The Cry Vol 15 No 3.1

Insight Series: New friars or new monasticism? A theological reading of the signs of the times

By Tom Kelly

The Insight Series features guest writers who have influenced the philosophical identity of WMF. These theologians, scholars, writers and practitioners have had a role in shaping the vision of WMF. In this issue, Tom Kelly reflects on the language of “New Friars/Mendicants” and “New Monasticism.”

The recent movement of young, committed, mainly evangelical Christians into a deeper service of and proximity to Jesus in the poor has been an extraordinary development, one that Roman Catholics might identify as a “sign of the times.” “Sign of the times” is a phrase used at the Second Vatican Council that refers to realities that have particular significance for a certain time and place and are unique to that context. They are “happenings, needs, desires … authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose.”1 When you put these together, the “signs of the times” signify unique events and/or movements wherein the presence of God is made manifest.2 Without hesitation, I would argue that the new movement among American evangelicals toward the poor constitutes a “sign of the times.” Under varying names and with differing denominational identities, young, committed Christians are embracing the world and living within the structures of the poor they serve in ways that are altogether new and different.

What is somewhat confusing is the language used to reference these communities, the movement, and the ministry of those involved. Two representative texts on this movement include The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker and The New Monasticism by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. It is interesting that the leaders in this movement use such different terms to describe it. My hope is to give some context for the terms “monasticism” and “friars” in a way that validates the new forms of Christian living that have emerged, while avoiding the theological pitfalls of the term “monastic.” This is necessary because the terms and the traditions they represent have significantly different theologies, relationships to power and missions to the world.

According to Isnard Frank in A Concise History of the Mediaeval Church, the basic motive at the foundation of Western monasticism “was an ascetic flight from the world: separation from the ‘world.’”3 Frank insists that we take this flight seriously: “The ascetic content of monasticism and its concern to flee from the world must be emphasized. Here was a hostility to the world which was sometimes heightened to become the view that all those who were entangled in ‘worldly things’ had no chance of attaining eternal salvation.”4 Later, of course, the monastery would be very involved in at least part of the world — the wealth that allowed for and sustained monastic life.

The early mediaeval proprietary church system controlled monastic institutions as proprietary monasteries; as royal abbeys they had been integrated into the church of the realm. In each case the monasteries were given control of property and were drawn into the process of acting as lords. So what has been said about the bishop as lord of the proprietary church and a royal official can equally be said of the head of a propertied monastery.5

Although it is impossible to go into an extensive history of monasticism here, suffice it to say that “a growing symbiosis between the nobility and monasticism”6 developed.

Of deeper import was the separation of contemplation from action that some monastic orders promoted. Nicholas Gallicus, prior-general of the Carmelites (1266-1271), was skeptical of “the value of preaching” as opposed to “the Carmelite tradition of solitary contemplation.”7 This division of the Christian life into strict domains of action or contemplation was problematic for emerging movements of mendicants, whose focus was action. “In the context of the Carmelite Rule and the order’s origins, it is an impossible combination. Contemplative life cannot be diluted with the work of public ministry.”8

Mendicantism and religious orders based upon mendicancy (primarily lay and later ordained) are quite different in both outlook and theological orientation from the traditional monastic life. The Latin word mendicatio means “a begging, obtaining by begging.”9 In contrast to the isolated, monastery-based life of the monastics, the mendicant orders such as those founded by St. Francis (1181?-1226), St. Clare (1194-1253) and St. Dominic (1170-1221) earned their livelihoods by begging. They were typically urban-based and dedicated to practicing their vocations among the people. And contrary to the “lords” of monasticism, the “friars” or “brothers” of mendicancy were humbled by the very lack of titles they carried. This fact reveals that in contrast to the stability of Western monasticism, the mendicants were much more vulnerable — as was the poor Christ whom they served embodied in marginalized people.

In fact, the original Rule of Francis (1221), The Regula non-Bullata, which was a way of proceeding for all religious orders approved by Rome, was clearly distinct from the monasticism of his day.10 And although there may appear to be similarities, the spirit of the original Rule of Francis departs from traditional monasticism theologically, administratively and pastorally. Theologically the mendicant life is grounded in the life of Christ who was active and immersed in the world of the marginalized. “The Rule and life of these friars is this, namely, to live in obedience, in chastity and without (anything of) one’s own, and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, ‘If you want to be perfect, go’ and ‘sell’ all (cf. Luke 18:22) ‘that you have, and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21).”11 The world was not something to flee from, but rather something to enter into in imitation of Christ (who did not reside in a monastery). Friars are not to use or seek money (ch. 2); they will dress simply; they will serve without power (ch. 7), depend on alms like Christ and the poor (ch. 9) and “preach by works” (ch. 17).12 Their ministry was to the world in every sense — poor, non-Christian, every marginal group and people. This is very different from the stability, nobility and exclusivity of the monastic life.

