginnings of a theological, philosophical, and contemplative understanding to its underpinnings, as well as methodologies for its praxis. In addition, we co-founded the nonprofit Foundation for New Monasticism (www.new-monastics.com), a collaboration of old and new, esteemed elders immersed in the depths of our religious traditions and young contemplatives whose paths speak to an emerging spirituality that cuts across traditional religious and spiritual boundaries while engaging passionately with ecological and social justice issues. The Foundation supports new monastic life through offering contemplative and prophetic formation, dialogical engagement with religious traditions, resources for articles, video, and social media, and community building.

My saintly (and perhaps prescient) spiritual mentor, Brother Wayne Teasdale, had sown seeds for this nascent movement back at the beginning of my contemplative journey. Brother Wayne, in his beautiful book A Monk in the World, wrote about a special need in our time for the monastic vocation to be lived out “in the world”:

Without doubt, there is great value in spirituality that emphasizes and supports withdrawal from society. But in our time, with its special needs, we require a spirituality of intense involvement and radical engagement with the world…it is in the real world that the wisdom of the monks must be made accessible. It is in the real world that their awakening and development need to occur, not off in remote solitude… Why do I choose to be a monk in the world and not locked away in a remote hermitage? Because I want to identify with and be identified with all those who suffer alone in the world, who are abandoned, homeless, unwanted, unknown, and unloved. I want to know the insecurity and vulnerability they experience, to forge solidarity with them. … I wish to be near the least, the forgotten and ignored, so I can be a sign of hope and love for them and for all others who need me in some way.[1]

Brother Wayne also developed the ideal of the monk outside of the context of a particular religious tradition, thereby becoming one of the main inspirations for this “interspiritual” new monastic movement:

Monasticism has its origin here in the hidden places of the heart…It is this heartfelt monasticism that has inspired so many souls to venture to mountain caves, desert huts, and remote communities throughout the East and West, whether these seekers be Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, or Christian … an inner monk doesn’t require an overtly religious context. It is an innate expression of the mystical quest that everyone can reach by virtue of our common humanity.[2]

In Part 2 we will speak directly to new monastic life, the need for it in our times, its unique ethos, and the Movement itself.

For more please see The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living (w/ Adam Bucko, Orbis Books, 2015), and visit the Foundation for New Monasticism (www.new-monastics.com).

(See photos, in order top to bottom: "Rory McEntee with Bro. Wayne Teasdale at the Parliament of World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, 1999.” "Bro. Wayne Teasdale with the Dalai Lama and John Stasio at His Holiness' residence in Dharamsala, India"; "(Rory McEntee) At Mother Teresa's orphanage Missionaries of Charity in India"; "Fr. Bede Griffiths and Bro. Wayne Teasdale at Shantivanam ashram in Tamil Nadu, India"; "Rory McEntee, Fr. Thomas Keating, Pir Netanel Miles-Yepez, and Adam Bucko, in 2014 New Monastic Dialogues at St. Benedict's Monastery, Snowmass, CO.”)

A New Monasticism For Our Times
Part 2

by Rory McEntee

“We assert that new monasticism names an impulse that is trying to incarnate itself in the new generation. It is beyond the borders of any particular religious institution, yet drinks deeply from the wells of our wisdom traditions. It is an urge which speaks to a profoundly contemplative life, to the formation of small communities of friends, to sacred activism and to discovering together the unique calling of every person and every community.”       
—Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko, The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living

There can be no doubt that a great renewal of society and culture is needed. Our capitalistic and predatory economy is failing us, continuing to create wider gaps between the haves and have-nots. It is a soulless world-vision, leading to widespread depression and the devastation of our planet—a far cry from that which lies deepest in our hearts, the sacred dimension of life where the very depths of our humanity is found.

This sense of the sacred is not something that needs to be defined for you, by dogmas or beliefs or teachings, but rather is that which resides deepest in your own heart, in your own being, in your own experience of Life.

The new monastic movement emerges out of a cultivation of that dimension of Life, wedded to the real-world experiences of relationship, poverty, suffering and injustice, community, natural beauty and friendship. This impulse of Life is beyond the borders of any traditional religious institution. Yet new monasticism does not leave our religious institutions behind, instead it works in partnership with them, penetrating the lived wisdom of our ancestors and traditional mentors for a new age. In its radical expressions for the poor and oppressed, for ecological awareness and love for our Mother Earth, in its contemplative and prophetic depth—and its commitment to a sacred life that cannot be put into any dogmatic formula or relegated to prayer time on the weekends—it is becoming a revolutionary impulse in our post-postmodern world.

