Reawakening our Origins – The Monastic Church.
The Monastic Church was the earliest indigenous ecclesiology in Britain whose strength and dynamism was its simplicity of prayerful practice alongside a geographically liminal location in the cosmology of Gods created order. In today’s world, the idea of Church is often seen as a distraction to those whose natural tendency is towards contemplation, mystery and wisdom. Similarly the word monastic conjures imaginings of cloistered separation for the spiritual elite, hidden away from the daily lives of the great unwashed. For the executive styled career Christian, platform preachers and church leaders it can quickly become an idol at the heart of the narrative, a means by which we secure material wealth and maintain the gratification of public popularity. It is not the responsibility of human beings to build the church. Not something Jesus ever sanctioned. We must be clear, it is not our job to build the church, this is the purview of God alone. The followers of Christ are called to ‘strive first for the Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). The Church is the by-product of this Kingdom focus.
When discussing the reawakening of a British & Irish monastic church I start from the understanding that ecclesiology is not a fixed social, cultural or theological position.The axiomatic passage on church building is of course Jesus’s proclamation over the man Peter, ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18a). What is instantly clear is that Jesus builds the church and that Peter is a human being and not a rock (either in character or temperament). Later in his life St. Peter recalls Jesus’s words, when he speaks of ‘living stones… being built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5). St. Paul talks of a body, the Body of Christ (Romans 12:5 & 1 Corinthians 12:12) and bodies are not stone or walls, concepts or ideas, they are are precisely what we live in – namely the skin we are in. The Ekklēsia (called out ones) of God are human beings, physical bodies, being formed in purpose and will to that of God the Creator as revealed in and through Jesus. The authenticity of the Body of Christ should never be about the quality of buildings, organisational political structure, size of congregation or commercial success. These things are helpful, but not defining as they are products of socio-economic conditioning and context. The Body of Christ is only ever to be judged on the quality of the love (John 15:12-17) expressed between the bodies that inhabit it and where those bodies choose to locate themselves. It is as simple as that.
The question then arises what do we do with our bodies and where do we choose to place them? These questions are at the heart of a monastic church ecclesiology. The monastic church is a place that creates the social and creational context in which the individual can be formed in the likeness of Christ. This spiritual formation occurs in three principle ways, through discipleship, imitation and location. So is there an ecclesiology that harnesses the strength of a rooted spirituality, an inclusive communitarian edge and creational harmony?
Discipleship in its simplest terms means to follow after, to learn from and to be taught. We learn by example and clearly for Jesus the call to come ‘follow me’ (John 1:43) was at the very heart of His life’s work. This discipleship however should not be interpreted as primarily evangelistic (if we understand evangelism as a process of converting individual people). Yoder summarises the sociological traits of discipleship as three fold,
- A visible social structure or fellowship (Matthew 10:1-4).
- A sober decision regarding the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33).
- A clearly defined lifestyle that is distinct from the world (Matthew 5:1-14).
Jesus was intentional about the establishing of an alternative society or fellowship that was in direct contrast to the existing system of the world and established governance. During His final meal, Jesus speaks plainly about the essential difference between the kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God, being that of servanthood rather than power and control (Luke 22:25). The Kingdom of God is the in breaking of a new social order of love expressed as service and sacrifice, not the revolutionary overturning, or coalescing to, the existing political and social structures of the world.
Monastic disengagement from the start was a social and political statement as well as a theological one. We cannot overlook the vital importance in the fourth century of ‘social meaning’. The presence of heavenly power on earth expressed in the monastic life was closely related to an ascetic stance to ‘this world’ – represented by disentangling oneself from the conventional social and economic obligations in the favour of reshaping of human relations.
This visible counter-cultural community is established in lifestyle, a lifestyle that revolves around the primary commandment, ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12).
Imitation of Christ is at the very centre of all the monastic traditions and the heart of a Columban ecclesiology and expectation. ‘Be naked in your imitation of Christ and the Evangelists’ (rule 2) is the injunction that follows on from ‘being alone in a separate place’ (rule 1). Imitation is often understood as the copying of Jesus in all aspects of lifestyle and it cannot be denied that this aspirational devotion over the centuries has produced many inspirational exemplars of transformational holiness. What imitation cannot be understood to mean however is that every disciple of Christ should live an identikit lifestyle to Jesus. Jesus was not married, was a carpenter, was itinerant etc. The very fabric of life itself would be out of balance if every Christian copied Jesus in this fashion. If discipleship is an outward expression of an in breaking Kingdom, imitation is the process of inward formation that leads to that out breaking of the Kingdom becoming a material reality (Luke 17:20-21). The imitation of Christ is authenticated in our orientation towards the power structures of the world. Are we transformed (internally and externally) by the authority and values of God or the authority of the world value system? Imitation of Christ is a transformation that leads to the realisation and fulfillment of our true nature. A nature created in the Image of God. Imitation is participation, partaking, abiding, corresponding with the very nature of who God is. ‘Be holy for I am Holy’ (Leviticus 19:2), and ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) captures the very lifeblood of what it means to be created in the image of God. At this point we must concede failure and our need of grace. No one is perfect in holiness, yet our desire for union with God leads us to climb the ladder of holiness each and every day and when we fall off, start all over again.
