Click cloister to return to Essays page.

Click cloister to return to Essays page.


The British Isles are particularly rich in the ruins of medieval abbeys. Glastonbury in Somerset, Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire, Tintern in Wales and numerous others remind us of a tradition of community symbolised by the relics of a past culture. But the nineteenth century revival of monastic community life represented, for instance by the roman catholic communities of Downside, Ampleforth, Mount St Bernard Abbey and representatives of the twentieth century anglican communities at Nashdom/Elmore, and our own small monastery representing the Cistercians way of discipleship, have continued the tradition of community which flourished from the sixth century to the sixteenth century. Indeed the foundations of modern Europe owed much to monastic endeavour and vision. Modern agriculture has certain of its roots in the sheep rearing of the first Cistercians in Yorkshire.

Community life in the church was certainly only monastic for a long time until the arrival of Francis and Dominic in the thirteenth century and Ignatius in the sixteenth. But there have been others who have seen community life as belonging to a less structured way; indeed belonging to the whole way of life of the Christian. The modern communities, both roman catholic and anglican were founded with the aim of mission and service to the church in a different way to the old orders. Amongst Anglicans we could mention the Society of St John the Evangelist at Cowley and Mirfield. It is interesting, however, to notice how these communities, with many others, became for a time much more 'monastic' in outlook and practice. The 'ground' tradition, so to speak, lies with the purely monastic vision of prayer as the sole 'work of God', as it was called, and reappears from time to time in unexpected places. From the time of Antony in about 271 there were certain texts in the New Testament which were appealed to as expressing and also perhaps justifying this monastic way of community life. Such a text is the classic one from Matthew in which Jesus replies to the man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life -

"If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Matthew 19:26-30)

The life of Antony attributed to Athanasius, mentions this text, heard in church, as the turning point for Antony in his life. From that time he went deeper and deeper into the desert of Egypt to live as a hermit. He became the exemplar for all who were to follow in that way of discipleship, whether hermit or monk of the common life. Whatever the real origins of this dedicated community life - and we know too little to be sure - obviously there must have been some tendency in the early communities of Christians to respond to their new relationship with one another in Christ in this way. The reports in Acts of a common life, praying together in the temple and sharing their goods, may only be the idealism of the author who wishes to present the church in Jerusalem as the model for all Christian communities. But, taken together with the gospels' model of Jesus surrounded by an inner group of disciples with whom he shared substantially in a way of life, and also what we know of the existence and needs of the early communities of Christians, we see how the specifically community attrait seems to belong to the core of what has been called the Jesus tradition.

We need to note two factors which, in the first two hundred and fifty years combined to influence the path taken by the later 'monastic' communities. The first is the appeal to Scriptural texts, taken fairly literally, as the authority for embarking on a monastic life, whether hermit or coenobitic, rather than through an appeal to the whole gospel. This has already been noted in respect to the use of a text in the life of Antony to validate a sense of vocation to this particular ministry within the church. Secondly, as early as the time of Paul onwards, the holy man appeared on the scene.

"The apostle, or holy man himself becomes the locus of the divine presence in the world. This marks the beginning of an understanding of holiness which enabled a religious movement to internalise its radical demand when there seemed little possibility of radical change in the order of the world." (Christian Origins, by C. Rowland).

Not that Paul himself encouraged this, but certainly the situation in Corinth manifests a tendency to see certain charismatic Christians as leaders and, as it were, the mouthpiece of God. This virtual replacement of the presence and figure of Jesus as the centre of a local group or community had its repercussions most strongly in the monastic movement where a disciple depended upon a spiritual father or abba for a word of God to his situation. The later codified forms of monastic rules, as represented by Benedict and Basil, retain this 'fatherhood' in the form of the abbatial authority. But it was an obvious development to make in a situation where increasingly the monastic communities were becoming centres not only of the life of prayer but also trustees of education and a civilisation threatened by the onset of the 'Dark Ages' of Europe.

There is a sense in which the inner spiritual dynamics of monastic communities have not changed since the sixth century. There have been reforms of community living amongst monks as social pressures made new demands in almost every era. But these made no attempt to go back behind the late third and fourth century presuppositions about the gospel. It is a fact of early Christianity that the kernel of the gospel in the preaching of Jesus about the rule of the Father being at hand, at the very doors, and the sealing of that coming of God into history in and through Jesus' life and death and vindication by God, was soon absorbed into a more complex, otherworldly type of religious expression as the church faced, alternately, both repression and expansion.

