Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “new monasticism”

Nine years of Notes from Underground

This blog opened with its first post nine years ago, on 28 November 2005, so I’ll look back on some of the highlights of the last nine years of blogging here.

When it started, Notes from Underground was on different platform, Blogger, and I was impressed with the east of posting quick articles. The very first post was a bit of an experiment to see what was possible, and you can see what it was about here: Notes from underground: Seek and ye shall find

I’ve lost touch with a few old friends, and so I’ve entered their details in a “reverse people finder” at:

Who? Me? Is someone (old friend) looking for you? People Search Finder.

I’ve subsequently found a couple of them.

One found me through my web page, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Another I found through Google — entering her name in normal search brought up too many hits. But I searched images, and wondered how easy it would be to recognise someone after 30 years. Well, bingo. Up popped an image, and my old friend had changed, of course, but was still recognisable.

That was before Facebook, and I’vw found Facebook a better way of finding old friends. but if your friends aren’t on Facebook, Who? Me? might be worth a try.

Quite early on, however, Google took over the Blogger platform, and began fiddling with the Blogger editor. I had been attracted to it by its ease of use for posting stuff quickly, but Google set about making i8t harder to use and reducing the functionalityy so that eventually I, like many others, moved this blog to WordPress. I left the original one up, so that links would not be broken, but nothing new has been posted there for the last two years.

Within a month of starting this blog it was involved in a blogging experiment. Two Christian bloggers, Phil Wyman and John Smulo, proposed a synchronised blog, or Synchroblog, where a group of bloggers would post on the same general topic on the same day, and post links to each other’s blogs, so that someone could read several different views on the same topic. The topic was Syncretism, and my contribution was an article which I had posted on a Geocities web site, since closed, but you can still see the article at Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Abandoned places of empire: Ruins of an English monastery

Synchroblogs became quite popular for a while, and there was one every month or so, with quite a wide variety of views. But eventually it came to be managed by a few people in the USA, who chose topices that were mainly US-centred, and a lot of the variety disappeared. Partly for that reason, I rarely participate in synchroblogs any more, but the main reason  for not participating is that there used to be a mailing list, with a monthly reminder, and those now organising the Synchroblogs disdain to use it, and without the regular reminder I simply tend to forget to find out what the topic and date are for this month. But it can be found out here. if one remembers to look, which I rarely do.

Looking back over the last nine years, some of the best Synchroblogs that I have participated in have been:

Not all blog posts are synchroblog posts, of course, and there have been other kinds of posts over the last 9 years. Still on the theme of the “new monasticism” is

Abandoned places of empire

and another post on the theme of abandoned places concerns the Metroblitz, the ill-fated predecessor of the Gautrain:

Trains and individualism

Other posts on trains seem to be perennially popular:

and, still on the theme of travel, our series of posts on a holiday trip around Namibia and Botswana in 2013, which covers three of our blogs, and so goes beyond this one.

Geoff Moorgas RIP

I’ve just learned of the death of an old friend. Geoff Moorgas died on Saturday 26 March 2011, according to a brief message just received from another old friend, Mark Ramsden. Both Geoff and Mark were originally from Durban, and both were recently living near Oxted in Surrey, England.

I first met Geoff when, as a student in Pietermaritzburg, I visited some friends in Durban one weekend and went to a gathering of Durban Anglican Youth (DAY), on 4 August 1963, where young people from parishes all over Durban gathered for a kind of sports day. We first went to a service at St Raphael’s Church in Sydenham, which was then one of the High Church parishes of Durban, and it was followed by hockey and soccer matches between the various parishes. Geoff Moorgas was one of the organisers.

Geoff Moorgas, Durban, 1972

Geoff Moorgas, Durban, 1972

I didn’t really get to know him until 1969, when I was living in Durban, and, at the urging of Beyers Naudé, had formed some Christian Institute youth groups. Geoff became involved in these, and mentioned at one meeting that he had been asked by a group of young people in the parish of Greenwood Park to help them form a band. He agreed, and helped them to get instruments and became their manager. Then I was asked by the priest at St Columba’s, Greenwood Park, to lead a couple of services there while he was on leave. He said they didn’t have traditional Anglican Evensong, but had, with the permission of the bishop, “experimental services.” I asked if would be ok if the Christian Institute youth groups got involved in planning and leading the services. He agreed, so we got the band youngsters to take part as well, but they were not accomplished musicians and it took a great deal of practising in Geoff’s house to get them ready for the service, which was also their first public gig.

