The Common Good
July 2005

Marks of a Christian

by William O'Brien | July 2005

Many people of faith sense that these are trying times.

Many people of faith sense that these are trying times. But some are recklessly hopeful enough to believe that God’s Spirit may be breaking in on our society in ways both new and ancient.

That is the witness of School(s) for Conversion. Its genesis lies in a web of relationships among various Christians around the United States, most of whom are involved in some kind of intentional faith community experiment. Some are grizzled veterans of the Christian counterculture; others are newer and younger voices. Through gatherings and conversations about their struggles for faithfulness and community life in the midst of a fragmented society, they have developed what they call (using good biblical numerology) 12 marks of a new monasticism.

This book is about these 12 marks. But the result is much richer than a simple collection of essays. School(s) for Conversion is a repository of collective experiential wisdom, reflecting lives of engaged, committed discipleship.

The first mark, described eloquently by Sister Margaret McKenna, sets the tone: the call for Christians to relocate to places abandoned by empire. Drawing on biblical and early church notions of desert spirituality, McKenna and her fellow new monastics believe that God’s Spirit will speak to us from the margins and there show us "new possibilities of faithfulness."

All the chapters, each covering one of the marks, reflect a holistic understanding of Christian faith that is historically situated and seeks to respond to the crises of our times. All the writers ground their reflections in scripture and church history, complemented by personal testimonies or portraits of communities seeking to incarnate the particular mark of new monasticism.

Some chapters cover familiar terrain for Christians who have sought a progressive social application of faith - racial justice, peacemaking, economic sharing, the environment. Even here, the authors frequently offer fresh and provocative insights. Chris Rice’s chapter on race, for instance, exudes honest struggle with painful issues as he calls the church to lamentation for racial divisions and commitment to just reconciliation. Fred Bahnson’s explication of the mark of peacemaking seeks to connect global peacemaking with conflict resolution within communities, along the lines of Matthew 18.

Other marks of the new monasticism are more surprising and perhaps more challenging to many readers. Ivan Kauffman urges even "radical" and countercultural Christians to commit to "humble submission to Christ’s body, the church." David Jansen calls for new monastic communities to provide intentional spiritual formation, similar to the traditional novitiate. Jana Bennett explores the roles of marriage and celibacy in communities (her chapter implies an understanding of marriage that may be exclusively restricted to the traditional model of heterosexuality).

A testimony to the wisdom of the new monastics is their avoidance of reducing the marks to a laundry list of progressive causes. Many of the marks stress the centrality of the traditions of prayer and intentional spiritual formation - "disciplines of grace," as they say. But even these traditional spiritual practices are remarkably integrated with engagement in history. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s chapter on the contemplative life largely takes place during his visit to war-ravaged Baghdad.

The authors wisely note that a new monasticism "movement" cannot exist on its own or for its own sake, but must be radically dependent on God’s Spirit and must exist only to serve the ends of God’s reign. One disappointment is the book’s failure to provide biographies of the authors - we want to know who these people are! But perhaps this is reflective of the urgency of community inherent in the new monastic spirit (the book, after all, is edited by a community). Part of that communal spirit is the invitation to continue the conversation through a Web site, www.newmonasticism.org.)

William O’Brien served on the editorial staff of The Other Side magazine for several years. He coordinates the Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia.

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