In a previous paper we made an attempt to situate our Cistercian community life in the changing scene of the church and the world. Our understanding of what God is calling us to be in our life in the monastery was summarised in this way -

"We see ourselves as disciples of the present, exalted Christ, living out a daily awareness of the implications of that faith in the social context of our contemporaries here in England. Like them we are also concerned with the anxieties and the opportunities of working for our living. It is no longer possible to say that the contemplative monastic tradition is timeless and can continue in its basic traditional form without much radical structural change." (Ewell Monastery - A Cistercian Exploration).

Our community life is of such a nature that people with very different possibilities are able to participate in the community by an annual commitment, by temporary residence, as cells, and as friends as well as by a life promise. In this paper we hope to be able to express what community is. Obviously, community is part of the discipleship of every Christian. The Eucharistic fellowship is the community of Christ and his friends. It is that relationship between Christ and ourselves in monastic life which this paper explores, but it can be easily translated into other forms of community because basically all have the same root and the same possibility of growth through the Spirit. First of all there is an attempt to look at gospel as a whole. Then we shall seek to relate that understanding into terms which make gospel sense of community lived within a particular tradition, which for us is Cistercians.


We need to be careful not to regard gospel purely as a sort of biography of Jesus. To do this is to relegate it to the past. For many people this has been the strongest impression of what the gospel is about. It is also common enough knowledge that one of the most striking things about the New Testament writings is that when you have become accustomed to reading them regularly certain passages appear to take on an almost numinous quality. Phrases remembered become transparent and dynamic -

".... for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found"; ".... whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother"; "Jesus came and touched them, saying,'Rise, and have no fear'."

This is true not only of Jesus' teaching but also of Paul's writing. In part it is the communication of truth in poetic form but which touches the cords not only of the heart but of the understanding -

"If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come".

But there is also enigma in both the gospel sayings and in Paul - "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."; "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

But what is not often recognised is that phrases taken out of their context in, say one of Paul's arguments, can be entirely and dangerously misleading for Christian faith and worship and life. A good example of this is the profoundly resonating phrase in Galatians -

"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me ... "

Instead of remembering that this is intended to be the coup de grace to Paul's opponents who seem to have been hankering after Jewish law and customs and, as Paul says -

"quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel"

- it is often implied that the heart of gospel is the death of Christ. Paul would have been astonished at such an assertion. Christ for Paul is the one who is risen but who is to be identified with the same Jesus who was crucified. The gospel for Paul is about the living Lord Jesus Christ. Paul had an astonishing grasp of the wholeness of gospel considering that all he had to go on was the oral handing on of the life and sayings of Jesus. So how can we come to the same understanding of the gospel as Paul had? Because we have the four gospels the position is in many ways more complex for us. What is the intention of the gospel form of literature? It is not made easier by our having access to Paul's controversies with the early communities. We can, as we have just said, so easily fall into the trap of lifting one of his pithy sayings entirely out of context and then go on to read the gospel from that blinkered point of view.

In fact there are many levels of understanding of the 'gospel' in the gospels. But there is an overall view which will form the core of our argument here. Jesus is alive - the gospel is, above all else, a statement of that fact. So gospel is about the meaning of Jesus now - about faith in him; about his authority; about our relationship with God in Jesus and about the community resulting from that new life given to us. Everything holds together in the early Jesus tradition of gospel - teaching, healing, friendship, support, betrayal, death and resurrection - as the way of faith and as the true reflection of the Son of man and living Lord who comes to invite me to follow with him here and now. Let us look briefly at four aspects of that gospel tradition.

Jesus, Messiah and Lord

The story of Jesus is in fact the conclusion of the unfinished story of Israel. It is about the fulfilment of the covenant God made with his people. If we can say that the Jews had any hope for the future in the time of Jesus it was, perhaps, that God would restore the nation and Jerusalem and his rule would there be established over all the peoples of the world. But Jesus was an unlikely messiah to accomplish such a patriotic victory over the enemies of Israel. His whole story emphasises an entirely different outlook. In his relationships with all whom he met and in his actions, he revealed a faith in God who was intimate to him as a Father; an abba who would eventually vindicate this servant Jesus who was the type of the innocent sufferer often spoken of in the psalms. In many details, not easily noted except by close study of the gospels, the total 'Jewishness' of Jesus - the absolute continuity between himself and the promises of God to Israel - is in fact the guarantee of the reality of the claims made by the early Christian communities that -

"God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus who was crucified."

But Jesus was not a messiah for the nation of Israel alone but for all nations. Gospel is good news for all. Jesus, rather than some abstract theory of salvation is the hope to whom we can turn for new life now and in God's future. He is the Son of Man who not only gave sight to the blind and healed the epileptic and raised the dead but who also drove out the buyers and sellers in the temple. Unpredictable in terms of the Jewish understanding of Messiah in his own time, Jesus reveals both the holiness and truth of God and enables us to have faith, turning to him and following with him.

