John Michael Greer: Toward a New Monasticism

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Danica Swanson

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John Michael Greer: Toward a New Monasticism
« on: June 04, 2019, 11:00:12 AM »
Last week, writer John Michael Greer posted the Call For Submissions for Janet Munin's upcoming anthology on polytheistic monasticism. The thread that followed on his Dreamwidth journal contains a fascinating discussion on the subject, so I'd like to quote some of it here as a prompt to invite further discussion.

John writes:
"I've...heard a fair amount from various corners of the modern polytheist revival about explorations of monastic spirituality...it strikes me as a very good sign. Perhaps the most serious of the many weaknesses of the Neopagan movement is the extent to which it focuses on a purely social, outer-directed model of spirituality; the turn toward a more inner-directed spirituality on the part of contemporary polytheists, I think, is a much needed balancing factor."

"From an esoteric standpoint, monasticism is a potent source of positivity in any society that fosters it -- to have groups of people devoting their lives to prayer, meditation, and ritual balances out a lot of noxiousness."


One commenter mentions that Christian monastic traditions are centered on avoiding distractions, and asks what "monastic" could mean outside of Christianity. John answers (bold emphasis mine):

"One of the things going on in the polytheist revival is precisely the process of figuring that out. Most of the people I know who are following something that could be called polytheist monasticism started with a very broad ostensive definition -- "something like what monks do" -- and are proceeding to work out exactly what that means in the context of polytheist devotional and/or meditative spirituality.

"Historically, that's usually what happens. [..] Christian monasticism evolved slowly, over a period of several hundred years, as devout Christians felt called to a life in which prayer and devotion to God took precedence over everything else; responding to that call, they worked out institutions, practices, and customs that fostered a life of prayer and devotion within the context of Christian theology. The same thing happened in the history of Buddhist and Taoist monasticism -- I'm not familiar enough with the Hindu monastic tradition to be able to comment on that. The divine calls, and human beings who hear that call work out, over time, the shape of an answer. [...]

"The modern polytheist revival is very young -- that I know of, its first stirrings date all the way back to the 1970s -- and it's only in the last decade or so that some practitioners have begun to differentiate themselves from the ordinarily devout and begin pursuing the first tentative sketches of a monastic life. Which differences are essential and how they will express themselves in practice still have to be worked out.

"Premature definition is a serious danger here, not least because most existing models of monasticism have been powerfully shaped, first by the idiosyncratic concerns of Axial Age faiths and second by the distinctive needs of prophetic (as distinct from natural) religions. As I've argued in print, we're in the process of entering the post-Axial age, and the polytheist revival is one of the emerging crop of post-Axial religions. The polytheist revival is also natural rather than prophetic ("revealed") religion, as most obviously demonstrated by the distinct shortage of self-defined proclaimers of One True Way in polytheist circles. So it's going to take some time, and plenty of attentive listening to the gods, for the emerging polytheist monasticism to sort itself out."


Another commenter expresses interest in the idea of polytheistic monasticism, but wonders what counts as a monastic life when one does not live in a monastery:

"I live in a city, have no children, work minimally, and devote the rest of my time to self improvement on a spiritual level. Despite being in a city, I spend a lot of time in the natural world, because I have access to a large imperial park within walking distance. Spirituality is easily my number one focus in this lifetime, but does that mean I am monastic?"
 
John answers:

"Yes. Back when monasticism was common in the Western world, a solitary monastic -- one who did not live with others in a monastery -- was called a hermit or an anchorite. (The difference is that an anchorite took vows to remain in a single place -- usually a monastic cell -- while a hermit was more mobile.) It was a very common way to practice monasticism, and monastic rules intended for hermits and anchorites survive.

"The great majority of polytheist monastics today are hermits, since they're too few and widely scattered to make monasteries an option. That should begin to change over the next century or so."


I'm interested in hearing thoughts about this. Do you agree with John's assertion that a person who lives in a city, has no children, works minimally, spends a lot of time in nature, and prioritizes spirituality is a monastic? How should monastics "differentiate themselves from the ordinarily devout," as John puts it? Which differences are essential?

The thread also includes mentions of several possible models of spiritual community that could be relevant for polytheist monastics trying to build monastic traditions:

  • The Beguines
  • Lay Third Orders attached to existing monastic Orders such as Franciscans or Domenicans
  • The Monastic Academy in Vermont
  • Post-Vatican II uncloistered nun communities who have jobs and urban apartments
  • Martial monastic traditions such as the Knights Templar or Shaolin
  • Shugendo (Japanese mountain asceticism)

What are your thoughts on which of these models (if any) might be most useful and relevant for us as polytheist monastics trying to build new monastic traditions?