Traditional monasticism served as a revolutionary force both East and West in its founding more than two millennia ago, born as a rejection of societal norms. In the West early Christian monks flew to the desert to reject traditional society in order to search for God. In the East, the Buddha revolutionized Indian society, forming a highly organized society of monks who left householder life in order to pursue a path to enlightenment. These men and women sacrificed cultural norms in order cultivate this sacred dimension to life. They dedicated their entire lives to a transformation of the inner marrow of their beings to become dynamic containers and transmitters of this sacred dimension, to discovering how to live permanently in a sense of the “sacred.”

They discovered much wisdom along the way, and through this audacious goal monasticism in time became the very institutions of civilization itself, serving as the centers of learning, forerunners of the welfare state, and “the guardians of Western civilization” following the collapse of the Roman Empire, as eminent sociologist Peter Berger recounts in “A New Monasticism” (The American Interest). Could a new monasticism, as Berger suggests, play a similar revolutionary role today? Transforming our society and becoming the building blocks for what Brother Wayne Teasdale called a “civilization with a heart?”

My new monastic sisters and brothers hold this deepest hope in their hearts…for if not now, when?

New monasticism is about cultivating the inner transformation necessary to live permanently within the sacred dimensions of Life—with the same conviction, passion, dedication, endurance, and wisdom as traditional monks—but doing so while being in the world. This way of the “new monk” engages itself passionately with the world, involved in relationships, the arts, community building, serving the poor and forgotten, social justice movements, ecological awareness, and all cultural endeavors, infusing our world with this deep sense of the sacred, and transforming our beings in the process. We spend time in monasteries, but ultimately are committed to turning our entire world into a “monastery.” Raimon Panikkar, the great 20th century inter-religious philosopher-theologian, said, “The monastery, then, would not be the ‘establishment’ of the monks, but the schola Domini, the school where that [sacred] human dimension is cultivated and transmitted.”

New monasticism is not a mere theory or an effervescent idea of “oneness” or becoming a “new world.” It is grounded in praxis, in the blood, sweat and tears that a daily commitment to contemplative practice and prophetic spirituality demands. It is real, and the movement is growing. New monastics have started hermitages and help run orphanages (cf. Inner Sky Community), have founded social justice urban communities (cf. Center for the Working Poor), radical inter-religious and interspiritual prayer groups (cf. HAB Community), and more. Some are Catholic, Episcopal, Buddhist, Sufi, or Jewish, Yoga teachers, hermits, or live on the edge of social justice movements. Some even write theology or philosophy J. Some belong to no tradition at all, moving among and between wisdom traditions with fluidity and depth as they deepen their “interspiritual path.” Some are “Spiritual but Not Religious,” others commit themselves to a single tradition.

But our solidarity is our strength. All of us have dedicated our lives to building a “civilization with a heart,” to deep contemplative practice, and to a new monastic ethos that engages us in dialogical discernment with one another, bringing cohesiveness to our diverse expressions and a growing respect for our varying sacred vocations.

We have had great mentors too numerous to count along the way. These include Fr. Thomas Keating, Christian sannyasis Bede Griffiths and Brother Wayne Teasdale, contemplative new monastic guide Beverly Lanzetta, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee, Vedanta monastic Swami Atmarupananda, and others. Many of these teachers were formed in traditional mystical lineages, pooling their wisdom into our movement as guides and elders, together with those who have lived untraditional lives as spiritual mentors, such as Beverly Lanzetta.

We hope you will consider joining us in this revolution of the heart, a revolution of radical possibilities, committed contemplative life, prophetic spirituality, heart-present (and heart-breaking) energy in building a world that works for all (and not just some), living out the radical and sacred vocation of the “new monastic” amidst life in the world…

For more please see The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living (w/ Adam Bucko, Orbis Books, 2015).

You can contact us and learn more about many of the communities above through our nonprofit, the Foundation for New Monasticism (www.new-monastics.com), supporting new monastic life through contemplative and prophetic formation, dialogical engagement with religious traditions, resources for articles, video, and social media, and community building among the varying expressions of new monastic life.

[1] Teasdale, Wayne, A Monk in the World (Novato: New World Library, 2002), xxiii, xxix, xxxi.

[2] Ibid., xxviii.