“Something new is bubbling—the Spirit has got a cauldron going, and stuff is bubbling up!” says a beaming Canon Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, vocations co-ordinator at the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD), when asked about the new monastic movement and its relation to her convent’s latest project.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s youth-targeting Community of St. Anselm gears up this fall, SSJD is planning a program of its own aimed at introducing young women to the monastic life—but with a difference.
Beginning next September, the sisterhood plans to host up to 10 young women a year at its convent in north Toronto. Like the 36 young men and women of the Community of St. Anselm, participants in SSJD’s Companions on the Way program will spend 12 months praying, studying and doing mission work.
And like many recently-founded spiritual communities, the Companions program, Gefvert says, will be inspired by new monasticism, a less formal approach to spiritual community that evolved in the late 20th century. “The church is not going to be the same 50 years from now—it’s going to look completely different from what it looks like now. And so is the monastic life. These kinds of experiments are ways of trying to fall in with the Spirit.”
What will make the program unique, she says, is that its participants will form a community-within-a-community at the convent. “It’s a new-monastic kind of community that we want to develop—a provisional one…in the sense that people may be part of it for a period of time in their life.”
There are communities that exist for young people in some dioceses around the country, and within other denominations, Gefvert says. “But ours will be the only one that I know of where we’re intentionally developing a new monastic-style community within an established community.”
New monasticism first arose, Gefvert says, out of a realization that spiritual community would need to change in order to respond to the modern world—a world completely different from the one in which the monastic movement began. Many in the movement look back to a statement by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as expressing its core principle; in a 1935 letter, Bonhoeffer wrote that the church would be renewed only by “a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.”
Says Gefvert’s fellow SSJD sister, Sue Elwyn, “All of it is coming from a sense that the old church is really useful for certain people and not useful at all for many others. And how do we live a Christian life and present Christianity, evangelize, in ways that all people can find something attractive? It’s very much about thinking outside the box.”
Part of the Companions program’s new monastic character, the sisters say, will be its targeting of a relatively broad range of young women.
She notes that there are millennials who are part of meditation groups and other spiritual practices. “They may not be completely convinced of all the phrases of the Apostles’ Creed and be able to say they believe all that and be baptized. But they would be welcome as seekers or semi-seekers,” Elwyn says.
The only real requirement beyond those of sex and age—the program is open to women 22-40—is that would-be Companions intend to be followers of Jesus, she says. “I think that’s really the point of it, whatever that ‘being-a-follower-of-Jesus’ means. It may not mean being baptized in a particular denomination…and they certainly don’t have to be Anglican.”
Women are already free to live temporarily at the convent, without taking vows, by participating in its “Alongsider” program. But Alongsiders come one or two at a time, and live in the same wing as the convent’s 19 sisters. Companions, on the other hand, will all arrive together and live in their own space, with a common area of their own, in the convent’s guest house. They’ll join the other sisters for prayer four times a day, and will have classes in spiritual formation, the monastic tradition and discernment. “Part of what we’ll be doing is helping them discern vocation,” Gefvert says. The women will also be given work assignments—some of it likely at the convent itself and at the nearby hospital run by the sisters, but most of it outside in community ministries. They’ll also have time for their own silent prayer and spiritual reading—and, in general, the room to develop spiritual leadership skills to take back to the larger church.
“We want to help this group of young women to form a kind of new monastic community of their own that will be supported by this community,” she says. “We want to make sure that we actually develop them as a community….So they don’t just think they’re coming in, and we’re absorbing them.”
The program will be free of charge to participants; the sisters are applying for funding from various sources, and are paying part of its costs themselves. The program will go ahead regardless of how much funding they get, Gefvert says.
“We’ve always risked in this way,” she says. “Every ministry the sisters have started has been, in a way, out-of-pocket and then we look for ways to support that….We get the vision first, and then we raise the money!” she says, smiling.
Companions can also get academic credits from their study at the convent, which will amount to one course per term.
The sisters say the idea for the Companions program arose four or five years ago, out of discussions on how to encourage younger women to join the convent. Attracting young women to the Alongsiders program, they say, has not always been easy.
“It’s hard for a woman, say, in her 20s, to come into a community where most of the sisters, or all of the sisters, are at least her mother’s age, and there’s a generation gap there,” Gefvert says. “We felt it was going to work better if they came as a group.”
The sisters say they’re hoping to learn a lot from the program as well—about the spiritual needs of people in the millennial generation, and about why technology and social media seem so important to them, for example. They want to be able to better respond to the digital generation “by understanding that desire for connection, as well as a deep desire for spiritual connection with God, which millennials have, but don’t always have a place to express, because the church is irrelevant to them.
“I think what all of us see in the culture that we’re living in, which is post-Christian, post-interest-in-going-to-church-as-an-institution is this deep, deep longing for something more, and they can’t always identify what it is, but it’s coming from what’s inside.”
Does she mean that the modern attachment to social media actually reflects an unconscious yearning for God?
No, Gefvert says. At least, not exactly.
“The desire for communion is something that’s built into the human soul, somehow,” she says, after reflecting for a moment. It starts, she says, with an infant’s attachment to its mother. “That sense of intimacy which is very physical and incarnational is also very deeply spiritual. And I think that’s something about the Christian religion being incarnational. So you can’t really separate the desire for God, the divine or the holy from a desire for human connection.”
At the heart of the Companions program will be prayer. Prayer, the sisters say, is a skill that has to be learned, and the spiritual resources the Companions will take away from the program will really come out of their prayer. Indeed, historically, say Gefvert and Elwyn, renewal in the church has often issued from the monasteries, because of the centrality of prayer to the monastic life. Elwyn cites a string of examples throughout the history of the church, from the time of the Desert Fathers in the late Roman Empire to the reformer Martin Luther, whose influential 95 Theses arose from his monastic contemplation as an Augustinian, and beyond.
“That intimate, solitary, silent connection with God is what the monastics believed fueled the work of the church,” Elwyn says.
Conversely, she says, history has shown that Christian life, no matter how zealous, loses its way unless it is centred on prayer.
“If you get people strongly involved in social justice—the missional church—and strongly involved in the evangelical movement, the pentecostal movement, whatever—eventually, if they don’t have a strong prayer life, they’re going to burn out,” she says. “And the monastic tradition—to my mind, the core of the traditional monastic tradition—is providing those means of recharging your batteries to do the rest of the work. And that’s what I think our community has to offer, because that’s what we do.”