The Death of an Old Monk; the Birth of a New Monasticism

CNN tells the story here of Father Theodore Heck, who died earlier this week, just a month before the 80th anniversary of his ordination.  The death of an old man who has lived well (and Father Heck’s friends speak highly of him) is, as Robert Altman’s characters say in the film of  ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, not a tragedy, but a cause for gratitude and reflection on the meaning of what makes us human.

Father Heck has the face of a good man, like many who have weathered life in monasteries.  The image CNN uses evokes those in Philip Groning’s astonishing documentary ‘Into Great Silence’, crinkled with age, centred with eyes that show no sign of stress.

Of course, I never met Father Heck, but I’m struck by something his Archabbot, John DuVall said:

“Every year, he would take up a subject and read about it,” DuVall said. “When he was 99, he decided he should learn Spanish, and when he was 100, he took up the computer.”

Some of us know that there’s a resurgence of monastic practices in surprising places these days – from community houses in urban North Carolina, to the discipline of writing in solitude and sharing the work in community in New Zealand.  I’m inspired – and sometimes feel caught between – both.  Different perspectives on ‘new monasticism’ abound – some people are living in community and sharing their lives with each other, hoping to serve their neighborhood needs; this feels like a re-invention of the work of St Francis.  But there were other ways of being monastic in the past too – St Columba is only one of many monks whose work and life appeared to depend on whether or not there was a boat nearby so that he could get to the next stop on his 6th century version of the student backpacking ‘I want to find myself’ tour.  It seems to me that, when handled with intentionality, for wanderers like me, our contemporary forms of interaction (mostly virtual) and physical space-taking (often transient, for me at least) have the potential to be in the tradition of medieval monks as much as those of us who are staying rooted in one place.

I say ‘handled with intentionality’ because it’s easy to let the world go by without noticing it; I have used internet tools for spiritual exploration as if they were chocolate bars – I consume them too quickly, unthinking; reading some ‘religious’ websites has become akin to glancing at the supermarket tabloid rack – gleaning gossip about embarrassing stories, or the sales ranks of books written by friends, or searching for the latest reason to get annoyed with people’s spectacularly strange theology.  This is not good for me; some people might call it spiritual masturbation.  And they’d be right.

But, of course, I’ve found that there are ways to experience spirituality in virtual space that really do enhance my life.  I’m connected to friends and fellow travellers; we don’t see each other in the flesh a great deal, but we learn from each other by what we blog; I’ve discovered books and music that have guided me, and I hope to make a small contribution to the watching of lesser-known films by my own writing and shared podcast; Twitter has already apparently saved a life and helped start a revolution.

So, in short – if old monastics could be either cloistered in monasteries or active from them, or could find their way by travelling across the world, sharing with new and old communities as they went, then I hope there’s space in the New Monastic movement for those of us who haven’t yet found a space to be physically rooted, who can’t negotiate their lives without a sense of open spaces, who know that they would be impoverished without the privilege of having travelled far.  I grew up as an unusual religious hybrid -I guess you could have called me a ‘progressive fundamentalist’; by my mid-twenties I was burned out on puritanism and evangelical zeal.  I am not sure I would have kept asking questions about spirituality had I not found myself meeting people on the same journey in Aotearoa/New Zealand, or Jerusalem/Al-Quds, or Pretoria/Tshwane.

Itchy feet monasticism, perhaps, but a form of monasticism all the same.

And so, as this week ends, I’m drawn to brother Theodore, and his energy to keep expanding his horizons, even as his body, presumably, began to offer more challenges of its own.  I made a half-hearted attempt at learning Spanish last year, at 33, and gave up quickly; he learned the language when he was 99.  I’m inspired to make a declaration of intent: new monasticism should not only make space for those of us who find ourselves blowing in the wind of globalisation and virtual space, but if I want a place at this table, I should be prepared to, at the very least, try to make space for something entirely new, every year for the rest of my life.

So at the risk of inverting the spirit of inquiry I’m hoping to offer, entonces, con humilidad, disfruta el fin de semana.

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5 responses to “The Death of an Old Monk; the Birth of a New Monasticism

  1. enjoy it well, my friend.

    this post really, really resonated with me. thank you.

  2. garethihiggins

    hey thanks – lovely to know you’re reading; and glad we’re all in this together

  3. i subscribe to you and read every post 🙂

  4. “then, with humility, (you all) enjoy the end of the week” ?

  5. I tend to take a more cynical view of things like facebook and twitter (as hypocritical as this is), i appreciate the fact that you continue to see the more redemptive sides of these things I find myself missing. Thanks for reminding me that the spirit that made those “old monks” still lives on… even amidst, somehow, the faceless virtual world.