Urban Monasticism Then and Now

— Harry O. Maier

Mateusz Fafinski and Jakob Riemenscheider’s book, Monasticism and the City in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages provides readers with a comprehensive exploration of ancient monastic and urban sites and their inhabitants, akin to a Lonely Planet travel guide. The authors introduce us to various monks and nuns with their intriguing stories and chronicle how the pursuit of communal living gave rise to new urban practices and organizations. However, for those new to the subject of monasticism in antiquity, comprehending the geographical scope, sheer numbers, and diverse forms of communal living can be challenging. To address this complexity, the authors examine monasticism from five aspects: as a genre, within and as cities, with respect to monks and nuns in urban settings, in terms of monastic learning, and as a phenomenon in Afroeurasia. By drawing from biographies, written and material records, and social historical analysis, Fafinski and Riemenscheider capture the intricate and interconnected nature of this complex movement. In doing so, they invite readers to consider the rich complexity of what they describe as “a diverse, rhizomatic social movement,” dependent on a high degree of self-assertion and variable strategies of distinction (3).

This captivating book has prompted me to contemplate modern grassroots expressions of Christian monasticism and their relation to urbanity in secular society. These contemporary movements express well one of Max Weber’s articulations of the role of religion in secular urban life. Whereas on the one hand the city is a site of secularization and rationalization that marginalizes traditional religious beliefs and practices, on the other hand Weber also saw the ways in which religion could continue to play an important role in urban life, particularly through the formation of religious communities and the provision of social services and support. Weber argued that urbanization and the growth of cities created new opportunities for religious innovation and experimentation, as well as new challenges for religious institutions and traditions. He saw the city as a site of cultural and religious diversity, where different religious traditions could coexist and interact with each other in complex ways.

One manifestation of such co-existence and interaction is the practice of “urban monasticism,” which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s among evangelical Christians in the UK and the US (see Markofski). It has also found Roman Catholic expressions in Europe (see Palmisano). Johnathan Wilson in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, drawing inspiration from a letter by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, refers to these phenomena as “the new monasticism.” In a letter to his brother written 14 January 1935, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. E. Bethge, Munich, 1960, 3: 24-25). Bonhoeffer’s Life Together which outlines a pattern for a shared common life amongst Confessing Church seminarians he taught from 1935-1937in Finkenwald also informs modern expressions. Wilson’s interest is focussed on North American Protestant evangecalism.  He champions urban monasticism as a means to integrate contemplative practices from traditional monasticism into the fabric of urban life. It involves intentional communities residing in urban areas, where individuals live out lives of simplicity, contemplation, and prayer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Sigurdshof 1939 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In addition to spiritual devotion, Wilson outlines an urban monasticism that promotes social justice work, environmental activism, and community service. By doing so, he argues, urban monastics create a space within the bustling urban context for spiritual growth and transformation. These contemporary expressions of urban monasticism exemplify Weber’s understanding of religion’s continued significance in urban settings, where religious communities can navigate the challenges of modernity while contributing to the well-being of society at large.

Since the publication of Wilson’s book in 1998, there has been an explosion of websites and publications promoting urban monasticism. A representative example is urbanmonastic.org. It is hosted by Americans Paul and Jordan Prins who are promoting an urban monastic community in Paris and German Sheila Whittenberg who is active in Berlin. The founders are affiliated with Communitas International (https://gocommunitas.org/). The website describes Communitas as an organization that aspires “to see entire cities and nations influenced by the gospel as Christians live out Jesus’ life and ignite a missional movement worldwide.” Urbanmonastic.org outlines the meaning and objectives of urban monasticism. It begins by stating, “Our modern world is complex, full, and demanding.” It continues: “Without commitment to regular rhythms we come passengers in our own lives. Urban Monasticism is a way of living that focuses on inviting Jesus into the small choices that we make each day. In community with God welcome to know ourselves. With each small setup we can become the God hopes we will be. A rhythm of practices helps us actively live of our lives with Jesus in the center. Historic practices of faith bringing depth to our relationship with God, connection with neighbors, and transformation of self . This is a way to live an active faith in the middle of work and life in the city. We are a group of ecumenical Christian ministers, leaders, and everyday Christians living in urban areas.”

To achieve these goals, the website presents 26 guidelines to shape a rule of life:

  1. Love God with all our heart, spirit, strength, and mind.
  2. Accept God’s sufficient grace and respond by choosing personal growth.
  3. Pursue closeness with God through a prayer-centered life.
  4. Commence and conclude each day with prayer.
  5. Embrace the practice of fasting.
  6. Establish daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms.
  7. Lead a simple life.
  8. Control and limit our consumption.
  9. Reflect the fruit of the Spirit in our whole lives, both seen and hidden, while avoiding the deadly sins of consumption.
  10. Dress appropriately for our work and situations.
  11. Understand that vocation is spiritual work and a means to provide for our needs.
  12. Uphold the principle of non-violence.
  13. Take care of ourselves spiritually, physically, and mentally.
  14. Love our neighbors as ourselves.
  15. Embrace an urban rhythm of life.
  16. Live among the people God has placed us with.
  17. Engage with society to contribute to a better future for our city.
  18. Demonstrate grace, generosity, and quick forgiveness towards others.
  19. Remember the Lord’s Day and keep it holy.
  20. Commit to a life of spiritual practices.
  21. Dedicate a portion of our living space to nature.
  22. Seek retreat with God once a year.
  23. Be cautious of the influence of money and power.
  24. Embrace all people, whether celibate, single, or married. If married, our spouse does not need to participate.
  25. Align our vocation with our monastic way of life.
  26. Leaders are forbidden from holding any position if responsible, convicted, or reasonably accused of abuse or assault.

