Monasticism's Protestant Reclamation
If you think of monasticism as a Catholic and Eastern Orthodox expression of Christian life, but absent from Protestantism, think again. While some Evangelicals in the North American context are gaining recent notoriety as the “new monastics,” in Europe, monasticism has been slowing filtering back into the Protestant experience among both men and women since World War II.
Roger Schutz was the son of a Swiss Calvinist pastor and French Protestant mother. Although in the Reformation era both Luther and Calvin basically did away with monasticism as an expression of Christian life, Roger was clearly looking at things with a fresh eye. He wrote his university thesis on the ideal of the monastic life according to St. Benedict and its conformity to the Gospel.
In 1944, Roger went to Taizé, a small village in Burgundy in southern France, accompanied by a few young men who were attracted by his first booklet on community life. “Keep inner silence in all things in order to remain in Christ,” it read. “Be filled with the spirit of the beatitudes: joy, simplicity, mercy.”
At the time of the Liberation, in a crippled France, this small community of men in Taizé extended hospitality to German prisoners being held in camps nearby. In so doing, a gospel reality was sown that would come to mark the life of their community: reconciliation.
The first seven brothers committed themselves on Easter Day in 1949 to celibacy and community life lived in great simplicity. In the silence of a long retreat in 1952-53 Brother Roger wrote the Rule of Taizé. Monasticism was slowly re-entering the bloodstream of European Reform-church Protestantism.
“We don’t want to be more than fifteen,” Brother Roger said of their community of brothers, all of whose first members were Protestant. Not surprisingly, Catholics—both comfortable and familiar with this form of Christian living—began to present themselves as well. And so what has come to be called a “parable of reconciliation” began to take shape. To the diversity of the various Christian denominations was added the diversity of nations. Today, of the 100 or so brothers who form the community, approximately thirty countries and all continents are represented.
In the 1930’s a few women in the Reformed Church in French-speaking Switzerland were rediscovering the importance of silence for their life of faith. They organized a spiritual retreat, at first once a year, in a house at Grandchamp outside of Neuchatel. In the course of time, retreats became more frequent and were opened up to other people.
Soon the need was felt to keep the house open throughout the year and to provide for a continual presence of prayer. The first sisters, rooting their lives in meditation on the Word of God, rediscovered the stream of monastic life through the friendship and support of Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox communities. A commitment to prayer for the unity of the Church marks them from their origins.
In 1952 the first sisters committed themselves to leave everything behind and follow Christ on the way of the Beatitudes, to be together a sign of the coming Kingdom, a place of reconciliation, of communion and of praise. . Shortly thereafter they adopted the Rule of Taizé and its daily Offices as the basis for their life in community and liturgical prayer.
Today, the Community comprises about sixty sisters, coming from different Protestant Churches and from various countries. The majority of them live at Grandchamp, while others live in twos or threes at various locations in Switzerland, Israel, Algeria, France and elsewhere. There they seek to be simply a presence of friendship and prayer
The community of Bose in northwestern Italy came into being on the 8th of December, 1965--the day the Second Vatican council concluded its work. The founder, Enzio Bianchi, a Catholic layman, began living in a rented house near the dairy farms at Bose. Among the first three people to join him was a Protestant pastor and a Catholic laywoman. Today, community members call it "the gift of our origin" and see the Holy Spirit's work in it.
The monastic community at Bose presently numbers about eighty—approximately forty-eight men and thirty-two women. Only six among them are ordained, giving a strong emphasis to the call to holiness among laity. Only three among them are Protestants (best explained perhaps by the history of Italian Protestantism and its harsh struggle for survival in a dominantly Catholic country), but the community self-identifies as "a monastic community of men and women belonging to different churches."
The community recognizes its roots in the local Catholic church and carries out a typically ecclesiastical ministry both in its own diocese and in other local churches: preaching, spiritual retreats, the publication of studies, books, and articles on spirituality. Bianchi himself, now 64, is an increasingly sought-after commentator on events in the Church and world.
Two things in particular struck this observer about the community he founded. First, the relative youth of its members (median age 39). Second, when one watches them enter the chapel in their white robes for the thrice-daily office and listens to the tones of their antiphonal chanting from opposite sides of the sanctuary, what emerges both visually and audibly is a powerful image of the complimentary of men and women in the church.
Monasticism continues to renew itself with new forms and expressions—both Catholic and Protestant.
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.