One result of the service (which you can read about at Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages if you are interested) was that I got fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal and lost touch with Geoff again for a while when I went to Namibia. Three years later I saw Geoff again, after being deported from Namibia and banned to Durban, but he was then very busy running a shoe factory, so I did not see a great deal of him.

Several years later I heard from Geoff again — a letter arrived out of the blue, saying that he was in Namibia — an Anglican priest in Luderitz. He wanted to live a monastic or semi-monastic life, but he suffered from ill-health and went to England, where he lived as a hermit of sorts, and Mark Ramsden, whom I had known from Durban North days, visited him a few times.

It would be good it people who knew Geoff write some of their memories of him as comments.

May his memory be eternal.

People Power Granny: Can Intentional Communities be the Answer to this Messed-Up World?

In the past we have had some Synchroblogs about utopian communities and new monasticism. Here’s a story about a utopian intentional community that started over 30 years ago and is still going strong.

People Power Granny: Can Intentional Communities be the Answer to this Messed-Up World?:

One good example of an intentional community that left the rat race but not the world is the Farm in Summertown, TN. Started in the early 70’s by a ‘family’ of hippies, this community today still is alive and well. But in its 30-plus years of operation, members have gone out into the world to help the suffering, have provided training for the re-birth of midwifery, have created a watershed protector of their local river and have introduced kids in the cities to life on the farm. This community speaks out against illegal wars and other injustices. They have incorporated the internet and other new forms of communication to get their messages out to the world. As a matter of fact, residents of the Farm are often leaders in the world fighting the Powerful.

If you’ve ever thought of joining an intentional community, or are living in one now, you can find more resources on this site.

People Power Granny: Can Intentional Communities be the Answer to this Messed-Up World?

In the past we have had some Synchroblogs about utopian communities and new monasticism. Here’s a story about a utopian intentional community that started over 30 years ago and is still going strong.

People Power Granny: Can Intentional Communities be the Answer to this Messed-Up World?:

One good example of an intentional community that left the rat race but not the world is the Farm in Summertown, TN. Started in the early 70’s by a ‘family’ of hippies, this community today still is alive and well. But in its 30-plus years of operation, members have gone out into the world to help the suffering, have provided training for the re-birth of midwifery, have created a watershed protector of their local river and have introduced kids in the cities to life on the farm. This community speaks out against illegal wars and other injustices. They have incorporated the internet and other new forms of communication to get their messages out to the world. As a matter of fact, residents of the Farm are often leaders in the world fighting the Powerful.

If you’ve ever thought of joining an intentional community, or are living in one now, you can find more resources on this site.

Treasures old and new — synchroblog on new monasticism

I’ve written quite a bit about “new monasticism” over the last few years, and thought that for this synchroblog I would write about it as the history of an idea, in the sense of my personal experience of the idea.

One could write a history of the idea in general, but that would need a book, perhaps of several volumes, rather than a blog post. So I’ll concentrate on the idea of the new monasticism as I’ve encountered it, through reading, or discussion or trying to live it, or observing other people trying to live it.

The “new monasticism” of the title has gone under several names at various times, and “new monasticism” is probably the least useful, though it does seem to be the one most commonly used right now. Others I’ve heard are: Christian communities, Christian communes, intentional communities, semi-monastic communities, and there are several more.

What is common to all these is the idea of Christians living in a community wider than the family, often with a particular purpose of mission or ministry.

When I was a university student in 1964, two things got me thinking about such communities. One was getting the Catholic Worker newspaper, which had news of communities associated with the Catholic Worker movement. Another was attending an Anglican lay conference.

I was then an Anglican, and the Anglican Bishop of Natal invited people to attend an annual lay conference, held at a church school during the holidays. The conference was by invitation only, and a person was only ever invited to attend once. I had attended student conferences that ran on a similar format, but this was different. There were people of all ages, social classes and races there; not just students, but workers, teachers, housewives and others. For a few days we followed the rhythm of a community life, sleeping in school dormitories, having meals together, worshipping together. That was not unusual, but some of us began talking about the possibility of doing something like that for a longer period, of having a core community at a place where one could have courses in things like Christian non-violent action, similar to the Catholic worker communities.

It was just a dream or a vision, but it wouldn’t go away, and I kept on thinking about it. The following year I visited the Charles Johnson Memotial Hospital at Nqutu in Zululand with some friends. It was an Anglican mission hospital, and the medical superintendent, Dr Anthony Barker, showed us round. Most of the staff lived as a community, not only working, but eating and praying together as well. We were impressed. It felt like a place that would almost be nice to be sick in. There was a community dedicated to a Christian healing ministry. A few years later it was nationalised by the government, and was bureacratised and institutionised, but in the 1960s and early 1970s it was a beacon of hope because of the Christian community at its core.