Jesus' authority

The gospel portrait of Jesus is of a man who has an innate sense of authority. Even taking for granted that the writing up of the oral traditions of Jesus would inevitably have coloured the reminiscences of what he said and did, nevertheless there remains a very powerful impression of one who can call others to follow with him and be certain of an instant response. One who can act in a situation with a total insight as with Zacchaeus, to restore a person's humanity and self-respect. One who in being transparently and utterly open to God was the vehicle of the love and compassion, as well as the judgement, of a God who was his abba, Father. So faith, we might say, was fostered by Jesus in all who turned to approach him. Such authority also gave meaning to life through the possibility of this new relationship with God. There was no sense of being called into a new coterie of believers. One might be sent back to one's neighbours after being healed to bear witness to that new life in God rather than being accepted as part of the active mission of the disciples.

The crucified and exalted Lord

The authority of Jesus is as apparent in his betrayal and passion as it was in the 'success' he had with individuals who came to him. What is most powerful in the passion narratives is the depiction of Jesus as one who had utter trust in his abba, God. Much has been made of the desolation of Jesus at the point of death. It is an obvious point. He was a man, vulnerable to all our weakness and suffering. But the intention of the gospel is not to depict one who can enable us to go through suffering because Jesus has already been through it all before us, but to tell us of the one whom God vindicated in death. The West has been obsessed with the suffering of Christ for many centuries now; for a variety of reasons. This has put out of balance the orientation of the gospel because an emphasis on the value of the suffering of Christ has seemed to make of resurrection simply a reversal of suffering, which does not tally with real life - it is unbelievable. But faith in the Father who vindicated Jesus in the whole process of passion, death & exaltation is of a piece with faith in the Jesus who ministered with such authority because of his faith in such a Father. We can believe that on the truth of gospel. God is faithful; Jesus is the obedient, suffering servant following the Father's leading.

In Christ

Jesus' meals with his disciples and friends, and particularly the last supper, became a sort of model for the new Christian understanding of worship. Christ, the crucified and risen Master was with them in their thanksgiving for what God had done in and through Jesus. The meeting of the disciples together after Easter became the sacrament of their new relationship together with and in Christ. As the new communities grew and became stronger, their outward concern mirrored the teachings of Christ for the poor and the outcast of society. If this was a slow process within the limits of being a proscribed religion, yet Paul was already putting into words what was the reality of the gospel that through faith we are one body in Christ Jesus. The church as an icon of God's new creation which is to be fulfilled in all creation, in the Spirit, in his time, was only an instrument for the extension of God's rule, his kingdom. But as such, the internal bonds of Christians are very strong and represent the 'ideal' community, reflecting the relationship between the Father and Christ in the Spirit. The gospel communicates this new idiom of a way of life - a sharing with one another in Christ and a participation in the mystery of God. Community in the Christian sense is just that - a way of life which one may share with others or not, as one is called by Christ. We may risk taking a sentence out of context which describes very graphically the reality of what gospel seems to have meant in the early days - the apostles being released from prison were told by the Lord -

"Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life" (Acts 5:20)

Monastic Community

It is likely, then, as we hinted above, that Christians felt the call of Christ to live the Life together, one way or another. We have no actual evidence beyond the general information in Athanasius' Life of Antony that before Antony answered the call in this particular way, there were others living together in their own villages. But as is well known, in the fourth century the ascetic movement burgeoned for one reason or another. It cannot have all been a flight from the church which was becoming, it is said, rather lukewarm with the state approval given to it by Constantine. But we are not concerned with these origins which have been well documented and there are suggestions for further reading at the end of this paper. What does concern us is that within the monastic tradition we need to be looking more closely at 'gospel' for the life to take root in us. So let us take the features already briefly mentioned above and see what their interpretation in community life looks like.

Calling into community

As Christian community is not an option in the Christian way of life, but all, in Christ, are in the community of Christ's friends expressed particularly in eucharist, so entry to a particular sharing of the life in common is obviously by the call of Christ. The person needs to know that she or he is in Christ already. For if the inner freedom in the grace of Christ has not been experienced already by the aspirant, it will not be easily enabled by the life in common, which assumes that this has 'happened'. On the other hand, if that freedom in Christ has taken hold of the person then in the community there is a wide space of love in which to grow to maturity. The relationship of each person with Christ in the Spirit is the sine qua non of good relationships within the community. The Rule of Benedict speaks in the Prologue of establishing in the monastery a 'school of the Lord's service'. This is true but it is not a primary school that is envisaged; or a reformatory! But it is, in modern terms, more like a university where the individual freely puts himself or herself to school with a great desire to enter more deeply into the friendship of Christ and to share this with others. Cistercian life had a great apostle of this approach to community in the person of Aelred of Rievaulx and the well-known 'humanism' of the Cistercians still encourages those who seek the maturity of a whole life of freedom in Christ.