Any other thoughts about the discussion on John's journal?
« Last Edit: June 04, 2019, 11:06:02 AM by Danica Swanson »

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kkirner

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Re: John Michael Greer: Toward a New Monasticism
« Reply #1 on: June 04, 2019, 10:08:45 PM »
I find it challenging to assess what "ordinarily devout" is, and therefore, what constitutes "unusually devout."

Most of the OBOD Druids I know (not just in the US but also in Europe), are serious about their Druidry. Many aspire to daily practice, if not always realize it, and spend a lot of time on Druidic spirituality. Theologically, however, they range from agnostic or atheist to hard polytheist, since OBOD Druidry is not orthodoxic (it's also not really orthopraxic, but more like a shared worldview and values/ethics with some level of shared ritual experience and study/knowledge base). That said, I'm not sure that some of the Druids I know would say their religious endeavors come first. Or even more challenging, what does it mean for them to put religious practice first, if the goal of practice is in part to integrate one's spirituality into everyday life quite thoroughly?

It's even harder for me to figure out what "ordinarily devout" means in the broader world of Paganism.  It's easier if we start, perhaps, with polytheism as the foundational community, then query what polytheists do in devotion to their gods -- how often, how much, what and when and where and why... and then are there unusually devout folks?  I feel like I don't have enough data of the lay of the polytheist land to understand where I stand on that spectrum.
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Mdaoust245

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Re: John Michael Greer: Toward a New Monasticism
« Reply #2 on: July 21, 2019, 03:33:08 PM »
I feel that what really sets aside the polytheist monastic movement from the other pagans I've met and worked with is a) the solitude or communal aspect b) the devotion to individual deities and not necessarily paths and c) just overall seriousness about their spirituality.
I know it may sound shallow but in my experience, these really set apart the polytheist monastics. I don't fit in with the other pagans in my area at all because of this! I'm not saying they're not serious about their paths, but they won't take it to a level of devotional intensity that the monastic movement *seems * to. They don't want to live secluded from society or just dedicate their lives wholly to their path's workings. They tend to see their spirituality as a fun thing they do on the side, or as merely a part of their life, while I find for a monastic, their spirituality IS their whole life. There is also a rigidity of belief that the polytheist monastics have that other non-monastics just don't have. Not that monastics are inflexible, but they're 'solid' in their beliefs? They won't easily be swayed? It's a level of devotion and commitment I guess.
I hope I've brought something constructive to the table! Please be aware I'm speaking from limited awareness of the polytheist movement, so I could be totally wrong.

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James Miller

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Re: John Michael Greer: Toward a New Monasticism
« Reply #3 on: July 21, 2019, 06:01:03 PM »
As far as communities I think  Zen Monasteries and Monastic life developing  in the west would be good models to look at. The San Francisco Zen center and the attached Tassajara and Green gulch communities comes to mind. sfzc.org. I also think the New Monastic movement like  Shane Claiborne and related groups would also be insightful, esp when looking at married monastics, and folks with careers etc.

I find it challenging to assess what "ordinarily devout" is, and therefore, what constitutes "unusually devout." ...

It's even harder for me to figure out what "ordinarily devout" means in the broader world of Paganism.  It's easier if we start, perhaps, with polytheism as the foundational community, then query what polytheists do in devotion to their gods -- how often, how much, what and when and where and why... and then are there unusually devout folks?  I feel like I don't have enough data of the lay of the polytheist land to understand where I stand on that spectrum.

I think you are on to it here. There needs to be development in the monastic and 'lay' movements (and everything in between). In the development of lay and monastic communities in other traditions you see a back and forth between lay and monastic over time as they shape each other. Polytheism needs the monastic forms to grow and begin to grow so the lay and monastic can develop together similarly.
 I think the language is a bit hard to deal with in this situation. More and less devout sounds judgey.  I know in some groups (like Zen and Eastern Orthodox Church - EOC) some times monks and laity interact a lot. In some places Laity move near the monasteries in order to have some of that spirituality and life while not being monks.
 I have a friend in the EOC who is a monastic in a group in which he lives on his own and goes to a regular parish but lives a monastic rule and has a relation to a monastic order based a couple states away. (this is also a group that is EOC in theology but uses some Anglican forms). He is not seen as more devout- just (called to) on a different path.
I find the spectrum a good thing and I don't think devotion is really the determination between the, it is more about the type of rule they choose for their relation with the divine. Monastic and lay are a part of the same fabric in a community. I knowin some EOC groups family life is called the domestic monastery.