Dr Maggie and Dr Anthony Barker, Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nqutu, Zululand 1965

Dr Maggie and Dr Anthony Barker, Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, Nqutu, Zululand 1965

A few years later an opportunity came to put the vision into practice, and I was myself part of such an experiment in Christian communal living in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We called ourselves the Community of St Simon the Zealot, in Windhoek, Namibia.

Dr Anthony Barker was an indirect influence on this. He spoke at student conferences, and suggested that students, after they graduated, and before going on to make their fortunes, should spend a year or two using their skills to improve the lot of the poor by working in such places as church hospitals. A friend of mine, Dave de Beer, did just that. After graduating with his Bachelor of Commerce degree he went to St Mary’s Hospital at Odibo on the Namibia/Angola border as hospital secretary, getting the finances of the hospital in order. He was only there a week when the government withdrew his permit and kicked him out. He stopped in Windhoek on his way home to say goodbye to the bishop, but the bishop urged him to stay, saying that the diocese needed some help with its finances too. Dave stayed.

Over the next couple of months he became aware of the mission opportunities in a town like Windhoek, and wrote a short paper on it, The city: a mission field, in which he outlined a vision of a missional community, living together, with some working in secular jobs, and others in full-time mission service. Some would form a permanent community, but others could join them for a short time. He sent this to several friends for comment. A few months later, having been fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal, I went to join him, and we started the Community of St Simon the Zealot.

The local Anglican bishop, Colin Winter, was quite supportive to start with, and made a house available. We opened a joint building society account in the name of the Community, which we would use for living expenses. Dave worked in the diocesan office, I got a job with the department of water affairs, and after being fired from that, with the local newspaper. In the evenings and at weekends we would lead Bible study groups, services in road workers or mining camps, teach catechism classes and so on. Some students from South Africa came to join us for the summer vac. One had a vac job, and so contributed to the common fund. Two others didn’t have jobs, but helped with cleaning the house and cooking.

But a problem arose. Dave and I saw it as important that we should have daily prayers in the community. As it was an Anglican community we thought we should be doing Anglican morning and evening prayer together at the house. But the bishop wanted and expected us to attend services at the cathedral, a couple of miles away. He saw Dave and me as members of his staff, and regarded our desire to pray together as a community as “divisive” and even elitist. We thought that common prayer was essential to the life of a Christian community. The result was that Dave and I went to services at the cathedral, while the rest of the people in the house stayed in bed. It became more like a common lodging house than a community. Our community worship was reduced to agape meals that we held about once a fortnight, usually with a number of people invited from outside as well.

I won’t go into the full history of the Community of St Simon the Zealot here, but just mention that as one of the main problems, and we were not the only ones to discover it. In other circumstances too I have discovered that bishops do not understand the needs of communities or monasteries, and the relationship between a community, whether a monastery or some other form of intentional community, and the local church, whether diocese or parish, needs to be carefully worked out.

Among other things we published (together with friends in other places) a magazine called Ikon, and a newsletter, The Pink Press (it was printed on pink duplicating paper). These we exchanged with other publications worldwide through The Cosmic Circuit, which had about 60 participating publications, described as “underground, upground and overground”. It was an amazing mixture of what today would be called ‘zines, small-press publications usually dedicated to some or other vision of an alternative society. Among them was Communes, published by a neopagan community in Wales, but with news of all kinds of experiments in communal living, religious and secular.

The Community of St Simon the Zealot came to an end in 1972 when Dave de Beer and I were deported from Namibia (along with Bishop Colin Winter and another member of the community, Toni Halberstadt).

A couple of years later I came across the Children of God when I was in Durban North, in the Anglican parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. They lived in communes which they called “colonies”, spread all over the world. They arose from the Jesus freaks of the 1960s, and were led by Dave Berg, who called himself Moses David, or just Mo.

They were fairly typical of the Jesus freaks of the early 1970s. I first encountered them when walking down a street in central Durban, where one of them handed me a copy of their publication New Nation News. He said they were living in a commune in Durban North, not far from where I lived, and so a couple of weeks later I went with a friend to see them there. There were six of them, a married couple with a baby, and four singles. Three were from the USA, the other three South Africans. One of the US ones, Shemaiah, had been at the University of California at Berkeley, where the Jesus freak movement started. They all took biblical names. They were certainly a missional community, and spent their whole time witnessing, out in the streets or on the beach, distributing literature and talking to people. They said time was precious, and though there were lots of good things one could do with one’s time, like reading the Bible, witnessing was the best use of time. They lived on donations they received.

