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New monasticism meets old

29 February 2008

This morning I went to hear Roger Saner speaking about the new monasticism at the Seattle Coffee Shop in Brooklyn Mall.

Roger and I have been reading each other’s blogs for about a year now, and when I heard he would be speaking less than 8 km from where I live, it seemed a good opportunity to meet him face to face at last. He was speaking under the auspices of TGIF, which organises such meetings on Friday mornings at 6:15. And since he was talking about the new monasticism, I invited Hieromonk Seraphim and Hierodeacon Nektarius of the Monastery of St Andrew on the Hennops River to come along too.

Chris, Roger, Fr Serasphim, Dn Nektarius

The picture shows Chris and Roger with Fr Seraphim and Deacon Nektarius. Roger recently joined Nieu Communities, a “new monastic” community in Pretoria North, and spoke first about monasticism in general, though with special reference to an Anglican Benedictine community near Grahamstown, Maria uMama weThemba (Mary the Mother of Hope). The Benedictine rule was the predominant form of monasticism in the West.

Dn Nektarius, Chris, Roger, Fr Seraphim

Whereas the main focus of traditional monasticism was on prayer, said Roger, the main focus of the new monasticism was mission. There was a new interest in monasticism and community life among Protestants, though in the new monasticism there was not necessarily a vow of celibacy, and many new monastic communities have married couples and families with children.

It’s not my purpose to repeat everything that Roger said here — he has promised to write about it in his own blog, and when he does I’ll add a link to it. Rather I wanted to write about the meeting itself, and some of the thoughts provoked by Roger’s presentation.

Roger and Cori

It was good to meet not only Roger himself, but another Pretoria blogger Cori (that’s them above). My wife Val had to rush off to work when the main presentation finished at 7:30 am, but the rest of us hung around for a while chatting.

Roger’s presentation was quite thought provoking, and here are some of the thoughts it provoked, in me at any rate.

While Roger said that the emphasis in traditional monasticism was on prayer, while that in the new monasticism was on mission, one needs to bear in mind that for a millennium or more, most Christian mission was monastic. Between 500 and 1500 it was monks who preached the gospel in places where it had not been heard before. Also, after 1500 many Roman Catholic orders and congregations, with vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, while not strictly monastic, were founded with a specifically missionary purpose. I am sure that Roger is not unaware of this, but I think one could say that it shows that prayer is the foundation of mission.

I’ve written elsewhere about my own experience of living in an intentional Christian community, the Community of St Simon the Zealot, with some comparisons with others, such as the Children of God, so I won’t repeat all that here either. But I will repeat one paragraph from that last posting, about where I think the new monasticism needs to meet the old:

But the answer has been there all along in traditional Orthodox monasticism. And some, indeed, found the answer. Fr Jack Sparks, editor of Right on, one of the Christian underground magazines of the 1970s, published by the Christian World Liberation Front, came to Orthodoxy. Not that Orthodox monasticism is idyllic either — Fr Ephrem, a monk of Simopetra monastery on the Holy Mountain, said that more people go to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else. But at least Orthodox monasticism is aware of the dangers, and has had over a thousand years of experience, and teaches about the dangers of losing one’s nipsis (watchfulness).

Traditional Orthodox monasticism is still in its infancy in South Africa. Hieromonk Seraphim (in the world Matthew van Niekerk) and Hierodeacon Nectarius (in the world Les Ritson) have only recently started the monastery of St Andrew on the Hennops River, 35 km west of Pretoria. No only do we need their prayers, but they need ours.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 March 2008 12:55 pm

    ecumenical list for monastic subjects: tradiitonal, mdoern ventures and New/Neo/Nieu..

  2. 17 March 2008 4:15 pm

    Thanks for your kind comments, Steve. It was great to meet you and your Orthodox friends!

    You’ve provoked some thoughts in me which I’m unable to (as yet) reconcile: in reminding me that many monastic orders were founded with mission in mind breaks down my easy distinction between “new monastics orient around mission while traditional monastics orient their common life around prayer.”

    I’ve been throwing that around my mind since I read this post and I don’t yet have a solution, although I wonder…even if many monastic orders were founded with mission in mind, was their common life not ordered by the daily Office of prayer? I don’t know enough about (non-Benedictine) monastic orders to answer that…

  3. 17 March 2008 7:35 pm


    The Benedictines were specifically founded on prayer, work and common life, and the Benedictine rule is one of prayer. In the Roman Catholic Church, Benedictines (and related orders, such as the Cistercians) are monks in the strict sense of the world.

    Later came the mendicant orders, who do not call themselves monks but friars (brothers), the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians. The Frcanciscans emphasised holy poverty.

    Monasteries could be quite rich. Though individual monks gave up private property, the monastery as a whole could own buildings, farms, animals and even employ workers. Peoiple left money and land to monasteries and orders in their wills (usually with a request that the monks pray for them).

    The Franciscans owned nothing. The buildings they stayed in were owned by others, though later this became a bit lax, and though the trustees in theiry held the buildings, the friars controlled them. So you got strict and observant and even discalced (barefoot) Franciscan variants trying to return to the ideals of the founders. The Dominicans (OP) were preachers from the get go. They were travelling revivialists and teachers aimed at stirring up the lax, and bringing heretics back to the faith (modern equivalents among Protestants are “counter cult” groups).

    The Jesuits were founded specifically for mission, and placed themselves under the direct control of the Pope of Rome, prepared to go anywhere, and go they did, to South America, China and other places. Eventually they were such a threat to the colonialist businessmen that they persuaded the Pope to suppress them (see the film “The Mission” — a bit glamorised and romanticised, but the basic history is there).

    The Orthodox, as I said, don’t have “orders”, but again most mission has been monastic. St Seraphim of Sarov said “Find inner peace, and thousands around you will be saved”. St Herman of Alaska was so disgusted with the exploitation of the Aleuts by the Russian North America Company (a bit like the Dutch East India Company in South Africa) that he lived as a hermit on an island — but thousands around him were saved.

    In Athens there is the St John the Baptist Monastery at Kareas. They see themselves as a missionary monastery, but they don’t “plan” mission. They pray until God tells them to go, then they go. They’ve been to Kenya, Albania, and other places. And people come to them, from all over Athens. That could be “attractional” mission, except that it is not designed to attract. It attracts those whom God calls.


  1. neo-monasticism - my thoughts « my contemplations
  2. A visit to Nieu Communities « Khanya
  3. Hobbits, heroes and Jesus - TGIF « Khanya
  4. TGIF: reading irreligiously | Khanya

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