What we have seen in the last 15 years — with the rise and spread of a Christianity actively in service to Jesus in the world, especially through an encounter with the socially and economically marginalized — is truly a sea change. We have seen this commitment lived out through organizations such as InnerCHANGE, Servant Partners, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, Urban Neighbors of Hope and Word Made Flesh.13 These communities practice what Wilson-Hartgrove labels the 12 marks of “New Monasticism” — some of which include: “relocation to the abandoned places of Empire; sharing economic resources; humble submission to Christ’s body, the church; geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life; hospitality to the stranger; and nurturing common life among members of intentional community.”14

Through my own encounter with Word Made Flesh, I am certain that it embodies both the spirit and concrete realities of mendicancy. This is visible in its mission, its own self-understanding, its administration and its support for those in the “field.” While visiting their ministry in El Alto, Bolivia, I was amazed that Heather, a young, committed Christian woman, made her companionship available to the women of eight to 10 brothels a night. She offered an alternative to that life through concrete possibilities made available by the “begging” of those who administer Word Made Flesh. She lived among the people of El Alto; she spoke their language; she suffered from the same climate and systems that oppressed those around her. Although because of her privilege she can never completely identify with the oppression of those in El Alto, she has chosen to make her home alongside them, and there, to serve Jesus.

How this new movement of young Christians, this “sign of the times,” chooses to self-define is very important — not only for the historical baggage certain terms may bring with them, but also for clarity of purpose in one’s theology, use of power and pastoral orientation.

The rise of mendicantism was perceived as a threat to traditional monasticism for many more reasons than can be covered in this short reflection. One could use the dichotomy today between an incarnational downward ministry toward the poor15 and the consumer-driven upward mobility of U.S. culture to state the historical contrast between the monastic and mendicant. One (monastic) represents stability, nobility, power and privilege, while the other (mendicant) incarnates downward mobility and displacement to the margins and, there, makes a home with Christ.

1 Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), p. 25.
2 Ibid., p. 25.
3 Isnard Wilhelm Frank, A Concise History of the Mediaeval Church (New York: Continuum, 1996), pp. 30-31.
4 Ibid., p. 31 (emphasis mine).
5 Ibid., p. 30.
6 Ibid., p. 31.
7 Andrew Jotischky, The Carmelites and Antiquity: Mendicants and their Pasts in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 93.
8 Ibid., p. 93.
9 A Latin Dictionary, Founded on Andrews Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, Revised, Enlarged and in Great Part Rewritten by Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 1131.
10 (Accessed June 18, 2009).
11 Francis of Assisi, The Regula non-Bullata [RegNB], 1221, prologue.
12 Ibid., chapters noted.
13 Scott Bessenecker, The New Friars (InterVarsity, 2006), p. 24.
14 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), p. 39.
15 Dean Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times (New York: Crossroad, 2004), ch. 11.

Thomas M. Kelly is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and Director of the M.A. in Theology. He is working on a book that will analyze the ministry of Rutilio Grande in El Salvador and the ecclesiology that supported it. Dr. Kelly and his wife, Lisa, are members of Ignatian Associates, a lay organization committed to Ignatian spirituality. They have been married 16 years and are the parents of Andrew (13), Michael (11) and Catherine (6).

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3 thoughts on “The Cry Vol 15 No 3.1

  1. Chris Armstrong says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for this interesting reflection. I too see the new monasticism as a “sign of the times.”

    I am not a medievalist (though I am a historian), but I want to raise two issues with the sharp typology you develop: monastic = noble/privileged and mendicant = poor/incarnational.

    First, I think you are too harsh on the historical monastics (which almost always, in the West, means some form of Benedictine). You are right that the division between the active and contemplative lives is disturbing. This did develop later in the Middle Ages, however. For example, the first monk-pope, the 6th-century Gregory the Great, kept the two concepts firmly together.

    Also, this separation of the active from contemplative lives, with a strong preference from the latter, was not always a straight line development. Cyclical monastic reforms recovered the necessity for work and hospitality. And hospitality was and is always a central value in Benedictine monasticism, to the degree that Benedict had the monks abase themselves before guests and serve guests as if they were Christ himself.