The heart of community

Specific community life in the form of monasticism began to appear at about the same time as there were changes in the wider church. Expansion and the conflict with gnosticism and Judaism, not to mention the pagan cults, made flexible decisions about the structure of the church more difficult to achieve. As an example of the subtle changes that were made we can note the clericalisation of worship in which the priest ministered for rather than with the people. Also, as we mentioned above, the holy man appeared early and the cult of the martyrs further emphasised a view of the life as now much more separated from Christ than the New Testament suggests. Christ was at least one or two places removed from the Body if one can envisage that! The priests and holy men were the 'go-betweens', representing the people almost as in Judaism. So the authority of Christ was to be represented now by the bishop and in monasticism by the abbot. The Rule of Benedict states the commonly received view of the sixth century, that -

"the abbot is believed to be the representative of Christ in the monastery, and for that reason is called by a name of his." (Rule of Benedict, chapter 2)

But community in gospel terms is centred round Christ present to us all. The re-structuring of community life in the form of community, in worship and in the status of every member needs to be according to that presupposition. As we noted above, appeal has most often been made to isolated texts in the New Testament. But now we need to have as our guide the whole gospel orientation as we have tried to present it. Over the centuries the institutionalisation of monasticism has proceeded pari passu with that of the church in the dioceses. Obviously there is need of structure, but in community life it can be a flexible minimum in order to maintain the shape of the life of gospel. That seems to be the priority and when it becomes the vision of the community then there is a chance of a common mind, a common searching for truth, a reality of life in Christ as day follows day.


While the work of worship and prayer is the privilege of every Christian, expressing their response to Christ and a participation in the Spirit in the life of the Father, specific community life is organised to make this 'work of God', as it was called, both more frequent and also capable of permeating the daily life more thoroughly than is possible in a 'private' life in society. However, as in the other areas we have touched upon, the dead hand of tradition has made it difficult to recover the free prayer of the Spirit apart from much searching around and seeking guidance from this guru or that. Putting it bleakly, there is an inheritance of 'methods' and techniques which seem to cast a baneful shadow over the friendship of the group or the individual with the Galilean Son of Man. As with the tendency of the church in the West for many centuries to put the death of Christ at the heart of its understanding of gospel, so in worship and prayer we have been constrained for a long time to think in terms of getting into touch with God by methods sacramental and the 'technology' of the spiritual life. It is interesting to note how the blossoming of the English mystics in the fourteenth century occurred at a time when the worshipping life of the church was at a low ebb. But the sundering of corporate and individual worship is the denial of gospel, making prayer into an assault course for the individual and reducing worship to a rite. Community according to gospel should enable corporate worship to be the space where the individuals may deepen their relationship in faith with Christ and so make their contribution to the clarity and depth of worship. It is there that they learn that 'prayer' is quite simply an opening of oneself to the presence of Christ and the Father in the Spirit. Growth in that real relationship with Christ is the straightforward task of prayer - and more prayer! Such prayer begins with union in relationship and grows into friendship and a life of holiness.


If the worship and prayer of the community and the individual is rooted in the reality of the gospel understanding of a relationship with the living Lord, present to us, then the actual task of living out that life becomes clearer. It is in daily life that we are conformed to the death of Jesus. Putting the risen and present Lord at the centre of Christian discipleship does not imply that we deny the reality either of his crucifixion or the problems of human suffering; still less that we bypass these human encounters with the forces of evil and non-being. Like every other member of Christ's community, the monk has no other answer to the problem of suffering than the hope held out to us by Christ himself. It is only as we allow today to pass over continually into tomorrow in an obedience to the love of Christ leading us onward that we have an answer. Stability is our response in community to the faithfulness of the Father who will raise us up with Jesus.


Derwas J. Chitty The Desert A City, Blackwell, 1966

David Knowles Christian Monasticism, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1969

Justin McCann The Rule of St Benedict, Burns Oates, 1963

C.F.D. Moule Worship in the New Testament, Lutterworth,1964

The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd edn, Harper & Row

A.M. Ramsey Jesus & the Living Past, Oxford, 1980

C.Rowland Christian Origins, SPCK, 1985

E. Schweizer Lordship & Discipleship, SCM, 1960

Jesus. SCM, 1971

Jesus Christ. SCM, 1989

Aelred Squire Aelred of Rievaulx, SPCK, 1969

J.V. Taylor Kingdom Come. SCM, 1989

N.T. Wright The New Testament & the People of God,

Vol 1, SPCK, 1992

Vol 2, Jesus & the Victory of God, SPCK, 1996

Click cloister to return to the top of the page.