Being a monastic church; the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and the monastic movement

Egbert van der Stouw

More | Reflective articles

Being a monastic church; the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and the monastic movement

Egbert van der Stouw

More | Reflective articles

While more and more monasteries have to close their doors because the communities of religious living there have become too old and too small, at the same time initiatives related to or inspired by the monastic tradition flourish in many places in the Netherlands. These include not only spiritual practices such as retreats and pilgrimages, silence celebrations and  praying the hours, Christian meditation and lectio divina, but also forms of community life such as Christian communities and city monasteries.

The growing interest in and orientation towards ‘the monastic’ in Protestant circles is remarkable. The books of contemporary ‘monks’ such as Henri Nouwen, Anselm Grün and Wil Derkse are in great demand among Protestant believers. All kinds of spiritual practices from the monastic tradition are also on the rise. Vacare, a movement for meditative life within the Protestant Church – encourages the practice of Christian meditation, individually and in groups throughout the country. The value of spiritual guidance – on a personal level but also in the changing context of local communities of faith – is brought to the attention by the Network of Spiritual Guidance in and through the Protestant Church. Individual believers and groups of congregational members go on pilgrimages or retreats in monasteries and retreat centres. Local churches organize silence celebrations and monastic prayers.

Apparently there is an increasing desire for stillness and interiorization, for contemplation and care for the soul. Undoubtedly as a reaction to the frenzy and pressure of daily life, the 24-hour economy and the constant stimuli of social media. Church life, which often focuses on organization and activity, cannot escape this either. A large-scale survey among members of the Protestant Church showed not so long ago that a large part of the ecclesiastical framework is ‘tired and burdened’. In that light, it is not strange that ‘the monastic’ has an attraction.

The Protestant Church in the Netherlands recognizes the significance of this and pays attention to these developments in the vision paper ‘Church 2025: Where there is a Word, there is a Way’ as being important for the future of the Church. In particular, there is attention and appreciation for Christian communities as new forms of being church and for their often ecumenical character. The translation of this into the policy of the service organisation of the PKN has led to the function of ‘binding specialist monastic church-ness’, with the aim of strengthening the growing monastic movement within the Protestant Church.

What is 'monasticism'?

In order to gain insight into the meaning of the term ‘monastic church-ness’, it is necessary to first interpret the term ‘monastic’. Although ‘monastic’ is derived from the Greek words ‘monos’ (alone) and ‘monachos’ (lonely), it is a way of life that takes place in ‘communion’ (community). Even the hermit is not a solo-religious. Monastic spirituality is about the unity of prayer and work, action and contemplation. In other words: to be ‘contemplative in action’. The core of this is that you do everything from an attentive attitude to life. Mark Rotsaert sj puts it this way against the Ignatian tradition:

It’s about being with the center of your person at the center of things and at the heart of people. In this way you constantly keep in touch with God, so you live in the constant awareness of God’s active presence.

Thomas Quartier, theologian, philosopher and a member of the Benedictine Willibrord Abbey in Doetinchem, writes in his book ´Anders leven´ that ‘monastic’ refers first and foremost to a way of life, an attitude to life, which concerns all areas of life and is not available ‘separately’ in the form of spiritual practices. This radical devotion has taken on specific manifestations in the monastic tradition. In the twentieth century, new and ecumenical forms have been added, such as Taizé, Grandchamp, Iona and the Northumbria Community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

One of the Protestant sources of inspiration for these new forms of monasticism is the theologian – martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In a letter to his brother Karl-Friedrich he writes in 1935:

‘The restoration of the church certainly comes from a kind of new monasticism, which has in common with the old only the uncompromising nature of a life according to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe that now is the time to bring people together for this.’

This quote begins by saying something about the church. According to Bonhoeffer, the church is not in good shape and is in need of restoration, repair. The question is what he means by the word “restoration”. It perhaps evokes the thought of regaining lost ground, of returning to earlier times. But perhaps we should rather think of the vocation of Francis of Assisi, who began his renewal movement by literally restoring dilapidated churches. ‘Restoration’ then comes to lie in the language field of ‘renewal’. With the word ‘restoration’ we can also think of the language field of ‘healing’. The second thing that stands out in the quotation is the word ¨decided¨. For Bonhoeffer this renewal of the church is not just a possibility or desire, but a deep and sure knowing. He also says in the last sentence of the quotation that he believes that it is “now the time”. This evokes associations with the biblical concept of ‘kairos’: the decisive time. When it comes to the content of this renewal of the Church, Bonhoeffer uses the term ‘new monk – hood’, or in other words, ‘new monasticism’. The latter term was introduced in 1998 by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in his book ‘Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World’, which is based, among other things, on Bonhoeffer’s ideas. Under the umbrella of ‘new monasticism’ a movement has emerged of communities that practice values such as a life of prayer, hospitality and practical involvement on the poor.

Church monasticism: a working definition

In the light of the above, what is then ‘monastic church-ness’? I come to the following working definition: Monastic church-ness is a form of church-ness that models itself on the values of monastic spirituality: live prayingly (being contemplative in action) by: establishing fellowship; practicing hospitality; taking care of creation; sharing economic resources; establishing peace; working for reconciliation; maintaining spiritual practices such as praying the hours, lectio divina, silence/meditation, retreat, and spiritual guidance; living according to a rule and a vocation. This form – better still: quality – of being church can manifest itself in existing congregations, but also in new forms such as Christian communities, city monasteries and pioneering places.

Supporting monastic church-ness

In order to strengthen the monastic movement in and from the Protestant Church, it is important to share inspiration and knowledge. This is done among other things through the website of the Protestant Church and the Facebook group Monastic Church-ness, but also through the annual Vacara Day and the magazine Meditative Life. Sharing knowledge also includes an advisory function. The connectinmg specialist ‘monastic church-ness’ can help in the start-up phase of monastic initiatives. Support also includes networking. For example, for pioneering places with a monastic orientation, a monastic programme is organised every year during a pioneer training course and, in addition to this, a ‘niche – network monastic pioneering’ is being developed. Connections are also sought with partners working in the same field, such as the Association of Religious Living Communities in the Netherlands, the digital community De Binnenkamer and others. Finally, the Protestant Church is not only following when it comes to monastic initiatives that are emerging throughout the country, but is also developing its own initiatives in this field – in cooperation with partners. An example of this is the concept ‘Travelling companions’, a slightly monastic ‘order’ of groups who want to practise with faith, using exercises around the verbs ‘being’, ‘loving’, ‘making’, ‘telling’ and ‘learning’. This type of initiative also strengthens the monastic movement in and from the Protestant Church.

About the author

Egbert van der Stouw

Egbert van der Stouw is a staff member of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) and “connecting specialist” of monastic forms of being-church in the PKN. In his text he describes the developments of these new forms of being-church in the Dutch Protestant church and presents a working definition of monastic church-being.