    Money and power did taint Benedictinism at various points, but as the evangelical Protestant historian Mark Noll once said, most of what was good and beautiful in Christianity throughout the medieval period came from either the monks or those who imitated them. Benedictines served as missionaries, worked the land, took in the poor and distributed alms to the poor, and much else.

    Second, I think you romanticize the mendicants. They were quite as capable as the Benedictines of compromising their founding visions. In their case, the compromise has often been in the direction of the active rather than the contemplative life: focusing, to take the most obvious example, on education, medicine, and the like and leaving devotion and the Church a distant second. Within a generation of Francis’s death, several splinter groups of “spiritual” Franciscans already found it necessary to defend Francis’s vision of the integrated devotional-active life against such declension.

    This is not just an archaic debate. The most serious flaw I see in the new monastic movement is just at this point: many of these young, compassionate zealots in the cause of the poor are finding it difficult to maintain devotion, worship, and “being church” at the center of their communal experiments. The action, the romantic vision . . . these threaten to swallow up the Christly and Churchly core.

    So say, for example, both Tim Otto and Jon Stock. Those two, both members of intentional “new monastic” communities, co-authored, with Wilson-Hartgrove, the book Inhabiting the Church. The book comprises a series of reflections on what the shape of the Benedictine life has to say to new monastics today. I strongly recommend you and your readers take a look at that book. I think you’ll see in these authors’ reflections on vows, obedience, stability, and “continual conversion” a strong spiritual anchor to a movement which, again, I do join you in seeing as a “sign of the times.”

    For a more sympathetic view of Benedictinism, I also recommend Columba Stewart’s Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Traditions of Christian Spirituality).

    May God bless you, your teaching ministry, and your Ignatian spiritual pursuits.

  2. John says:

    Thank you for a great article.

    From the man whose name was chosen to recall the father of western monasticism (St. Benedict of Nursia c 480 – 543 AD) we read “a monastery is above all this: a place of spiritual power.”
    The monastic spirit has been an ancient spring of spiritual life within the Church from its beginning. This fine article is a good and important illustration of how through many reforms and community adjustments, monasticism is often found in the Church’s newest works.

  3. Karen Sloan says:

    The academic tensions described in this article and comments above resonate with me. However, I want to also lift up the value of analyzing labels such as “monastic” “friar/mendicant” in light of contemporary publicity needs. Which term enables the greatest number of seekers, adherents and supporters, to easily connect with it? And how are contemporary usages writing new chapters of definition for the term monasticism?

    In my own journey as an emerging new monastic I have also spent a good deal of time around Dominicans and other Catholic orders. This has taught me, as Chris detailed in his comment, of the wide diversity in Catholic religious life. Several years ago much of these personal explorations, including a bit of a romance story, wound up in a book I wrote for InterVarsity Press (published around the same time as _The New Friars_). When the marketing and publishing staff at IVP was deciding on a title, to this introduction book for a friar/mendicant order, the final choice was: _Flirting with Monasticism_.

    Yes, _Flirting with Friarism_ would have been a more accurate title. Yet for young evangelical Christians familiar with New Monasticism, and perhaps vague notions of monks, the title selected by the sales people does help the book reach a broader constituency than the few who grasp the nuanced differences between monks and friars.

    Also, whatever definitions may be true for historic monastics and mendicants, along with their contemporary expressions in the Roman Catholic branch of Christ’s body, those involved with New Monasticism are daily transforming the definition of this term by their own ongoing use and application. With more use over time, “monastic” will have an expanded meaning that reflects its usage in New Monastic contexts.

    Words that provide cultural labels are quite dynamic in their application. New Monastic is an appropriately broad term with fairly wide recognition in Christian circles. (Though among folks unfamiliar with Christianity, upon hearing the title _Flirting with Monasticism_, I am frequently asked, “What is monasticism?”) Neither friar or mendicant is an obvious better choice. A somewhat obscure word, mendicant only turns up 824 thousand hits on a Google search, compared to 4.3 million for friar and 28.7 million for monk. Friar, though more common than mendicant, is gender exclusive in its original use, historically referring only to orders of men.

    What exactly should these groups of “New Friars/Mendicants” or “New Monastics” be called? At this point in time, there is not an obvious answer. What is obvious, and for which I eagerly pray towards, is the desire for increased commitment to living by shared contemplative and active (“pray and work” “ora et labora”) rhythms with their communities. As you read this comment, all human publicity concerns aside, will you take a moment and join me in this prayer request?

    And if you are ever around Pittsburgh, you are welcome to New Monastic hospitality at Formation House (

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