Mr. Miyagi and Dorothy Day
As Christianity changes shape, the new monastic movement is experimenting with practices of faith for a new time, says Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
June 9, 2009 | For National Day of Prayer this year, I was on a Christian talk show in the Midwest. When they opened the phone lines, a woman in her nineties called to say how heart-broken she was that President Obama was not holding a prayer service at the White House. She has spent her whole life praying for this country and its leaders. Her voice trembling, she mourned the dying of the light in American Christianity.
Mainline pastors, it seems to me, could sympathize with this nonagenarian. A hundred years ago, our forbears predicted that the 20th century would be the Christian century. The long march of civilization and progress had brought us to a new day of possibility. Never had it been easier to be a Christian and to believe you could transform society into the world that ought to be. Leaders of the mainline church today are not likely to be so confident.
It’s hard to be a pastor these days. But the church has been through hard times before, and the tradition always offers signs of hope. From the fourth century on, monasticism has been one of the ways the church has remembered who she is in times of transition. As church leaders have scrambled to retool, monastics have moved to the margins of society to experiment with practices of faith for a new time. The vitality of this movement has been in the mutual dependence between church leaders and monastic communities. Because they knew that they needed each other, they were able to receive the gifts each had to offer.
I am convinced that Western Christianity has been experiencing a new monastic movement during the past 80 years. From the Catholic Workers in Depression-era New York to the Bruderhof movement in Nazi Germany to the Christian community development work of John and Vera Mae Perkins, the Spirit has moved on the margins of the 20th century to create communities of hope. These signs point us toward what the church might look like after the Christian century. If we pay attention to these signs, I believe we can learn a new model for Christian leadership.