Several weeks ago, Alison and I and a group from our church headed to Cincinnati’s north side to visit the Community of the Transfiguration, a convent of Episcopalian nuns, for a spiritual retreat and continuing education related to Stephen Ministry. Until recently, I had no idea there were monastic orders in the Episcopal Church. The trip to Cincinnati, coupled with the spiritual journey of a good friend of mine who last year took monastic vows and became a brother of the Community of the Gospel, has brought monastic life to the forefront of my mind. This post is just some musings that have been swimming around for a while.
In speaking with the nuns, it became clear the the greatest problem they, as a community, face is publicity – very few people, including Episcopalians, know they exist. (For me, when I think of monastic communities, I think Roman Catholic, European and a long time ago; I suppose if pressed, I would drop European and a long time ago, but I imagine most of us associate monasticism with the Catholic Church. Of course, as one of the sisters pointed out, ‘”We’re all catholic; we say so in the Creed.”) Anyway, the relative obscurity of the Community of the Transfiguration and of monastic communities generally is a shame, because the sisters of the Community of the Transfiguration, as a traditional, institutional community and orders like the Community of the Gospel, a non-cloistered, less institutional order, offer a valuable and important perspective for the Church and the world. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself noted the importance of monastic life within the larger life of the Church, and encouraged Christians to support such vocations in his 2009 Easter sermon. So, with all that in mind, I’d like to highlight some of the notable practices and concepts that struck me as important during my visit to Cincinnati, in conversation with my friend, Brother Daniel-Chad, and in some reading I’ve recently done.
Hospitality – Though there is still a private school attached to the convent, and some nuns do teach there, the sisters’ primary ministry is hospitality. Steve Carlsen, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, recently spoke about the centrality of hospitality to Christian living and the mission of the Church. [Link to the audio file of this sermon is forthcoming.] As he noted, hospitality is not a new, liberal fad, but rather a serious, sometimes dangerous and always Christ-like orientation for our actions. After all, a shared meal around a Table is the central act of Christian worship.
Simplicity – This article, highlighted by Rod Dreher, is well taken, and I suppose like anything, simplicity itself can become (has become?) stylized and even commercialized. Nevertheless, the fundamental value of living a life of moderation – maybe that’s a better word to use – is increasingly important for a society such as ours that demands (and takes for granted) instant and endless access to lots of food, lots of energy, lots of sex, lots of information, lots of stuff….
Fixed Hour Prayer – The nuns at the Community of the Transfiguration pray at fixed hours or offices. Every morning, noon, evening and night, the sisters gather for 15 or 20 minutes and pray the Psalter, offer thanksgivings and intercessions and sing a hymn before continuing in their daily activities. Referring to prayer as ‘office’ often confuses modern people (myself included when I first began attending Episcopal liturgies), but monastics have been keeping this office (and calling it that) long before the word ‘office’ came to be associated with a florescent lit cubicle. ‘Office’ means ‘job’ and from the earliest days of Christian monasticism, prayer was seen the primary vocation for those called to such a life. When Daniel-Chad talks about his vocation as a monastic, prayer is usually the first thing he mentions.
Even though most traditional ‘institutional’ monastic communities are currently in decline, monasticism is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. All across the country, small groups, many unaffiliated or only loosely affiliated with a denomination – some calling themselves neo-monastics are flourishing. (See, for example, this group of neomonastics in Boston.) Like St. Francis’ monastic movement nearly a thousand years ago, I wonder if this neo-monastic movement will revitalize and reorient the Church? Something to ponder as Episcopalians (and indeed, Christians in many demoninations) theorize about the future of the Church and how to bring the life of the Church into better comformity with the life of God’s Kingdom.