New and traditional monasticism - a dialectical relationship

It is well known that the Second Vatican Council created conflict within the Catholic church (Baudouin and Portier 2001, 2002; Pelletier 2002; Poulat 2003; Melloni and Ruggieri 2010; O’Malley 2012). In the context of consecrated life, this conflict cannot be explained by a basic opposition between old and new institutions. The situation is more complicated: some institutions, both pre- and post-Conciliar, have instituted processes of renewal and experiments in reform, whereas others have followed more conservative paths. To put it simply, the classical monastic tree, which may be described as moderate, may be added, on one hand, innovative communities full of expansive, radical experimentation and, on the other, traditionalist ones which look to the past as a means of resistance to, and criticism of.

modernity. In scientific debate, there is no lack of detailed studies of classical monasticism, but there are few, if any, devoted to the actors of post- Conciliar renewal. As a consequence, there is no overall synopsis of the current state of the monastic world. This in itself is reason enough to signal the urgency of study, recognising that the actors’ choices should today be interpreted rather than measured. In order to help fill the gap, we shall deal here with innovative communities, NMCs and their relationship with traditional monasticism.

In line with the Second Vatican Council, NMCs attempt to renew monastic life by highlighting and adopting its most innovative, and also challenging, theological aspects which they identify in its conclusions. Some curial studies describe these communities as attempts - frequently borderline - at monastic life, being founded by priests, religious people and laypeople who are critical of traditional monasticism, for being bound by obsolete customs and rules. In these communities, critics perceive disturbing elements which can be summarised as follows (Palmisano 2015). First, they are mostly 'mixed’, which is to say consisting of monks and nuns living ‘under the same roof. Second, they admit lay members, whether single, married or in families, residing in private dwellings in proximity to the monastery. Third, they reject enclosure and contemptus mundi, limit collective prayer time in order to increase time available for labour, evangelism and voluntary social work, often outside the monastery. Finally, they are actively involved in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and harbour barely concealed sympathies with oriental religions, from which they sometimes acquire beliefs and practices.

My thesis is that although many traditional monastic communities have revised and renewed tradition, NMCs have also (re)invented tradition. In order to understand the paradigm shift (Winthrop 1981) inaugurated by NMCs, it is useful to turn to Goffman’s (1974) metaphor of a ‘frame’ as ‘definition of the situation’. Working within the frame implies sharing the assumptions, rules and values of a given context of interaction. Altering the frame means calling into question, problematising and/or distorting that basic culture. Moving on from this distinction, I claim that traditional monasticism has introduced various changes without invalidating monasticism’s basic tenets (remaining, therefore, within the frame), whereas New Monasticism has questioned, problematised and distorted the frame by way of the following:4

NMCs suffer from monasticism's lack of socialisation

Since most of their founders are not monks (that is to say, they have experienced non-monastic life in the world as layman, diocesan priests, missionaries, religious men and women), they possess a ‘partial’ understanding of tradition, quite different from that of conventional monks.5 Consequently, they do not adhere to the observances of cloistered life which regulate and reign over the traditional monastic community. According to Winthrop (1985), these rules are inescapable bearers of memory having enabled the transmission of the monastic way of life down the generations and in doing so guaranteed its perpetuity for a millennium and a half. Based on ethnographic research carried out on nine American monasteries, some marked by a break in the process of socialisation caused by an abbot’s moving or death, Winthrop theorises that the monastic, like all traditions, is tacit, cumulative and experiential, and therefore a novice cannot learn how to be a monk without the guiding example of a master. The stability of monasticism, as the author explains, was guaranteed by the enculturation action of the leader. Whenever - as a result of epoch-making transition or radical change - that chain of socialisation is broken, there follows profound shifts or distortions in the interpretation of tradition, a prelude to processes of‘invention of tradition' (Winthrop 1981). Thus, Winthrop’s work helps us to grasp the points of discontinuity in New Monasticism’s hermeneutical processes: according to this perspective, the New Monks, mostly trained away from cloisters, unaware of observances and customs, cannot but transform - re-invent - monasticism by taking upon themselves, to afford them legitimacy, a bond with it which is, however, imaginary.