We stayed for a meal with them, and they told us more about their life. They gave us lists of Bible verses that they memorised (from the King James version). New Nation News was a monthly publication, and they published a local version, but much of the material was common to all the “Colonies” around the world. They lived on money that was given to them as they went around witnessing. They pooled it, and used it for rent, food, clothes etc. They showed us their handbook, which was not public, but something they just used among themselves, called Revolution for Jesus — how to DO it. It was exactly the kind of thing I had dreamed of doing at the lay conference ten years previously. In addition to the public literature there were also “Mo letters” from the founder, mostly addressed to the members of the “colonies”. The members we met referred enthusiastically to the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon on the life of Francis of Assissi, which they said was what they were trying to achieve.

At the first encounter the Children of God seemed an almost idyllic community. They seemed to have achieved what we had failed to achieve in Namibia. We invited them to speak to our youth groups and Sunday School classes at St Martin’s.

But among them too things began to go wrong. Moses David became increasingly authoritarian and erratic, and as time went on, his “Mo letters” of instructions became stranger and stranger. Eventually he came up with the idea of using kinky sex to proselytise (one can hardly call it evangelism). Members of the “colonies” of the Children of God were urged to become “hookers for Jesus” and engage in what they called “flirty fishing”. But before they had reached that stage, we had moved from Durban North to Utrecht, and lost touch with them.

There were many hippie communes in that period (the late 1960s and early 1970s). Some, like the Durban colonly of the Children of God, were Christian. Others were secular, others New Age, others Neopagan. Some were Hindu in inspiration, modelled on ashrams in India. The Christian ones were very much like the communities called “new monastic” communities today.

It was also the heyday of the charismatic renewal movement, in which many manifestations of the Holy Spirit that had hitherto been more or less confined to Pentecostals began appearing in non-Pentecostal churches. This movement also gave rise to “intentional communities” of various kinds. One of the better-known ones, through their publications, was the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

There is an indirect Orthodox connection to these in a book written by Michael Harper, describing some of these communities. His book A new way of living is about communities that developed in an Episcopal (Anglican) parish in Texas, USA, though it appears that these communities no longer exist. Michael Harper is now an Orthodox priest in Britain, though he was not Orthodox at the time he wrote the book. The Church of the Redeemer in Houston was typical of many downtown parishes where people had moved away from the neighbourhood of the church to outlying suburbs, but continued to worship there. Poorer people moved into the neighbourhood, but the church was not reaching them. Then when the parish was affected by the charismatic renewal, people started buying houses near the church and moving back into the neighbourhood, living in intentional communities, and having an outreach to their neighbours.

It seems that charismatic intentional communities in Western churches also flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, but then died out. Does all the talk of a “new monasticism” indicate a revival of interest — or is this just old hippie nostalgia?

A related idea was that of the missiologist Ralph Winter, who spoke of two redemptive structures: the local church and the missionary band, which he called “modality” and “sodality”. Bearing in mind that for 1000 years, from about 500-1500 most Christian mission had been monastic, Winter suggested that the missionary band required a special commitment over and above the local church. When Protestants abandoned monasticism in the 16th century, they did virtually no mission, and it was only with the formation of missionary societies in the 18th century that Protestants became active in mission. The missionary societies had a degree of intentionality not found in the local church.

In addition to monks, in the Roman Catholic Church missionary orders developed. Monks devoted themselves primarily to prayer, but the missionary orders were formed for the purpose of mission. When the religious life revived among Anglicans in the 19th century, many of their religious orders too were intentionally devoted to mission. The Kelham fathers even called themselves the Society of the Sacred Mission, incorporating “mission” into their name.

In the Orthodox Church there is no equivalent of the “orders” that one finds in the Roman Catholic Church, or even among the Anglicans, with several monasteries or religious houses grouped together under a common rule and name. Each monastery is more or less independent, with its own abbot (hegumen). A monasetry may start daughter monasteries, but eventually these will become independent. But there are also Brotherhoods that gather people from different places for a particular task, and the tasks of these brotherhoods may include mission. They are not monastic, but they do reflect Ralph Winter’s “sodality” structure.

The Orthodox brotherhoods and Protestant missionary societies do not necessarily have the feature of communal living that one finds in the Christian communes or “new monasticism”, but they do share the characteristic of intentionality. People decide to join them to identify with their purposes. Community living takes the idea one stage further.

My own view is that whether one calls this urban monasticism or new monasticism or anything else, at least in the Orthodox world it needs a solid foundation in traditional Orthodox monasticism.

