Recently a Catholic friend who has frequently visited a monastery for much of his adult life asked me about how Protestants can create stable communities that will preserve and pass on the Christian faith without monasteries. For many Catholics, he said, the monastery is the most stable institution within the church.
The spirit behind his question is roughly in line with what David Nolan wrote for Fare Forward several years ago when he argued for the necessity of monks. The vocation of the monks, my friend said, tends toward a level of stability and fidelity that is deeply helpful not only to the monks, but also to any lay Christians living nearby. The monastery essentially says “This is a good life. We will live here and dedicate ourselves to this work. Even if no one else is here, even if no one else notices us, even if no one else cares, this is what we will do.”
That comment, however, suggests that there may be something different that Protestants might learn from the monks. Our problem is not necessarily one of stability. A lack of stability, after all, is as much a matter of making choices as it is about being subject to cultural forces outside one’s control. Taking monastic vows locks one into a sort of stability, I suppose, but there is no reason that many lay people cannot also realize some kind of stability themselves. After all, you don’t have to take that new promotion or go back to school or take that new job in another state. You choose to. And just as you choose to uproot yourself, you can also choose to stay put. We just don’t want to do that. But it can be done. My parents, for example, have chosen to stay in the same house they got married in 32 years ago.
To be sure, stability is not a norm in most American sub-cultures and that can make it harder to realize. For natives of small towns in particular it may genuinely be more-or-less impossible to achieve that kind of stability in the place of one’s birth. Small-town economies are generally weak and, depending on what one does after high school, one’s post-secondary job training may force a person to move after graduating. Likewise immigrants and refugees are obviously condemned to a lack of stability for some significant amount of time, although there are things that could be done culturally, economically, and politically to help address that problem.
However, most of us can still create a kind of stability. If you can’t stay put in your hometown, stay put in the city you moved to for trade school or university. If you can’t do that, stay put in the city where you get your first full-time job that pays a sustainable wage.
The issue is, in one sense, relatively simple: Stop uprooting yourself every five years in search of a new, better life. Or, more simply: Stay put, dammit. On the other hand, the fact that so few of us do stay put suggests that there is a deeper reason for our hyper-mobility, a reason that merits further comment. Why is it that evangelicals, as well as most other middle- to upper-class Americans, seem so allergic to stability? Why must we move so frequently? And how do we cultivate the sort of spirit within ourselves that would make us desire stability enough that we’ll pass on exciting opportunities that would require us to uproot ourselves?
This, it turns out, may be the lesson that monasteries, amongst other places, can teach us. The greater lesson we should learn from monks is not to pursue stability, important as that is. It is to cultivate the virtue of indifference—indifference to results, indifference to the opinions of the sophisticated masses, indifferent to the trends and norms that shape popular culture. That is the key in my friend’s comments—the monastery says “We do not care about 90% of what the world cares about,” and that is one of the fundamental beliefs that explains and preserves the life of the monks.
This sort of indifference is something largely alien to most evangelicals. One of the lessons that can be learned from many of the memoirs being written currently by millennial evangelicals is that we are piercingly aware of ourselves as individual brands and are deeply concerned with cultivating the right sort of public image. This is, to be fair, something our parents taught us, for one of the consequences of the seeker-sensitive movement of the 1980s is that churches and their members learned to think of themselves as products that must be marketed correctly in order to gain new customers.
As is often the case, despite our protestations to the contrary, the greatest problem with younger evangelicals is not that we are unlike our parents, but that we are like them in many mostly bad ways. We did not reject them so much as we learned the wrong lessons from them. The power we give to the opinions of our peers is one area in which we are eerily and distressingly like the generation that came before us.
To be indifferent is, in the sense we are speaking of today, to be confident in the goodness of a certain way of life. It is to be immune to the appeals of popularity and relevance, committed instead to the work we have been given to do. It is to be convinced enough of your vocation that you don’t need to be bothered by many of the things that consume the attention of your peers. It is to say that you are not concerned with finding your next promotion, accumulating life experiences (which you use to build your brand on social media as well as your CV), looking for your next big house, or seeking out the right school to advance your child’s career prospects. It is to be content with the life you have been given and to work in one’s home place for its improvement rather than seeking a better place somewhere else. It is, to borrow a phrase from Berry, to acquire the joy of sales resistance.
Of course, this kind of indifference is not indifference to the world in all ways, nor is it an excuse to ignore or neglect the Christian duties we owe to our neighbors. Rather, it is in fact a necessary condition for caring for the world and our neighbors in the right way. We cannot love the world if we are preoccupied with ingratiating ourselves to it or with meeting its own standards of success. In our particular moment, it is also worth noting that integrating ourselves too much into a culture as materialistic and individualistic as ours will also have the effect of shaping us in ways that are, at best, unhelpful toward maturing in Christian love and, more probably, are actually harmful to that work. The indifference we must learn is thus not an absolute indifference, but a wise indifference that is able to see the world as it is, love it, and yet also recognize where it is not possible to be like it.
I recently heard an abbot of a monastery say that the monastery’s practice of hospitality is not absolute. We are happy to welcome guests into our life, he said, but we will not welcome people if doing so renders us incapable of fulfilling our vocation. Hearing him say that reminded me of my time at L’Abri, a place that has certain similarities to the monastic life, although its missional focus makes it a distinctly evangelical take on the idea of monasticism. Anyone is welcome to come to L’Abri, but people whose presence there makes it difficult for L’Abri to fulfill its calling to create communities that look like the Gospel in which people also hear the Gospel will not be able to stay. While that does mean certain behaviors we more commonly associate with those outside the church cannot be tolerated in the community, it also means that the sort of self-righteousness more commonly seen in the church is equally unwelcome.
L’Abri is a place that understands itself thoroughly, knows its work, and is able to delight in that. It is thus a place largely immune to the trends and fads of any single cultural moment. It is, in fact, a place existing outside of the temporal moment in which it exists so as to be able to point people toward a transcendent order. Would that we had more communities like that.