Why I don't see a monastery working

Recently, one proposed solution to the ills that have befallen Unitarian Universalism is forming a monastery, or more than one. An odd choice I thought, as we derive from Protestantism, which historically has valued the family over the monastery as the venue of spiritual development. I’m reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a classic of unorthodox city life and planning. (In so far as the orthodox were misguided and self-deluding radicals.)

Referring to Ebenezer Howard, the proponent of “garden cities” in England, she writes (p. 17),

His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.

I can’t think of any Unitarian Universalists — at least those with the gumption to see a monastery work — willing to accept those terms — unless each is the planner.

12 Replies to “Why I don't see a monastery working”

  1. Although there is a fairly strong rediscovery of monastic spirituality among Protestants — I’ve noticed a lot of Presbyterians developing such interest– I just don’t see it working in UUism for many reasons I can’t articulate here. Just wanted to nod an affirmative to your post.

  2. Historical footnote: The son of a lapsed Unitarian founded the Order of the Holy Cross, one of the still-active Episcopal monastic orders, in 1884. Frederic Dan Huntington was a Unitarian minister and Harvard’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals until he left that position in 1859 when he converted to Episcopalianism. (He was also one of my predecessors as editor of the Christian Register, now UU World.) His son, James Otis Sargent Huntington, founded the Episcopal monastic order.

    The Episcopal church where I was married, incidentally, has a stained glass window donated by Frederic Dan Huntington in honor of his father, a liberal Congregationalist-Unitarian minister, which of course made me feel perfectly, Unipalianly at home.

    As for the dilemmas confronting a UU monastic community, I’d say they boil down to this: A monastic community takes root around a rule of life. If some visionary UU came up with a rule of life and drew adherents, voila! In the 1930s, James Luther Adams and some of his colleagues did develop a liberal Christian rule of life, and Nurya studied this group when she was at HDS; I seem to recall that she said the group still exists, although its membership is now almost entirely UCC-affiliated.

  3. I’ve been to a retreat at the OHC in West Park (in fact, they also have a guest house at the Toronto priory) and I have strongly considered becoming an Associate of the OHC. I had no clue of the Unitarian connection!

    I would -really- like to learn about this rule of life you’re talking about. I need details!

  4. I think it would be helpful to parse out rule-based communities: monasteries, friaries, “third orders,” sodalities, and (I think) some apostolates. Google for details. Of these, the sodalities (confraternities) have a presence in Unitarian Universalism through the little discussed (outside of ministerial circles, and I’ve never been approached to join one I would want to join) “ministerial fraternities” — like the Fraters, Prairie Group, and Greenfield Group (see http://www.hds.harvard.edu/library/bms/bms00576.html or Google them). The Humilitati fall in this group, with a hint of “friar.”

    But that’s different than a residential community under a rule, and presumably an abbot. Also, we don’t have the spiritual infrastructure to make a monastery work; on the other hand, we have a great capacity for lay governance, which is where I think our charism lies.

    Consider, too, the various utopian communities Unitarians and Universalists (yes, both) and other Prots have gotten into, and how few survived a decade. That’s why I’m (a) not shocked to hear about a monastic community among the Norwegian Unitarians and (b) not expecting it to survive.

  5. The idea of a monastic community is clearly one that emerges out of a need for spiritual renewal in our community. It could work, but I feel like chances are we would change outwardly without the inward change that I think this idea is all about. We could buy a nice building, surrounded by vegetable gardens, and still be inside talking about the Democratic party nominee. It needs to be more than window-dressing, but a change in our culture. I think it might be more useful for more UUs to visit something like the Taize community, and use what they learn there in whatever way they think is best.

  6. Hey Scott, depends on how you define “monastery.” I suspect you have a strict definition, but personally I am fascinated by the recent article in Christian Century The New Monastics.

    What I can see happening within Unitarian Universalism is not monasteries in the strict sense of the word, but rather intentional communities, not unlike the various Quaker communities you can find. Rather than a UU monastery, I’d like to see something like a UU Pendle Hill — or a “Unitarian Universalist House” located in a number of cities across the continent. Intentional communities like this might be particularly attractive to younger adults, but heck, this middle aged adult would consider living in one.

  7. Yes, a strict definition, or at least one tight enough to form a clear meaning. Benedict’s Rule starts out by distinguishing between different kinds of religious, and then settles in on the rule for one of them. My earlier parsing was to show that there are several kinds of rule-based religious community, and I still don’t think Unitarian Universalism and monasticism fit well. A friary — the base for outward-serving lay and ordained persons who share a rule — well, perhaps.

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