Would someone like Moses David have gone off the rails (and derailed the entire “Children of God” movement) if he had had an Orthodox spiritual father from a traditional monastery? The trouble was that he was trying to be “spiritual father” to hundreds of “colonies” of the Children of God thoughout the world, but he had no spiritual father of his own. In Orthodox monasticism spiritual fathers (and mothers) are not on their own. There have been some charismatic intentional communities, including some in South Africa, where the leaders have become quite abusive. Dave Berg is by no means the only one.

Eventually people in the charismatic renewal movement realised that something was missing. Some of them gave a name to it; they called it “covering”, or “discipleship”. But who was to cover the coverers, or disciple the disciplers? The maverick authoritarian leaders didn’t take too kindly to coming under authority themselves, and I suspect that that played a role in the “charismatic burn-out” of the 1980s.

But the answer has been there all along in traditional Orthodox monasticism. And some Protestants discovered this 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).

So I think a new monasticism or an urban monasticism might be a good idea, but it needs to be backed by traditional monasticism is it is to develop in a healthy way.

_____________

This post is part of a synchroblog on the new monasticism.

Here are the other contributions to this month’s synchroblog:

Phil Wyman at Square No More: SynchroBlog on Neo-Monasticism
Beth at Until Translucent
Adam Gonnerman at Igneous Quill
Jonathan Brink at JonathanBrink.com
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Bryan Riley at at Charis Shalom
Cobus van Wyngaard at My Contemplations
Mike Bursell at Mike’s Musings
David Fisher at Cosmic Collisions
Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
Sonja Andrews at Calacirian

To see what others are saying or have said about the new monasticism, click on the Technorati tag here: .

Abandoned places of empire

In the Emergent Africa blog Carl Brook wonders about one of the twelve marks of a new monasticism, which is relocation to the abandoned places of empire.

What does it mean, and what does “empire” mean in that context?

I suppose the simplest thing might be to ask the people who created the “new monasticism” web site what they meant by it, and how they understood the phrase. But it might be more fun to let one’s imagination run loose, because it evokes all kinds of romantic images, for all sorts of people. For example, some people have a fascination with the abandoned places of the Soviet empire. I saw many such places in Albania a few years ago, most notably the abandoned steel works at Elbasan, and the hundreds of abandoned concrete bunkers on the hillsides, monuments to the war psychosis of Enver Hoxha, where it could be said that the Orthodox Church has indeed relocated to the abandoned places of empire.

HolyMtCovAnother image that it evokes is the book From the Holy Mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a journalist and travel writer, and his journey follows in the footsteps of two monastic pilgrims centuries earlier. Western Christians are fond of talking about “The Constantinian Era”, but often fail to realise that for many Christians the “Constantinian era” lasted less than 300 years, and ended in the 7th century. In AD 578 John Moschos and a companion set off on a similar journey, to monasteries of the Near and Middle East. Dalrymple follows them, but few of the monasteries they visited still exist. They are among the “abandoned places of empire”.

There is also a fictional recording of an attempt to relocate to the “abandoned places of empire” in Rose Macaulay’s novel The towers of Trebizond.

These are just a few of the images evoked by the phrase “abandoned places of empire”. And perhaps everyone will have their own images so that there can be many more.

When linked with monasticism, it might be given another twist, and it could be understood as being places outside the ekoumene — the wild and uninhabited places of the earth. The early monks left the cities and went to the deserts, and lived in caves and ruins, which could likewise be seen as abandoned places of empire. Could a neo-monastic community take root in the ruins of the steelworks at Elbasan?

But the phrase can also be seen to have a metaphorical sense. Abandoned places, not just in the sense of being uninhabited, but, from a Christian point of view, being culturally alienated from the Christian faith, and perhaps abandoned by the Church. At least one Christian writer sees it as referring to the inner city, which has often been abandoned by the Church. There is an example in Johannesburg, where the Orthodox Cathedral of SS Constantine and Helen (diagonally opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King) has a congregation that has relocated to the outer suburbs, and commutes to the church on Sundays almost to a foreign country. Around the church are the inner-city suburbs of Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Doornfontein and Bertrams, cosmopolitan, with a high proportion of illegal immigrants, many of whom earn their living through crime, while others are poor and exploited. The church was built by immigrants of an earlier generation, whose grandchildren have prospered and moved to places of green lawns and swimming pools (and often gated communities, ghettoes surrounded by electric fences, like medieval castles).

