Tag Archives: Benedict of Nursia

New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading

Resources for Radical Living: The book and course, version 2.0–the revised case studies


This is the third in a series of posts on the Resources for Radical Living course(s) and book by Mark Van Steenwyk and me (Chris Armstrong). The first post presented the original version of the course. The second presented the revised structure of the course and book.

This third post presents the revised list of case studies.

Even more important, this post asks you, dear readers, to comment on these case studies and suggest any primary or secondary readings that you think will help Mark and me as we work on these new case studies and our students as they plunge into this challenging area of “radical Christian living.” Continue reading

Peering into the cloister: Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing


Learning about medieval monasticism is a joy, not a chore, with the beautiful and engaging book I reviewed last summer for the Christianity Today history blog:

Peering into the Cloister

Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing.

by Chris Armstrong

Essen_Kreuzgang_7.jpg

Last week was a good one: we spent it at our friends’ Wisconsin cabin, enjoying swimming, boating, fishing, tubing, and even a close encounter with a bald eagle.

What made the week even better was the book I took with me to relax with on the dock as our kids swam. This was Christopher Brooke’s The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist/HiddenSpring, 2003).* A few samples:

The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain’s jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm. (79) Continue reading

The monks did it: Mining medieval resources


My, how time flies. (In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” But then again, in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.”) Last May my Patron Saints for Postmoderns was not yet published, I was hoping against hope that my book proposal Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants [maybe Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians?] would be accepted by a publisher, and I was posting a blog entry over at Christianity Today’s history blog eagerly anticipating my first Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Now Patron Saints has been out for many months, Medieval Wisdom is due to the publishers (Baker Books) next December, and the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is again just around the corner as May approaches. Here’s my CT blog post from last year anticipating my first Congress:

The Monks Did It

If we move beyond a piecemeal approach to medieval Christianity, we can mine the rich vein of its spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources.

by Chris Armstrong

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This weekend I am attending the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This is the largest and most prestigious international gathering for medievalist scholars, convening over 3,000 scholars in over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances.

Frankly, though I am no medievalist, just thinking about being there is making me drool.

What’s an American church history geek doing attending a meeting that will feature hundreds of highly technical papers in a field I hardly know, based on texts in languages I’ve never learned – Latin, Old English, Old Norse? Continue reading

Spiritual direction: What it is, where it came from, and how to learn more


Interested in spiritual direction? Here’s a piece I put together with editorial right-hand man Steve Gertz back in the Christian History days. Links are old so no doubt some will not work:

Got Your ‘Spiritual Director’ Yet?
The roots of a resurgent practice, plus 14 books for further study
Chris Armstrong and Steven Gertz

Christian counselor and popular author Larry Crabb took the trouble to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. But now he believes that in today’s church, therapy should be replaced by another, more ancient practice—”spiritual direction.”

This is one of the classical Christian spiritual disciplines Crabb and others from a wide variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds are examining and recommending anew in a biannual journal, Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, just launched this Spring.

Crabb is not the only modern Protestant digging into this historical mode of spiritual growth. Jeannette Bakke, author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction (Baker, 2000) said in a Christianity Today interview, “Evangelicals are listening for God in ways that are different from our usual understanding of discipleship. We are looking at many Christian disciplines, including prayer, silence and solitude, discernment, journaling, and others. … Spiritual direction is one of these disciplines many evangelical Christians are learning about and exploring.” Continue reading

To spank or not to spank? Benedict of Nursia and the Westminster divines speak


Corporal punishment is both a family and a state issue, in a time when more kids than ever are being subjected to physical abuse by parents and caregivers. Five years ago some political developments led me to devote one of Christian History‘s “Behind the News” online newsletters to this touchy subject. After laying out the issue, I looked at what Benedict’s Rule and the Reformed Westminster Larger Catechism had to say that bears on physical modes of punishment:

To Spank or Not to Spank?
A 6th-century abbot and a group of 17th-century Calvinist divines weigh in on the issue
By Chris Armstrong

June 1, 2004

In the post-Benjamin Spock era, fewer parents than ever seem to be favoring spanking as a method of discipline. One website cites a drop from 59% of American parents in 1962 to 19% in 1993 who use spanking as their main disciplinary method. Though the same source reports that in 1994, “70% of America adults agreed that it is ‘sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking,'” it notes that in also in that year, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse found that “only 49% of American adults had hit or spanked their child in the previous year.”

Spanking is nonetheless still, if not the primary disciplinary method of choice, at least a backup option for many American parents—especially among the conservative Christians. Continue reading

Re-Monking the Church: new monasticism


In a 2007 issue of Christian History & Biography dedicated to Benedict and Western monasticism, I contributed the following piece:

Christians struggling for sanctity in a too-comfortable world should pay attention to this observation by Mark Noll: “For over a millennium, in the centuries between the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks.” Can Western monasticism’s “father,” Benedict, still give us an antidote to cultural compromise?

At first blush, this might seem unlikely, at least in the Western church. Between 1978 and 2004—nearly the entire span of John Paul II’s pontificate—the number of men in monastic and religious orders (not including priests) decreased by 46% in Europe and 30% in the Americas, while the number of women decreased by 39% and 27%, respectively. Compare this to the trend in the global South: During the same period, men in monastic and religious orders increased by 48% in Africa and 39% in Asia, with women increasing on those two continents by 62% and 64%.

A number of the Catholic writers in the 2006 volume A Monastic Vision for the 21st Century frankly wonder if “monasticism as we know it” is, in God’s providential plan, destined for obsolescence in the West. Yet most suggest that new and powerful forms of the monastic impulse may even now be arising.

This is certainly the impression given by the 21st annual Monastic Institute, held in July 2006 at St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. There, Catholic Benedictines and members of established communities such as L’Arche and the Catholic Worker Movement joined with leaders of new Protestant communities with names like the Simple Way (Pennsylvania), Rutba House (North Carolina), and the Church of the Servant King (Oregon) to mine the riches of Benedict’s Rule. This strikingly diverse group—50% Catholic, 50% Protestant—discussed the topic of “new communities” with high hopes that, indeed, God is still in the monastic impulse. Continue reading

Summary of chapter 6: The mission of the monks


The contemplative life in some way resembles the life of quasi-monastic scholarship lived by the dons of Oxford University. Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams taught there, and Sayers attended there and returned there repeatedly in her imagination. There is a culture there of, if not strict asceticism, then at least a communal life focused on the contemplation of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, through the study of texts and the mutual admonition and edification of minds and spirits brought together in a sort of quasi-Benedictine life of stability. Continue reading