Actions without internal concordance swiftly become meaningless religious observance. The heart and soul of our humanity must be liberated from worldly values, so our lifestyle and actions are authentic expressions of our faith (James 2:26). Matthew’s beatitudes, not only focus on external behaviours, they also focus us on the inner world of love, peace, reconciliation, equality, inclusiveness and being free in our hearts from hatred, materialism, revenge, violence, segregation and greed. St. Paul captures a high point of Christian theology when he writes, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
From the inner world of intentional imitation flows the required detachment from the corrosive worldly values that would have us formed in the image of all that is destructive to humanity and creation.
At the core of discipleship and community is a spirit shaped by Holiness that is free to love without reward or notoriety. The Utopia that is the Kingdom of God is fashioned first in the heart and soul of each follower. St. Columba’s call to imitate Christ and the Evangelists (rule 2), is so we are able to confess with integrity that the ruler of this world ‘has no power over me’ (John 14:30, 19:11).
Location is an indispensable positioning in order to mature in Christ. What is unequivocal in the historical analysis of the British & Irish monastic church was that liminal creation was the physical location for their ecclesial settlements. These liminal wildernesses in turn actively shaped and formed the monastic life in Christ.
God’s indwelling spirit is not merely in humankind or even in animate objects. The Spirit dwells in all things without exception. In that sense the elements such as earth and water are powerful spiritual forces because they have within them the creative energy that is God’s own.
On the monastic island of Iona, St. Columba has a word of fore-knowledge that a pilgrim from Ireland would be blown off course and arrive on the island exhausted and near death. St. Columba instructs one of the monks to wait for the unfortunate to arrive, to take him to one of the monasteries guest rooms, give him hospice until he is fully recovered and able to continue his onward journey. This pilgrim turns out to be a Heron, blown off course in a storm and it is significant the bird is afforded the same hospitality that a human guest would have been (VC 1:48). In this simple prophetic encounter we witness a charismatic creational balance at work in the life of the monastic house.
Those early adherents of British monasticism sought places of creational liminality that afforded the minimal amount of secular distraction and maximised the immanence and transcendence of God in creation. Theirs was a spirituality that embraced wilderness as home.
There can be little doubt that early British and Irish Christians built on the tenants of desert monasticism that included;
- Separation from worldly values of empire
- An embracing of ascetic practices
- A creational worldview
- A focus on an imitation of Christ in all aspects of life.
This indigenous desert in the ocean asceticism was rooted and emerged from within the soil of these islands and uniquely found expression upon the waters that surround them. It recognised that although monastic principles espoused in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts may be inspirational, these principles cannot be imposed from above, they emerge from beneath our feet, from the very soil on which we tread and the waters we sail on.
All of creation proceeds from God, all of creation participates in God, all of creation returns to God – John Scottus Eriugena.
Creation, of which humanity is uniquely a part, is an active participant in our spirituality and ecclesiology, not a passive recipient. To speak of the whole of life as being (w)holy is a theological confession few would disagree with. Yet the challenge comes in living a life that treats all of creation as Holy. To live an intentionally (w)holy life is the most difficult and challenging vocation in today’s aggressively secularised Britain. A privatised modern secularism and liberal economic dogma demand life is structured into manageable monetised and politicised components. This dystopian segregation fails to recognise the primary creational mandate that all of life is sacred and an inter-dependent whole under God. Our spiritual maturity is dependent on a right relationship with creation, and creation needs a (w)holy people to work in partnership to fulfill God’s expectation for salvation.
The final blog article in this series will explore the Columban charism of prayer, work and reading as a way of focusing on the essential practices of the Christian walk.
For a complete copy of Reawakening our Origins, please click on title.
 John Howard Yoder. Politics of Jesus. (Eerdmans: 1972), p.47
 Philip Sheldrake. Spaces for the Sacred. (SCM Press: 2000), p.91-92.
 Philip Sheldrake. Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality. (Darton, Longman & Todd: 1995), p.82.
 For a good summary of the theological and spiritual link between desert monasticism of the fourth century and its influence on British and Irish Monastic practice, see chapter 2 of The Church in Early Irish Society, Kathleen Hughes.