Perhaps another book, written by another Orthodox priest (though before he was Orthodox), could give a hint of how to minister in such a situation. The book is A new way of living by Father Michael Harper, and describes how an Episcopalian parish in Houston, Texas developed urban Christian communities as members of the church began a reverse migration from the outer suburbs to the inner city to form urban communities. This too could be seen as relocating to the abandoned places of empire.

But if the Christian Church has physically abandoned geographical areas of cities, there is also a kind of cultural abandonment. A conservative blog for peace gives an example of reality TV shows, where sometimes the reality gets too real.

One of the first of these “reality” TV shows was Big Brother. There was a great deal of media hype about Big Brother before the first series here, and it struck me that the very concept was immoral. It was not “reality” — it was a public experiment on live human beings, encouraging manipulation of others for public entertainment.

I’d like to have seen the result of introducing a hesychast monk into that setup.

But even if one had applied they would probably have been rejected, because the producers of such shows are not looking for people who reject the values of the virtual reality they are trying to create for voyeurist entertainment. But why not?

In the ancient world, the equivalent of reality TV was the gladiatorial games, where gladiators fought wild animals or each other for the entertainment of the public. But they didn’t seem to object to having unarmed Christians facing the wild animals, on occasion.

Do reality TV shows create or reflect the values of our societies and cultures? And which aspects of culture constitute the abandoned places of empire?

Utopian communities – synchroblog

Utopia has been a recurring theme in literature since Thomas More, an English lawyer and statesman, wrote his book with that title in the early 16th century. He described an island with an almost perfect society of peace, justice and freedom.

Many have had such a vision of a perfect society, but acknowledge that no actual examples can be found in the everyday world. Utopian literature was revived in the 19th century, with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, a satire on nineteenth-century Britain, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited, in which the inhabitants of a remote island believe that the best way to achieve perfection is to turn their country into a joint stock company on the British model. I don’t think it has been performed much since Margaret Thatcher came to power.

In the nineteenth century there were also a number of “utopian communities” — groups of people who, while recognising that a perfect society could be found nowhere on earth, nevertheless tried to criate a microcosm that would reflect this vision.

In this sense, the Christian Church has always been utopian.

In the Christian vision, the perfect society is the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that is “not of this world” in the sense that there are no borders, nowhere you can show your passport to get in. But the Church itself is to be an ikon, an image of the Kingdom.

This applies even to the Christian family, as Father Alexander Schmemann points out in his book For the life of the world. The crowns in the Orthodox marriage service are symbols that the husband and wife are to be king and queen to each other in a little kingdom that reflects the heavenly kingdom. The vision may be lost, perhaps even in a single night. But the fact remains that every Christian family is a utopian community, trying to reflect in this world something that is not of this world.

Immigrants to new countries often gather for celebrations to remember their distant homeland. In many parts of the world one finds Caledonian Societies to gather emigrant Scots, Hellenic Communities for the Greek diaspora and so on. In a way Christian Churches are like this, in that Christians gather to remember a distant homeland. The difference is that those who gather to remember earthly homelands remember a place they have come from. Christians gather to remember a place they are going to.

As Peter Abelard put it once in a hymn:

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high
We for that country must yearn and must sigh
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Some Christians, however, have found that the weekly gatherings of the Christian community are not enough. The “little kingdom” of the Christian family is not enough. They have looked for a more permanent expression. And so there have been monastic communities, which are, in the sense in which we are discussing it, utopian communities par excellence, trying to live the life of the heavenly kingdom on earth. As one monk put it, monasteries are the lungs of the church. In this world we breathe the polluted air of a broken and sinful world, but in the monasteries we breathe the pure air of heaven.

Christians are essentially eccentric, and Christian communities are eccentric communities. Eccentricity is another way of expressing the idea of utopia. It is having a different centre.

In his novel Perelandra C.S. Lewis conveyed the idea of eccentricity by describing eldila (angels) as appearing to people looking at them with earthly eyes as standing at a slant. When we stand, a line from our head through our feet, if extended, points to the gravitational centre of the earth. But the eldila are aligned on a different centre, and so to earth-bound mortals they appear slanted.

The “utopian” theme of this Synchroblog was inspired by an earlier post by John Morehead: Morehead’s Musings: Searching for Utopia, and it has also been discussed a little in the Christianity and society discussion forum. John’s post is a good introduction to the theme, and he includes some examples of utopian intentional communities.

Communes or intentional communities are not necessarily utopian. Many of them have quite mundane aims. To qualify as “utopian” a community needs to have an intention not merely to live together, but to create or express a way of life that is different from that of the society around them, or at least based on different values. A utopian community must be, in some sense, countercultural — in other words, eccentric.

