THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Sign Of Jonah And A New Monasticism, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

sign of jonah

From On Heart, One Soul, Mary Forman, editor

I am a representative of the Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina.  The celebration of one hundred fifty years at Saint John’s is a reminder to me of just how new we are.  We’ve only been around for three years.  The Rutba House takes its name from a little town in the western desert of Iraq, where my wife, Leah, and I were at the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq with a group called the Christian Peacemaker Teams.  When American friends of ours were seriously injured in a car accident, some Iraqis stopped by the roadside and picked them up.  They carried our bleeding friends to this town called Rutba.  When they got there the doctor said to them, “Three days ago your country bombed our hospital, but we will take care of you.”  He sewed up their heads and saved their lives.  When I asked the doctor what we owed him for his services, he said, “Nothing.  Please just tell the world what has happened in Rutba.”

The more we told that story after returning from Iraq, the more we realized that it was a Good Samaritan story.  The Iraqis, who were supposed to be our enemies, had stopped by the roadside, pulled our friends out of the ditch, and saved their lives.  God gave us a sign of his love and sent a Good Iraqi to teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We knew that we had to find a way to live into that love back here in America.

So, we started a little community of hospitality and called it Rutba House.  A couple of folks came to join us, and we were energized by the thought that our faith could become a way of life.  But we didn’t know what we were doing.  We did sense that we were part of something larger than ourselves.  So, we wrote to every intentional Christian community, live-in church, Protestant order, and conventional monastery we knew of and asked them to join us in Durham for a time of discernment about what the Holy Spirit is up to in America.  About seventy-five folks came from a dozen or so communities.

After four days of talking, listening, praying, and eating together, the group discerned twelve practices that mark new communities like ours in the United States today.  Stories of others from other places resonated with our story at Rutba House.  Scholars among us who knew church history recognized in our stories streams that run deep in the church’s story.  We committed ourselves to dig deep in the scriptures and tradition for wisdom that would help us live into the long history of Israel and the church.  The more we dug, the more we sensed ourselves caught up in a movement that we dubbed, a “new monasticism.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees when they ask him for a sign.  He shoots back an accusation: they do not know how to read the signs of the times.  He is frustrated because the Pharisees can’t see what God is doing.  For all their study of scripture, they do not know God when they meet him face-to-face.  How could a sign help them when they fail to recognize God in human flesh?  The only sign they will be given, Jesus says, is the sign of Jonah.

The sign of Jonah is an allusion to Jesus’s resurrection after three days in the grave, just as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish before God had him spit out on the shore.  “The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian,” Thomas Merton wrote, “is signed with the sign of Jonah.”  We are a resurrection people, marked by the gift of new creation.  But Merton also reminds us of the tension in Jonah’s story: “Like Jonas himself,” Merton said, “I find myself traveling toward my destination in the belly of a paradox.”

The new monasticism can be described today as a witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in the belly of the paradox called America.  It is a way of life that our communities have received as good news right here in the midst of the world’s last remaining superpower.  This statement certainly does not mean to say that the Holy Spirit is not at work outside America – just that, for better or worse, this is where we have sojourned.  If the new monasticism is a movement, it is more like a river that we have fallen into than a march that we organized.  We stumbled into this way of life by the grace of God and continued efforts to practice the gift of resurrection in the belly of the beast.

In short, to use Matthew’s language, we got to where we are by trying to read the signs of the times.  Three of those signs will be mentioned today: Iraq, Katrina, and immigration, which are indicative signs of the twenty-first century.  First, there is Iraq.  The United States declared war on terror in 2001 and said that our national security demanded aerial bombardment, invasion, and occupation of Iraq in 2003.  Leaders of almost every major denomination of the church said that such a war would be unjust.  Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Christians were deployed to the Middle East and have fought a war whose futility is increasingly manifest to a majority of Americans.  Now it is important that we read the sign carefully.  I do not want to be another liberal who says America was imprudent and all we need is a new president in 2008.  My point is not to argue politics (at least, not in any conventional sense).  My point is to say that Iraq is a sign of the times for Christians.  That the American church was powerless to do what its just-war tradition and all its bishops said it should do in Iraq shows us just how hard it is to be Christian in America.

Katrina is another sign.  America will not soon forget those pictures of desperate black faces in the Superdome, looking as if they had caught a glimpse of hell.  Of course, by now the dead have been buried, the homeless relocated, the emergency relieved.  And our churches have demonstrated a great deal of compassion in ministries of hospitality, relief, and reconstruction.  We feel better about Katrina.  But we cannot let our ministry keep us from reading this sign of the times.  Katrina exposes the persistence of white supremacy and economic disparity in the Body of Christ.  I heard a story about a white minister in North Carolina who, when he saw the initial news coverage of Katrina, commented to his wife that he didn’t know New Orleans was such a black city.  Of course, it wasn’t.  Poor African Americans were left behind by fellow citizens of New Orleans who only thought to look out for themselves.  But again, horrible as it is, human selfishness should not surprise us.  We know that people are broken by sin.  This is the real tragedy: not many white Christians stopped on their way out of New Orleans to offer a ride to their black sisters and brothers.  The tragedy is that it didn’t even occur to them – and that it most likely would not occur to us if Katrina happened in our towns.  Katrina is a sign to us that, when the pressure is on, we Christians have not learned to love one another as Christ loved us.

