“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from 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. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer (January 14, 1935)
In the past several months, the topic of monasticism has come up on a few of the message boards in which I participate. As a lay person whose background has been indelibly influenced by a Catholic Benedictine heritage, I owe a great deal of who I am today by the monastic experience. What made these particular conversations interesting is that the kind of monasticism being discussed is not that of Buddhism or the many traditional forms familiar to the West, but Gnostic Monasticism.
Although we can be fairly certain that there were never any Gnostic monasteries in the 1st through 2nd centuries of the common era, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in Egypt indicate at least somewhat that what many contemporary Gnostics hold dear as scripture was once read and written in the very heart of the Orthodox expression of Monasticism. What is monasticism and why does it still exist? What would a Gnostic Monastery look like – is it even needed? There are many considerations to look at, but here are my observations for what they’re worth.
Monasticism as a Christian expression of vocation to religious life developed fairly early on in the history of the Church. Models of the Christian monastic ideal included groups and individuals such as the Nazirites, Moses, Elijah and the Hebrew prophets whereas New Testament figures such as John the Baptizer and the itinerant evangelization of the apostles tended to play a more prominent role. It is also very likely that early Christian monasticism could have also been influenced by the Essenes located near the Dead Sea as well as the Therapeutae of Alexandria.
Institutionalized Christian monasticism first appears to have taken root in the 3rd Century in the deserts of 4rd Century Egypt with the likes of Paul the Hermit, Anthony of Great and Pachomius. Around 350CE, Martin of Tours introduced monasticism to the West and a little over a century later, Benedict of Nursia established the Regula Benedicti (Rule of Saint Benedict) that led to him being credited with the title of father of western monasticism. By the time monasticism made inroads into the West, Benedict describes four different types of monks that were common around the time the text was penned:
“It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind are the Cenobites: those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot. The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits: those who, no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, but after long probation in a monastery, having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites… They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful. The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues (lit. ‘circuit wanderers’). These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.”
In the West, monastic communities tend to be organized into orders or congregations following a particular canon or rule such as the Rule of Saint Benedict or the Rule of Saint Augustine. In the East, monastic regulae (rules) never took root in the same way as in Western monasticism; instead, monks and nuns are encouraged to read Scripture and the writings of the Holy Mothers and Fathers and emulate their virtues. In both Eastern and Western examples, there are elements of active and contemplative life is more or less equally possible amongst religious although, in some orders, one may take precedence.
An example of a form of proto-neo-Gnostic monasticism can be found in the establishment of the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalù, founded by the early 20th Century occultist Aleister Crowley. The Abbey of Thelema, name borrowed from François Rabelais’s satire Gargantua and Pantagruel is described as a sort of “anti-monastery” where the lives of the inhabitants were “spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure.” It was through The Abbey of Thelema that Crowley had hoped to create an intentional community which would function as a type of esoteric school, giving it the designation Collegium ad Spiritum Sanctum, a “College Towards the Holy Spirit”. Despite only lasting three years, the Abbey of Thelema remains an ideal of a functioning, magical utopia by many contemporary followers of the magical and ethical philosophy of Thelema.
Amongst adherents of contemporary Christian Gnosticism, it would be difficult to imagine what form a modern monastic community would take due to incomplete data regarding the number of adherents of the various denominations. Because of this incomplete data and gaps in geography of members, it would stand to reason that a contemporary Gnostic monastic project would have to function independently from individual denominations or be ecumenical to such an extent that it could provide communally and individually for members belonging to particular denominations while also providing for both singles and committed couples. The model for such a community could be similar to that of the 1st and 2nd Century Therapeutae or those established by the Joachimites or the Brethren of the Free Spirit, two lay Christian movements which flourished in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Providing for physical space, a Gnostic monastic project would (in the United States) have to register as a tax-exempt, non-profit entity and accommodate for living, dining and community areas. In urban areas, following the model of the new monastic movement, such a group could potentially purchase housing or loft space in areas of a city that would be amenable for remodeling and have access to transportation into the cities. In less urban or even rural areas, it would be conceivably easier to construct a community that would ideally fit the needs of the community as well as provide for agricultural and such space as could be used to befit the specific mission of the project as is done in more conventional communes such as by the Cistercians or Mennonite communities.
As with the New Monastic Movement, a Gnostic Monastery Project would be able to provide a space where members may live thoughtful, prayerful, and contemplative lives in the context of a community and focus on engagement of a particular charism (e.g. education, social service, food services, plastic arts, construction, etc.). In a Christian monastic context, the Twelve Marks could be easily applied or modified in order to suit a more ecumenical approach such as would be necessary if a community has members whose personal identification is more similar to Hermetic or Neo-Platonic schools of Gnosticism. Ultimately, these considerations would have to be taken into account as members of a Gnostic Monastery Project come together to establish their community.
The overall benefit of establishing a Gnostic Monastery Project would be to provide for an actualized, physical community where Gnostics or members of various Gnostic communities could come together and practice their beliefs in a contemplative environment. Secondly, as with exoteric expressions of Christianity and Buddhism, a Gnostic Monastery project could provide a visible example of the Restoration of the Gnosis and become a center of promulgation for Gnostic ideals and values in a society that could benefit from them now more than ever and provide for the continuation and preservation of a faith that is at once ancient and, as monasticism itself, eternally new.
 One who voluntarily took a vow described in Numbers 6:1–21
 Doyle, Leonard. Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries.
 Wilson, Colin. Nature of the Beast.
 The Simple Way. http://www.thesimpleway.org/about/12-marks-of-new-monasticism/. 3/5/2012 8:38 PM
12 Marks of New Monasticism
- Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
- Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
- Hospitality to the stranger
- Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
- Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
- Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
- Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
- Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
- Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
- Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
- Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
- Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
[5.] Doinel, Jules (Tau Valentin II). Restoration de la Gnose,