I’ve written about this before, then, as now, inspired by something that John Morehead wrote: Notes from underground: Morehead’s Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition, so I won’t reiterate the whole thing here. The main point then was that the so called new monasticism needs to be supported by and linked to the old monasticism.

There have been many more dreams and visions of utopian communities than there have been actual examples. We need the dreams and visions, perhaps, but there is also the danger that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of in his book Life together:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream… He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and ernest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions the visionary ideal of a community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.

Other synchrobloggers:

From communist youth to Orthodox monks

Most of us have read in the newspapers and seen graphic images on television of the violence and destruction of the Wars of the Yugoslav succession, when Yugoslavia tore itself apart (often with outside assistance) during the 1990s.

But even in the midst of the destruction, there were signs of hope, as some, at least, pursued more preaceful ideals. Among these is a new generation of Orthodox monks. They grew up under the communist system, indoctrinated at school with atheism, and now have turned to a life of prayer and repentance.

There is much talk nowadays, especially in “emerging church” circles, about a “new monasticism”, but in the former Yugoslavia the youth have opted for a restoration of the old monasticism.

And now the man who has been at the centre of the monastic revival in Serbia, His Grace Artemije, Bishop of Raska and Prizren, will be visiting South Africa, and will speak on the topic Orthodox monasticism, and the revival of the monastic life in Serbia after communism at St Thomas’s Orthodox Church, Sunninghill Park, Gauteng on Saturday 5th May 2007 at 5:00 pm. If anyone is interested in attending, you will find more information here. Anyone who is interested in Christian monasticism, new or old, is welcome to attend.

How to get there

From Johannesburg, Pretoria, East Rand, West Rand, take the N1 freeway to the Rivonia Road offramp, then turn North towards Leeukop prison. About 2km from the freeway exit the road narrows, and just before it narrows there is a turn-off to the right, and almost immediately one turns to the left, then right again, and the entrance to the church parking is just round the corner. There will be a sign that says “Church Parking” at the gate.

If you have any questions, please use the comment form below.

Morehead’s Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition

In his blog Morehead’s Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition John Morehead writes

one of the books I finished last night is J. Milton Yinger’s Countercultures: The Promise and Peril of a World Turned Upside Down (New York: The Free Press, 1982). In his chapter on symbolic countercultures he includes discussion on rituals of opposition and how these serve or function as countercultures. In this section he discusses the belief in “inverted beings” among the Lugbara in what is now known as Uganda. He states that these beings “behaved in ways ‘the opposite of the ways expected of normal socialized persons in Lugbara society today.'”

The description “inverted beings” could also apply, though in different ways to the holy fools found in the Chrsitian world. As Jim Forest puts it

While there is much variety among them, holy fools are in every case ascetic Christians living outside the borders of conventional social behavior — people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or ignored until the elements silenced them.

Karen M. Staller, the author of a book on Runaways, describes in an interview how the 1960s counterculture influenced American society and worldwide youth culture

Q: You argue the counterculture was influential in this discussion. How so?

KS: I make at least three arguments in this regard. First, by using the New York Times as a source of evidence, I trace the construction of “runaway” stories over an eighteen-year period. In the early 1960s, running away was characterized as a private family matter of little public consequence, but by the mid-1970s it was being typified by young teenage prostitutes. This shift is traceable to 1966-67, when runaway accounts commingled with reports on the hippie counterculture. The “safe runaway adventurer story” construction could not survive, and what emerged in the aftermath of the “hippie” phenomena was a new conceptualization of the typical runaway as a much more troubled, street-based child.

Second, I argue that writers of the Beat movement were providing an alternative (and much more hip) version of “dropping out” for a generation of Baby Boomers who were reading works like Kerouac’s On the Road (for example, I use the life histories of two Beat “muses,” Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady). This version of “running away” stood in sharp contrast with the Establishment’s interpretation. Arguably, a second generation of counterculturists, calling themselves Diggers, picked up on these ideas and created youth communities that embodied much of the “beat” philosophy. Runaways were attracted to these ideas and to the lifestyle being enacted in counterculture communities such as Haight-Ashbury.

