Let me begin with a little explanation of what ‘New Monasticism’ is. Although there have been whole books written on the subject, let me try to summerise as best I can: New Monastic communities are groups of people, either living close together or more widely dispersed, who do not feel called to live in first order monastic communities, but feel that some of the ways of life of the monks and nuns of the Christian faith can bring about something quite deep and profound to the lay person (the person living in everyday life). One of these things is to live by a Monastic Rule, or Way of Life, in a rhythm of daily prayer, but there are so many more aspects of New Monasticism. I recently wrote an article on New Monasticism for a website, although at time of writing this that is yet to go live. When it is I shall place a link here. In the meantime there are plenty of books to read on it.
So, those involved in New Monastic communities live by a monastic Way of Life, but in the world. Which is what I have been doing along to the CA&H Way of Life of for the past 15 years – first 4 years as an ‘Explorer’, as we call it, testing out if it is right, then 11 years as a ‘Voyager’ under vows. CA&H is a totally dispersed community, which means that we have no residential centre (although we do have a retreat centre on Lindisfarne, and some ‘community houses’ around the UK), but that members remain in their own houses and communities and live out our Way of Life in their own everyday existence – work, family, church, neighbourhood – connected through local groups, national gatherings, and social media.
A few years ago, as I studied and began to get more personally inspired with more traditional monastic practices, I felt a shift in my own path. It took a little over 3 years to unfold, with some ‘dead ends’ tried; it involved long periods in contemplative silence seeking Divine guidance, and some practical research; it involved visiting numerous monasteries, friaries, and convents, and speaking to numerous members of first order and third order communities in person, on the phone, and by email, but finally it came to the day where I became the first ‘Monastic Voyager’ and took on the CA&H habit, a vision which was part of the original founders 25 years ago (which is a great testament to keep hold of your visions if you really believe they are from God!).
In the morning of the day on which I was presented with the habit and became a ‘Monastic Voyager’ at the CA&H UK annual gathering, our Episcopal Visitor – Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, bishop of Coventry, gave a talk on New Monasticism referencing a book he had been reading. He spoke of many things, and put them much more eloquently than I am about to, but one thing which really caught my ear, being focused on what was to happen shortly after his talk, was something he said referring to words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of the need for a ‘Monasticism in the world’ rather than in the cloister. Now everyone in New Monasticism knows the quote from Bonhoeffer which says ‘The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new kind of monasticism...’. It’s where we get the term ‘New Monasticism’ itself from. But this, for me, was something more, there was something in this which for me begged the question ‘how will the people in the world recognise this ‘new monasticism’? How is this something more than just a thing I am doing for me?’. Despite the fact that I have been a vowed member of a New Monastic community for 11 years, and have been living this way, how, actually, do the folk out in the world, who won’t come along to anything we put on, know? How will this make a wider difference than to just me and my group? It seemed a timely talk for me personally in my journey. I am absolutely sure that others in the room were spoken to by God through the words spoken by Bishop Christopher, but for me, about to take on a habit, it was an affirmation to this call.
One of the things which I came to realise as I visited Religious centres around the UK over the past 2 or 3 years, was that these spaces were sacred spaces. That there was something about them that the residents held dear. Of course this is absolutely right, and I have previously written a blog on sacred spaces and places, but what about me? What does it mean to be living out a monastic Way of Life, in a habit, in the world, yet without a monastic centre? With the words of Bonhoeffer ringing in my ears these words came to me – the world is my monastery, the world is my sacred space, the earth is the place upon which I step with the heart and mind that ‘where I stand is holy ground’.
Now of course, it doesn’t take wearing a habit to have this frame of mind and attitude of heart. But for me the wearing of a habit in the world, which is my monastery, shifts something in my head, and I know in the heads of others.
Part of my 3 years or so journey into taking the habit included some research into the psychology of clothing. As the guiding council of CA&H met and formulated together this concept of ‘Monastic Voyagers’ we discussed the idea of wearing a habit. The psychology of clothing is fascinating. The clothes that you wear, and that others wear, shifts our subconscious. We react differently to others depending upon what they wear. You may think you don’t, or you’d like to think you don’t, but this is at the subconscious level, so it is not in your control. We also act differently depending upon what clothes we wear. This could be the difference between a suit and tie, and joggers and t-shirt. We have, culturally built into our subconscious, the idea that different clothes denote different things. The same is true for habits and other religious wear. Most religions have specific clothing to identify them, and Christianity is no different, although it has tended to just be the ‘professional’ members of Christianity who have worn such clothes. But these clothes are not just for identification, like the different colours of the kit of a sports team, these clothes have deeply spiritual significance, and it affects not just the wearer, but those they encounter as well.
So for me, wearing a habit in my everyday life does two things: firstly it shifts my subconscious about myself, about the call I am living, about how I behave, about what I project into the world; and secondly, I know that it shifts the subconscious of those I come across. In the main the response (as I wore a different habit as part of the research over the 2 or 3 years) is positive, and I have had more deeply spiritual conversations whilst wearing it than when not. It seems to make most people relax and feel ‘safe’. There are, of course, those who have obviously had negative and hurtful experiences with some religious person or group whose reaction is negative, but so far I have found them to be in the small minority.
Whether you wear a habit or some other clerical clothing or not, whether you feel called to do so or not, let us all live with the mindset and attitude of heart that the world is our monastery, it is a sacred place, and all those we encounter are our brothers and sisters, and live a life which reflects that Divine attitude.
Whether you wear a habit or not, live as if the world is your monastery!
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13 – London, 1933-1935. Fortress Press. 2007. Pg285 (italics mine)