Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 7, 2008

On Monks, Old and New

Mar Gabriel Monastery in Turkey, Taken by music group Psalters

Those of you who have followed Marking Time since its inception in the summer of 2006 –all two of you– will recall that when I began, I had Lebanese actor Tony Shalhoub (as tv detective Adrian Monk) up here as my background photo. Although I do like that show, it was really the tangential monastic tie-in that caused me to use that figure as a starting point.

The monkish tradition has long been of interest to me. Having grown up Roman Catholic, I was occasionally exposed to the practices and history of the Benedectines, the Trappists, and the Franciscans. (Plus there were all those cute molded, cement St. Francis statues I saw around in people’s gardens.) Then when I experienced a deepening of my faith through various Protestant ministries as an adult, I kind of put the whole monastic thing on hold, for a little while. But I did not, nor have I ever, thrown out my past or present experience with Catholics and monks as invalid or incomplete.

If anything, the message and methods of the “first church” have continued to be a voice that keeps me rooted, occasionally calling me back across the bridge to spend some time with my ancestral teachers, brothers and sisters. The consistent Roman Catholic application of the gospel to problems of social justice, for example, inspire me to make more radical choices in how I follow Jesus’ lead as a peacemaker and prophet of pain.

Thus, while wandering around some of my favored internet neighborhoods this morning (most notably the Potter Street Community/Simple Way site, featuring noted author Shane Claiborne), I clicked through to a blog maintained by some members of Psalters, a punkish, gypsy, neo-granola, somewhat monastic (but mostly Protestant?) music group that has been turning heads for a few years now. What really turned my head today was a section of the blog about their tour of Turkey. Here’s an excerpt:

Just east of there we found the oldest monastery in the world, Mar Gabriel.   Founded in 397a.d. it housed a large library and some 2000 monks as recently as the 1960’s.   Now there are 3 monks and a handful of others left to care for the several large buildings.   We met with the Bishop to see if there was a way we could build a relationship with the church here in America and perhaps in some way help.   Bishop Samuel Aktash, with a full beard and robes, … was a kind and resolute man but with the countenance of the heavy burdened and worn down.   For most of our questions, including our offers to help, he kind of just shrugged and said, “hmm” or “i don’t know”….his answers and manner conveyed more of a solemn perseverance that seemed to fall short of actual Hope.   They speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) yet are banned from teaching the language to anyone.   They are “permitted” to be Christian, but are not allowed to share it.   At one point he told us, “you have heard the great stories of the martyrs.   Here we are not killed anymore, but we are not allowed to live.   We as a people are being made a museum like this monastery.   We are living martyrs.”

I will not add comment, as the words speak for themselves. The Spirit will break your heart as He/She sees fit. Suffice it to say we should pray for the minority Christians in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Mesopotamian region that gave birth to what we now call civilization. Our Western churches have their roots there, especially in Turkey, whether we like it or not.

Some of the current groups, like Psalters, that now carry forward the values and commitment inherent in the monastic tradition will be gathering this summer for the PAPA Festival (People Against Poverty & Apathy), in the little central Illinois town of Tiskilwa. Intentional Christian communities, activists, gardeners, and neo-hippies from around the country will gather at PAPAfest for music, prayer, workshops and other creative endeavors, building a temporary village and a big home-made happening, all to explore the living out of these ancient but still relevant monastic values. (I may be doing a workshop there, …just now starting to look into it.) I think it’s going to be a bit like the progressive Christian version of the Burning Man Festival. But attendance is capped at 1000 people, so don’t go spreading the word about it unless you’re serious about coming and absolutely have to drag a few friends along. The website and other details are still in-process, but registration begins next week.

For a U.S. monastery that functions as both a museum and a high-functioning religious pilgrimage site, take a look at Thomas Merton’s old Kentucky abbey, Gethsemani. Established in 1852, it’s a Cistercian (Trappist) abbey, and one of the grand old dames of prayer and peace-producing action in America. Merton’s hermitage is there, and they host retreatants of any and all religious persuasions, so it’s got both educational and spiritual possibilities for those of you looking to explore the field further.

I will move on now to a few other somewhat random links to matters monastic:

In Three Rivers, Michigan, there’s a modest little Episcopal abbey and retreat center called St. Gregory’s Abbey. Although I have never done an overnight there, I have visited for a few hours, sat in on their vespers prayers in the architecturally amazing chapel, and walked the grounds a bit. I also have friends who have done some truly life-changing retreats there. If you live anywhere in the northeastern Illinois or Michiana regions, it is a nice getaway for both personal and small group retreat experiences. If you live elsewhere, look into whether a monastery near you offers either silent or guided retreats. There’s bound to be one nearby, but they like to hide, like the hermits in caves that taught them everything they needed to know.

Heading in another, admittedly odd direction, I’m also a fan of the old monastic tradition of making wine and other “spirits”. My favorite liquer, for example, is Frangelico, a woundrous Italian monk-brewed concoction of hazelnut and spices that you never forget once you taste it. In August of ’06, in a Marking Time blog on gardening and grape-growing, I had this to say about Frangelico:

(I call it “angel drool”, and I have it on good authority that it’s the one alcohol, besides wine, of which Yahweh fully approves.)

Similarly, my favorite winemakers are the people of Franciscan Oakville Estates in California. Disclaimer: the irony of this fancy, slightly expensive, non-religious winery and website pimping the name of the original “simple living” monk is not lost on me. Nevertheless, their Cabernet Sauvignon is a very good wine, and we all gotta make a living, right? So I’ll forgive them their excesses. Maybe they donate all the profits to the poor. (Yeah, right…)

So look around! Monks are not a thing of the past. They’ve just changed how they dress, and where they live. They’re still alive and well, mostly. May their witness and their radical love endure forever.



  1. […] Marking Time wrote an interesting post today on On Monks, Old and NewHere’s a quick excerptThe consistent Roman Catholic application of the gospel to problems of social justice, for example, inspire me to make more radical choices in how I follow J … music group that has been turning heads for a few years now…. […]

  2. […] Winds of Change.NET wrote an interesting post today on On Monks, Old and NewHere’s a quick excerptSuffice it to say we should pray for the minority Christians in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Mesopotamian region that gave… […]

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