Third, during the mid-1960s the Diggers were engaged in a cultural critique in which they attempted to “enact Free.” Their goal was to create a true counterculture that would sustain a community of like-minded social activists free of the social, cultural, moral, and economic constraints of mainstream society. In the process of performing “Free,” Diggers provided free crash pads, free clinics, free food, a free store, and telephone help lines (hence earning them such much-detested labels from mainstream journalists as “psychedelic” social workers, “mod” monks, and “hip” charity workers). Both the messages emanating from these communities about love, peace, and alternative families, and the concrete services being provided, were attractive to younger runaway children. In 1967, as the media, acid rock, and pop music groups of the day promoted a so-called “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, Diggers called on the local community for help in caring for the younger children. The community responded by opening Huckleberry House, the first of what would become a nationwide movement of alternative and radical service providers that sheltered runaway children. The shelters looked quite a bit like the Digger crash pads and incorporated many counterculture values.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTowards the end of the hippie period the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon was released. It showed the life of Francis of Assissi, incorporating the hippie values of the dropout culture. And the early Franciscan movement was certainly countercultural in its own time, in a way that appealed to those involved in or at least sympathetic with the counterculture. In 1960 an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, wrote an article with the title God’s cool cat: How Beat were the Franciscans and how Franciscan are the Beats? anticipating Zefirelli by nearly 15 years.

In the early 1970s, however, the theoretical possibilities were taking practical form. Jesus freaks like the Children of God were spreading to cities throughout the world distributing their publication New Nation News, and urging people to see Brother Sun, Sister Moon. They lived in hippie communes, which they called “colonies”, a term also used by the early Christian communities. Here, for anyone who wanted to see, was the new monasticism. Here were the “inverted beings” trying to turn the world upside down, or, from their point of view, right side up.

Unfortunately, as often happens with idealistic movements, things went sour. In the case of the Children of God the leader, Dave Berg, who called himself Moses David or just Mo, became increasingly erratic and authoritarian. In later issues of New Nation News it became apparent that “Mo” was trying to draw people to himself rather than to Jesus, and the pages of the magazine became increasingly filled with sexual innuendo, for which Dave Berg coined the term “flirty fishing”. But that was far from the vision of the Durban colony of the Children of God in 1974, who preached and lived the love of God and urged people to see a film about the life of Francis of Assissi.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI believe that one of the things that went wrong with the “new monasticism” of the Children of God was that it was disconnected from the old monasticism. The Orthodox “fools for Christ” are inverted beings, and very often their behaviour, by the standards of respectable society, is quite bizarre. The Greek word for them, sali, is the root of the English word silly, and a silly fool is a blessed fool, one who has been touched by God.

Also in the 1970s an American, Eugene Rose, became an Orthodox monk. He had studied at the American Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco where he met Gary Snyder, one of the inspirers of the Beats, immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma bums as Japhy Ryder. Eugene Rose took the monastic name Seraphim, and sought to establish an American version of traditional Orthodox monasticism. In the 1990s the example of Fr Seraphim Rose inspired a new generation of youth to distribute a revolutionary Christian zine, Death to the world. It was the same size and format as New Nation News, but it had its roots in 20 centuries of monastic wisdom. “Death to the world is a zine to inspire Truth-seeking and soul searching amidst the modern age of nihilism and despair, promoting the ancient principles of the last true rebellion: to be dead to this world and alive to the other world.” It published testimonies of the new generation of “punx 2 monks”, and its story was told in a book Youth of the Apocalypse.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt is perhaps a coincidence that the traditional dress and external appearance of monks resembled that adopted by many in the counterculture of the 1960s — long hair in pony tails and beards for the male monastics. But the internal rebellion has remained the same through the ages: rejection of the dog-eats-dog consumer society.

One problem is that countercultures keep getting coopted by mainstream cultures. The Beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s had various visions of alternative lifestyles. But it wasn’t long before banks were offering “lifestyle banking”, and the lifestyle they promoted in their advertising was one of conspicuous consumption: a yacht, a swimming pool, a fancy car — a far cry indeed from the simple lifestyle advocated by the counterculture. But even the most imaginative copywriter would be hard put to come up with “lifestyle banking” for monks.

The Jesus freaks of the late 1960s and early 1970s promoted “revolution for Jesus”, but it wasn’t long before the slogans and symbols of the revolution were being coopted by young fogeys in suits who ran middle-class youth groups in middle-class suburban churches, and promoted a new line of sanitised Jesus kitsch like patches to put on your pre-faded, pre-shrunk, pre-torn jeans.

The last true rebellion was also the first. There may be a need for a new monasticism, but apart from the old, it will easily be coopted by the world. No mater how the world’s fashions change, monks somehow always look, and are, countercultural.

Notes from underground: A Youth of the Apocalypse

Several months ago I wrote about the Death to the world e-zine here Notes from underground: A Youth of the Apocalypse

Now someone has given me a new link where you can find Death to the World: the last true rebellion on line.

Since I wrote the original, there have also been some new developments in South African monasticism.

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