The website provides lessons on prayer and guidance for adopting urban practices and furnishes resources for online participation in daily prayer and other rituals. One intriguing aspect, from the perspective of the urban formation working group, is the emphasis on living “life with an urban rhythm” (# 15). It describes living the rhythm of the city in the following manner:

“At our core, Urban Monasticism is a pattern and way of life that we live together. Our ways of life adapt to the density and style of living in our context. We seek to live a way of life amid the chaos of the city. The boundaries of the city serve as the walls of our monastery. These rhythms include living in a city dense with people, relying on walking and public transit as primary modes of transportation, and residing in close quarters (both within our dwellings and in our surroundings). Not living in an urban context would change the fundamental aspects of our existence. While you can participate, you cannot truly be an urban monastic.”

Living with a commitment to the good of the city means:

“To love our neighbors leads us to love our city. While not a primary focus, we should support and help build a better future for our cities. Love without action is not following the love of Jesus who followed his love for creation to death for us all. As we work for the good of many, we must resist the temptation to do so from a place of power. Yet Jesus being in his nature God chose to engage without using his position of power. Let us work in humility with hope alongside others.”

It is fruitful to compare this ideal with Henri Lefebvre’s concept of rhythmanalysis outlined in Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life, first published in 1992. Lefebvre presents rhythmanalysis as a method of analyzing the rhythms of everyday life, including those found in urban spaces, social interactions, and cultural practices. By paying attention to the ways different rhythms intersect and influence each other, we can gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural dynamics that shape our lives. The attention given by urban monasticism to living a religious life with an urban rhythm and contributing to the betterment of one’s city reflects the mutual formation of urbanity and religion.

In his analysis of the development of urban monasticism amongst American evangelicals, Wes Markoski uses the phrase “holistic communitarianism.” This commitment involves social justice activism as a central aspect of Christian identity in modern urban contexts. Evangelical holistic communitarianism is rooted in traditional Christian theology. For instance, urbanmonastic.org prominently lists the Apostle’s Creed, the Bible, and Christian tradition as its sources of authority.

6th–7th century Fragment from a Funerary Stele with a Medallion of a Cross and Leaves from Saqqara (The Met Museum, Rogers Fund, 1910)

Other expressions of the movement are less inclined towards active participation in city life although they paradoxically assume the urban setting as their backdrop. While Wilson uses MacIntyre’s reference to Benedictine monasticism to champion a form of urban monasticism integrated into city life, Rod Dreher in his book the Benedict Option, invokes Alistair MacIntyre’s contrast of the Rule of Saint Benedict with a “post-virtue” world to promote a form of monasticism with a distinct separatist ethos. Dreher advocates for the creation of intentional Christian communities that resist the secularizing influences of modern society. Dreher turns to The Rule of St. Benedict and its emphases of stability, community, and prayer to promote a version of Christianity that promotes a break with the world and the fostering of Christian subculture through five strategies:

  1. Establishing intentional Christian communities centered around shared values and practices.
  2. Focusing on education and formation, particularly in theology, philosophy, and the liberal arts.
  3. Prioritizing prayer, contemplation, and spiritual disciplines.
  4. Cultivating a strong Christian identity and culture, including the use of liturgy, music, and art.
  5. Engaging in acts of hospitality and service, particularly towards marginalized individuals or those in need.

In Dreher’s view, even as monasticism “saved” western civilization in late antiquity, so it should do again. He would do well to read Monasticism and the City in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages to understand that a simplistic binary account of the type he promotes fails to do justice to the entanglement of religion and urbanity in early Christianity. Fafinski and Riemenscheider invite us into a complex analysis and in doing so their study can serve as  a springboard for evaluating contemporary expressions of monasticism in the modern Western city and how religion and urbanity mutually shape one another.

Harry Maier

is Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Vancouver
School of Theology in Vancouver,
Canada. He has written several monographs and edited volumes on second century Christianity, including New Testament Christianity in the Roman World (2019) and Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Text, Image, and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles (2013). His research uses social scientific and other tools to promote the interdisciplinary study of emergent Christ religion. He has been a Fellow of the “Religion and Urbanity” group since 2019.

For further reading

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Byassee, Jason. “The New Monastics: Alternative Christian Communities.” The Christian Century, 24 April 2008.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy of Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017.

Fafinski, Mateusz and Jakob Riemenschneider. Monasticism and the City in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Elements in Religion in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space. Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London: Continuum, 2004.

Markofski, Wes. New Monasticism and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Palmisano, Stefania, Exploring new Monastic Communities: The (Re)invention of Tradition. London: Routledge, 2016.

Wilson, Jonathan R. Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2008.

Cover image: Erfurt’s Nonnengasse today (Image: Harry O. Maier)

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, June 19). Urban Monasticism Then and Now. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3gc

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