Walking on my pilgrimages, I have seen many examples of monasticism in one form or another. Perhaps most obviously, my walks have taken me to the picturesque ruins of great medieval religious houses such as at Furness Abbey in Cumbria in the north of England or the historic Abbaye de Beauport on the coast of Brittany.
However I have also come across those who are committed to the monastic life in a contemporary setting, such the community of Trappist monks who live in community on Caldey Island (Ynys Bŷr) in west Wales. There, they seek to continue a shared Christian life which can be traced back to the simple Celtic monastery established on the island in the sixth century by the abbots Pyr and Samson.
But perhaps of a less traditional nature, I have also been able to see a little of the Holywell Community, based in Abergavenny ( Y Fenni ) in south Wales and not far from my home. There, young people explore a religious vocation by making a year-long commitment to live a shared life following a simple form of the Benedictine rule. Founded in 2014, this recently established group can be seen as an example of what is sometimes referred to as ‘new monasticism’.
However, at this time of restriction and restraint as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps we are all being drawn into what could be seen as a form of ‘new monasticism’ as we take a fresh look at our lives in relation to each other and, if we so choose, in relation to God.
Traditionally, those in religious orders took vows which could be summed up as ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’. But now, the very serious situation as the virus spreads and its huge impact on all of us makes this an opportune moment to see how those vows or commitments seem curiously relevant to all our lives and not only to those in monasteries of one sort or another.
As we queue for groceries or see the closure of all but essential retail outlets, we might remind ourselves that all of us are called to imitate the poverty of Christ, the Son of Man who lived as receiving everything from the Father and, unlike the wild animals and the birds of the air, had nowhere to lay his head.
Those of us with comfortable homes and incomes are called afresh to consider the needs of everyone from the self-employed whose incomes have collapsed to provision of ongoing social care to the most vulnerable in our society. Further afield, we might consider how the poverty endemic in troubled nations from the Yemen to the Ukraine will make the people there especially likely to suffer severely if the virus takes hold in the areas of the world where struggling and deprivation are already the norm
As for chastity, although this can be seen as a call to abstinence from sexual activity, in reality this vow calls us to a loving and respectful relationship with all others with whom we come into contact. Now we need to look again and examine our motivations and intentions as regards those around us. In these trouble times, how best can we support, encourage and bless not only the people we find easy but also those who irritate, annoy or weary us? Living in community, whether in a monastery or isolated at home with your own family, has never been easy.
And what of obedience? Christians follow a Lord who delighted to do the will of his Father and yet our contemporary society often stresses our independence and self-determination. But obedience calls us to reflect on what is really going on in our lives, to consider that fundamental conversation that directs what we do in relation to God and to each other.
On a very practical level, we all now required to obey statutes and laws previously unthinkable to the generations that have grown up since the Second World War. In a very real way, we are being called to obedience and a setting aside of our own wills for the common good.
Perhaps it’s helpful to consider ourselves, whatever our circumstances, as living a form of ‘new monasticism’. For a while at least, let us embrace those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience- we might just find our lives and our world changed for good.