Quickly, a third sign is the current immigration debate.  Within the logic of nation-state politics and democratic capitalism, it makes sense that a country must defend its borders, control immigration, and protect its economic interests.  Debates between liberals and conservatives in American politics have been about how best to do this.  But as people adopted into the family of God, we share our most fundamental citizenship with brothers and sisters from Mexico and Latin America who are being forced by the global economy to leave family and home, risk death in the desert, and work illegally in America.  Catholics are faced with this sign even more clearly than most Americans.  Just go to Mass in any U.S. city – or many rural parishes, for that matter – and look who is eating with you at the Lord’s table.  Christ says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)  But America calls that “harboring an illegal alien.”  The signs of the times say it is hard to be Christian in America.

Of course, this is made even more difficult by the fact that America and Christianity are so often equated.  The United States Constitution forbids the establishment of any religion, but that has not kept president after president from quoting Christian scripture, proclaiming America as a “city on a hill,” and ending every speech with, “God bless the United States of America.”  The result has been an unestablished state church of pseudo-Christian civil religion.  In his recent book, The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh writes that this social reality, particularly in the segregated American South of the mid-twentieth century, “bore striking analogies to fourth-century Christianity after the Edict of Milan in 313 brought an end to Christian persecution and Theodosius I in 380 made the Roman Empire an orthodox Christian state.”  At precisely that moment in history, Marsh asserts, when church and empire became difficult to differentiate, “men and women were needed who could offer their lives as testimonies to the crucial difference between loyalty to God and loyalty to nation.”  So, the Desert Fathers and Mothers left the empire’s cities and the first monastic movement began.  It was when ultimate loyalty became hard to discern that the Spirit began to stir.  She stirred again in Saint Benedict to establish the way of life represented here at Saint John’s.  And she stirred in the twelfth century, at the height of the Crusades, to lead Francis and Dominic into a new form of monasticism.  The Bridgefolk group that met here recently has helped me to see that the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, was, likewise, a new monastic movement that produced a community of faithful witness at a time of compromise in the church’s history.  Here, on United States soil, the Spirit stirred again in cotton fields and brush arbors to start a new monastic movement in the slave churches of the South.  To this day, members of the black Baptist church that my wife and I are part of in our neighborhood call one another brother and sister, just as folks do here in the monastery.,

As our communities have tried to read the signs of the times and the Spirit’s movement in church history, it seems to us that the Spirit is stirring again – stirring to lead us into a new monasticism.  We stumbled into this way of life by asking, “What would it mean to pledge our allegiance to God alone?”  It seemed to us that God was offering another kingdom, an alternative politics, that is, a whole new way of life for his people in the world.  We noted the social relocation associated with monastic movements and said God was calling us to the “abandoned places of empire.”  We learned about Sabbath, manna, and the Jubilee, and started “sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.”  We considered our adoption as children of God and committed ourselves to “hospitality to the stranger” and “lament for racial division, combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.”  We felt the temptation to think we were doing something radically new and decided instead on “humble submission to Christ’s body, the church,” maintaining relationships of accountability with local churches.  We learned from the monastic practice of a novitiate and have used it to introduce new people to our communities’ way of life.  We said we would love one another as God has loved us, “nurturing common life among members.”  When we came together as communities, some of us were married and some of us were single, so we pledged “support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.”  We are committed to live together and to stick around for the long haul.  We noted how connection to place helped us see the need to “care for the plot of God’s earth given to us” while also supporting local economies.  We felt blessed by God’s peace in a violent world and pledged ourselves to “peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution” among ourselves.  We said that all this would only be possible if held together by the “commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”  And we prayed that God would lead us, day-by-day.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of this journey has been the response of American Christians.  When we published a book of essays on these twelve marks with a little press run by a sister community in Oregon, we hardly expected anyone outside of our communities to read it.  Having considered the signs of the times, we had little hope that the American church would take interest.  But in the past few years we have been overwhelmed by people saying, “This is just what I’ve been looking for.”  The Christian Century and Christianity Today ran cover stories on new monasticism last fall.  When Time magazine called in spring 2006 to do a story on what they called this “new movement in American Christianity,” I said, “You know we’re talking about, at most, a couple thousand people living this way.  I mean, most towns have churches bigger than this movement.”  But new communities are springing up faster than I can keep up with them.  It seems that, indeed, the Spirit is stirring.

And I’m reminded once again of old Jonah – how he didn’t want to take God’s word to the Ninevites, and how, when they heard and repented, he was disappointed by God’s mercy.  I’m reminded how much bigger God’s vision for redemption is than what we can imagine.  And I’m excited to be here today with some who’ve been on the monastic way for centuries and others, like me, who are just getting started.  May we, like the good homeowner of Jesus’s parable, take from our storage rooms some things old and some things new as we discern how God is leading us to be his people in the world today.

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