Is Evangelical Monasticism an Option?

| January 4, 2016

Decades ago I spent a year investigating the growth and expansion of monasticism from the deserts of Egypt to Ireland’s rugged west coast, from the Benedictine stronghold of Monte Cassino to the northwestern European sites associated with the Cistercians. My supervisor (a Jesuit medievalist) was a university historian teaching with the permission of his monastic superior. The challenge lay in the fact that as an evangelical believer, I lacked conversation partners who—sharing my convictions—were also reading historians of medieval monasticism such as R. W. Southern, David Knowles, and Jean Leclerq. Who did I know that was also attempting the “feat” of learning both to admire exemplary monastics (Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance) and critique some unwholesome emphases found in monastic movements? There was no one.

What a difference a few decades have made. Now, Christian antiquity and ancient Christian spirituality are much more often “hot topics” among evangelicals than at any time in memory. Whereas earlier one had no choice but to take as guides the Roman Catholic historians of monasticism and European medievalists, today one can find Protestants writing in this field. Names such as D. H. Williams (Baylor) and John Van Engen (Notre Dame) come to mind. Evangelicals researching monasticism and spirituality do not labor…

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