So as I recently shared, I’m reflecting this year on the twelve core values of the New Monastics. Perhaps you are asking yourself who these people are and why I care about their values.
Well, my basic definition is this: New Monastics are laypeople who are trying to live out monastic values in the modern world. I guess the term itself usually applies to Protestants move (since monasticism, and laypeople adopting monastic values, is nothing new for Catholics), but it’s a welcoming movement for anyone in the Church. There is a lot of diversity among New Monastic communities, and disagreement is fine, as long as it’s respectful. They do have some official values, which I really like, and I plan to do my own take on them.
But why am I personally so drawn to monastic values? That’s another good question. I haven’t ever lived in community, per se, and as with any non-mainstream lifestyle, it’s hard to fight the tide of the greater culture alone. I don’t even do hospitality on a large scale too much anymore due to the small size of my living space. And yet I do feel communal life is something I ought to seek after as a Christian, even though it won’t look the same for me as it does for others. I need to remember I’m not in this thing alone, that every single disciple is my family, and that we can work to help, encourage, and exhort each other as travelers on the Way. (I’m hoping this blog will eventually help me form such a community of encouragement in its own way.)
So the value I’ll be focusing on this December is “living in the abandoned places of empire.” But what does this mean, and what does it mean for me?
For most New Monastics, this means they form their communities in abandoned parts of the inner city, places other people have long ago abandoned as hopeless. The New Monastics figure that Jesus has always hung out in such places. (Remember what Nathaniel said when he learned the area Jesus called home: “Nazareth?! Can anything good come from there?”) They’re not just there for some condescending short-term service project; many of them put down roots for good, seeking to learn from their less privileged neighbors as well as use their privilege for good within the new community.
As for me, I have made my home in the city, but it’s a pretty darn safe city overall, and my neighborhood is beautiful, quite a desirable place to live. I walk to and from work each day, often in the dark, with no fear for my safety. My lifestyle is fairly humble out of necessity, but not more so than that of many of my friends, and I certainly enjoy a certain amount of luxury. Nor does my day job have anything straightforwardly to do with serving the poor or bettering the community.
On the one hand, I want to grow more comfortable with spending time in abandoned places, places others have deemed ugly and unsafe and worthless, and seeing the beauty and eternal worth of the people who live there. I want to be a true friend to the poor, and I know I have a lot to figure out in this area. On the other hand, fixing up an inner-city “abandominium” as a long-term home is definitely not the only way to grow in compassion for the poor. Nor should it be – Christians live diverse lives and that should absolutely be encouraged!
So how can I appreciate and build up places the Empire rejects in my life as it is now? Here are some thoughts.
1. Support and uplift poor communities in my city with my skills, money, and time, and make concrete goals to do this more and more in my life.
Examples: I can use my skills as a student and teacher to help teach literacy (and strive to do it respectfully, always acknowledging my students have much to teach me). I can donate my time and money to local organizations that help the poor find peace, renewal, and health. When people approach me on the street to ask for money or other help, I can respond to them with kindness rather than ignore them, even if I’m unable to give them what they ask for or I think it’s not wise.
2. Spend time with others who are ignored or despised by the world, affirming they are truly valuable to God and to me.
Examples: I can seek out friendships and conversations with those who feel different or lonely and see what they have to offer that others are missing out on. I can spend time in places that are often unlovely and lonely, like nursing homes, and try to ease others’ burdens by listening and being present. When I see someone getting attacked on the internet or in person for taking an unpopular stance, I can extend my unconditional support for them as a person, even when I disagree.
3. Refuse to accept the (often very subtle) imperial mindset that wealth, success, physical beauty, health, youthfulness, etc. are the best indicators of true worth. See things in terms of the values of God’s upside-down kingdom instead.
Examples: I can learn to better accept myself for who I am and choose not to obsess over how successful I appear to others (this is pretty huge for me). I can likewise encourage others to be who they are and show them unconditional love when they experience failure by worldly standards. I can create spaces online and in person where people can lay down the ideological burdens cultural empire puts on us all.
Of course, like I said before, it’s hard to do these things, or any countercultural things, alone. We need community. I’m very grateful to be part of a church community that places a high amount of emphasis on questioning the values of the greater culture and trying to see things God’s way instead. I’m also grateful for the many mentors I have, both in person and in books (I don’t take nearly enough advantage of them!). And I am grateful for you, my friends and readers. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can strive to live out this value better together.
What does “living in the abandoned places of empire” mean to you? How do you do this in your everyday life? How would you like to grow in this area? What aspects of this subject would you like me to explore in more depth this month?