NMCs initiate ‘do-it-yourself experiments

The founders of NMCs (who, as we have just seen, have limited experience of cloistered life) re-interpret a duly chosen portion of monastic tradition (mostly patristic, from Pachomius and Basil and even, in some cases, the Rule of Saint Benedict)6 onto which they graft elements drawn from nonmonastic Catholic sources (such as the writings of the saints) as well as non-Catholic (Judaism, Protestantism, Eastern Churches, Sufism, Yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation) - a process of accumulation from a variegated itinerary ‘through the world’. In the process of hybridisation they do not overly concern themselves with syncretism and theological dissonance resulting from the juxtaposition of very different views of the world, man and God; rather are they motivated by recognisable analogies among religious universes which are now, in the new cultural climate, considered correlational. Landron (2004), in his historical study of new communities appearing in France in the wake of Vatican 11, identifies spiritual ‘do-it- yourself as a distinguishing feature of such organisations. He also demonstrates, in about 20 cases, what spiritualities (apart from the Catholic) have had the greatest influence on the founder’s itinerary and, as a consequence, on his community’s Rule of life and liturgy.

NMCs create a terrain for theological, spiritual and political experimentation within monasticism

Some founders, looking back with nostalgia on Vatican 11, are turning their monastic experience into a banner of renewal inspired by ‘progressive movements’ which introduced into Roman Catholicism the boldest aspects of liturgical reform, the return of Catholics to personal Bible reading and a return to first-century teachings of the Fathers of the Church along with an ecumenical commitment for Christian unity (Faggioli 2008, p. 30). In this way New Monasticism becomes, for the believer, a vehicle through which to proclaim self-identity and political aspiration, the emblem of an innovative model aimed at revitalising spiritual life and, even more, enriching the widest possible Catholic message. The organisational, liturgical and pastoral innovations which they have introduced into their communities become part of this theological-spiritual-political configuration.

NMCs advocate a new Catholic sensitivity

The founders re-interpret monasticism within a transformed religious universe where traditional notions of Catholic doctrine (the soul, sin, the afterlife) are - both among theologians and the ranks of the faithful7 - more blurred and indeterminate and assume, among the consecrated themselves, symbolic meanings somewhat different from those expressed by the magis- terium of the Church. For two decades now, sociologists of religion have reported a decline in the sense of sin and a lack of interest in eschatological salvation. Data from Italy (Garelli 2011), Europe (Lambert 2000) and the US (Woodcock Tentler 2011) show that Reconciliation is the sacrament in greatest danger, almost as if the confessional mea culpa were becoming an optional in one’s way of considering and defining oneself as Catholic.8 Pope Benedict XVI intervened on the subject, attributing indifference as a cause of one of the greatest problems of modern theology: the disappearance of the dogma of original sin and, consequently, the basis of Christ the Redeemer.9 But the very concept of salvation is in trouble if, as Lambert (2000) attests, during the survey on moral and religious pluralism in Europe, researchers had to erase the question ‘Do you believe in salvation after death?’ because - in the preliminary test - one-third of respondents did not know what it meant. These transformations have repercussions on monastic life too. Many New Monks, often with the agreement of colleagues from old monasteries, object to the doctrine of original sin, proposing an anthropological interpretation of it, and they claim for themselves the right to seek - prior to otherworldly salvation - happiness here and now. Monk in the new communities are sensitive to the reactions of the establishment in regard to their practices and are therefore careful not to express dissent in public. Changes in their daily routines include, for example, the abolition of communal daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration and certain feast days, for example, the Immaculate Conception. There is also less emphasis on the practice of confession and spiritual guidance.

 
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